The Selfless CEO

“I look back on the introvert I knew in high school, and I wonder: how do you make that transition?”

The speaker is Edwin Gosnell, a man much-celebrated for the influence he had during a 30-year career as a high school biology teacher in Towson, Maryland, just across the county line from Baltimore. And the erstwhile introvert of whom he speaks is his former student, Professor Santa Jeremy Ono, now the gregarious and ebullient 15th president of the University of British Columbia.

Gosnell came across the “typical, nerdy” young Ono at Towson High School in the late 1970s. “Santa ran the AV (audio/visual) crew, and you know what those kids are like,” Gosnell says. But try as he might to keep a low profile, Santa stood out. First of all, Gosnell says, “If you booked a 16-millimetre camera and Santa was in charge, you knew it would be in your room on time; he was really good at every single thing he did.” Santa was also tireless and restlessly ambitious. He couldn’t fit all the science courses he wanted into his regular schedule, so he prevailed upon the school’s best biology teacher for tutoring in anatomy between classes. Says Gosnell: “I went to the principal of the day and got out of hall duty to make time in my schedule.” And the teaching “was just a pleasure.” Seeing the passion and potential of his new student, Gosnell also started taking Santa to biology lectures at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. In an under-resourced and overcrowded school, the teacher also spent his own money on research equipment and stayed late after school to supervise so Santa could begin his own promising research career.

The two men stayed in touch through the years, and Ono, by then president of the University of Cincinnati, was largely responsible for Gosnell receiving the President’s Award for Excellence in 2015. And when Gosnell travelled to Cincinnati to pick up the honour, he says he was amazed by Ono’s profile and popularity: “Even the cab driver said, ‘That Santa guy – he’s a rock star.’”

President Ono's father, Takashi, in 1961, during his time as a math prof at UBC. (Photo: UBC Archives)
President Ono’s father, Takashi, in 1961, during his time as a math prof at UBC. (Photo: UBC Archives)
Santa Ono with his wife, Wendy Yip.
Santa Ono with his wife, Wendy Yip.

Santa Ono was born in Vancouver on November 23, 1962, the second son of a UBC mathematics professor named Takashi Ono and a language teacher, Sachiko (Morita) Ono. But before his second birthday, the family was off to the US, where Takashi taught at the University of Pennsylvania for two years, and then settled in Baltimore, teaching at Johns Hopkins University until his retirement in 2011. Theirs was a strict and diligent house, full of books and music. Takashi plays piano, and Santa’s older brother, Momoro, also a pianist, is now a professor of music at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. His younger brother, Ken, is a professor of mathematics at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.

Santa Ono plays cello, an experience that has been life-changing in more ways than one. After graduating from Towson High (and sneaking out of the house in his father’s too-small suit to attend the forbidden high school prom), Ono did a bachelor’s in biology at the University of Chicago. He then went on to pursue a PhD in experimental medicine at McGill University in Montreal, where he once worked in a lab with two other musically inclined students, a flautist and a pianist. They started playing as a trio, but the pianist, a Montrealer named Gwendolyn (Wendy) Yip, seemed the more committed of the two. As Ono’s father-in-law (the late Gar Lam Yip, professor at McGill University) said at Ono and Yip’s wedding three years later, “The trio became a duo.”

An immunologist who trained at McGill, Yip passed up an opportunity to study medicine at the University of Toronto to follow Ono to Boston, where he was a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard. Instead, Yip attended the Boston University School of Law and went on to practice patent law, which she later taught at the London School of Economics. More recently, she has devoted herself to volunteer work in the community, homemaking and the raising of their two children, Juliana, 18 (flautist and artist), and Sarah, 12 (pianist and athlete).

The news release dropped late on a hot afternoon in August: the president was resigning, early in his tenure and for unspecified “personal reasons.” There were rumors, unconfirmed, of a problematic relationship between the President’s Office and the Board of Trustees.

This scenario played out at the University of Cincinnati (UC) in 2012 and was followed by an ugly public controversy surrounding the reported spending habits and the $1.3-million severance package of outgoing president Gregory Williams. But UC had an ace in the hole: a popular provost and vice president of Academics, named Santa Ono, who stepped into the president’s role on an interim basis but was soon appointed formally as Williams’s successor. In addition to an impressive career as a researcher, particularly in immunoregulation, ocular surface inflammation and the immune basis of age-related macular degeneration, Ono had long since emerged as a skilled administrator – at the Schepens Eye Research Institute at Harvard; at University College London, where he was associate dean of students; at Emory University, where he was senior vice provost for Undergraduate Education and Academic Affairs; and finally as provost at UC.

“Even the cab driver said, ‘That Santa guy – he’s a rock star.’”

Perhaps most remarkable, for someone who Ed Gosnell remembered as being intensely introverted, Ono also established himself as the most open and accessible president in UC history. UC Board of Trustees member Ron Brown says, “Santa could connect with anyone at any level.” In addition to developing a high‑functioning and mutually respectful relationship at the board level, Brown says, “The students loved him.”

Ono with his high school mentor Ed Gosnell. Photo courtesy of the University of Cincinnati.
Ono with his high school mentor Ed Gosnell. Photo courtesy of the University of Cincinnati.

There might be two explanations for that affection. One, certainly, is Ono’s savvy use of social media. He had more than 77,000 followers on his UC Twitter account and was famously responsive, amplifying student concerns by retweeting messages that he received directly and sorted personally. For example, UC librarian and dean of libraries Xuemao Wang says that he wasn’t the least surprised to get a retweet from President Ono with a student request to have a microwave installed in a library study hall. It was clear on occasions such as this that Ono was bringing the issue to the dean’s attention, not ordering a particular action. This was good, since the fire marshal forbade the addition of a microwave in the library. But Ono’s next retweet highlighted a student request that at least one library study space be open 24/7. Wang says Ono worked directly with the library and the provost to find budget to make that happen. The net effect, Wang says, was that students recognized that their voices were being heard and taken seriously.

The second reason for President Ono’s popularity among students might be his tendency to reach out personally to support students in need. One such student was Jacob Turner, a sophomore at UC when he first heard from Ono. Turner had caught Ono’s attention with an angry online outburst about the creationist religious community around Covington, Kentucky, currently home to the organization Answers in Genesis (AiG), which is dedicated to convincing Americans that the world is only 6,000 years old. Turner had grown up in the same congregation as AiG founder Ken Ham, and Turner’s mother had worked in the Creation Museum in nearby Petersburg, Kentucky. Yet, on reaching UC, Turner discovered and quickly fell in love with science and, by second year, he was lashing out online as a gesture, he says, “for other kids trapped in sheltered circles of education.”

Santa and Wendy with daughters Juliana (R) and Sarah.
Santa and Wendy with daughters Juliana (R) and Sarah.

Turner says now, “Somehow, Santa found that blog post and he invited me to his office. Santa’s a Christian and he shared with me a side of Christianity that I hadn’t seen – not the horrible, hateful side of Christianity.” It was a difficult time, including a bumpy period in Turner’s relationship with his parents (who have since left the AiG congregation), but Ono was there for him, as “a science and personal mentor.”

“We talked about wildly ambitious things, and he told me I was going to do good things in science.” Given that Turner – “a first-generation college student” – is now in his third year of an immunology PhD at Harvard, Ono appears to have been correct.

Santa Ono comes from a musical family. (Photo: Paul Joseph)
Santa Ono comes from a musical family. (Photo: Paul Joseph)

In the tense period following the departure of UBC’s 13th president, Arvind Gupta, there was widespread concern about UBC searching for a replacement in a time of unease. For example, people worried whether UBC could offer a salary that great candidates might regard as “competitive.” Gupta’s salary was less than $450,000 CAD. President Ono was receiving $631,000 USD at Cincinnati, not counting bonuses, and had previously rejected a retention bonus of a further $1 million.

Ono says the cut in pay was certainly a consideration, but the personal and professional draw of UBC was overwhelming. “Money is not my primary motivation,” he says. “I am paid more than enough, and I wanted to set an example. It’s not a matter of how much you yourself have, it’s a matter of what you can do to make the lives of others better – especially those who are most needy.”

This, clearly, is what the website Upworthy had noticed when it included Ono among nine exemplary CEOs who had distinguished themselves for selfless leadership in 2015. The honorees ranged from people like Virgin CEO Richard Branson, who instituted a one-year parental leave at 100 per cent pay, to Ono, who had donated his $200,000 USD bonus to programs supporting first-generation college, LGBTQ and low-income UC students, as well as local high schools and community groups.

Ono says the cut in pay was certainly a consideration, but the personal and professional draw of UBC was overwhelming. “Money is not my primary motivation,” he says.

Of all the questions that you might ask Santa Ono, the one he seems least willing to answer is: what are his plans and preferences for UBC? Having launched a visioning exercise in the beginning of September, he says he would like to leave the floor open to others, adding “When the CEO speaks early on, it stifles the conversation.” This is not to say he doesn’t have priorities: research, teaching and pedagogy, the effectiveness of UBC’s health-related faculties, and “what UBC can do for Vancouver, for British Columbia, for Canada, and for the world.”

As for a big direction, “I keep saying, from excellence to eminence,” Ono says, adding that not enough people know how good UBC really is. “That’s something I’d really like to change.”

Follow Professor Ono @UBCprez


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