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Getting to know Ono

UC’s new chief executive has drawn the attention of the university community like none before him -- and not just for his tweets.

by John Bach

A month into his official presidency and Santa Ono is teetering in the hands of UC’s cheerleaders who have hoisted him high above the Nippert Stadium turf to cheer on the crowd.

A few weeks later, he’s decked out in a Santa Claus suit -- complete with the jolly old elf’s shiny boots, white hair and red hat  -- reading a Rudolph story to UC students sitting at his feet inside Tangeman University Center.

And by the three-month mark, his black locks of hair are tumbling onto center court of Fifth Third Arena following the Bearcats men’s basketball game -- demonstrating again the lengths he’ll go to for UC. Ono made good on a bargain he made with the team; he would shave his head if they reeled off 10 straight wins. More important, he used the occasion to help raise funds for the Dragonfly Foundation, a local charity that helps kids with cancer.

The new president’s enthusiasm and dedication are only part of what made him the clear choice in October 2012 to replace UC’s former president, Greg Williams. After serving as provost for two years, Ono spent two months as interim president, then immediately emerged as the front-runner for the position, said UC board chairman C. Francis Barrett, who led the selection process for UC’s 28th president.

According to Barrett, “a groundswell” of support from students, faculty, administrators and alumni swept UC’s first Asian-American chief executive into office. The reasons given for wanting to hand him the keys to UC’s highest office varied greatly by group, Barrett added.

Students talked about their ability to relate to him and how much he boosted morale (usually through social media), while faculty saw him as “one of their own” -- a distinguished biomedical researcher with impressive stops at Harvard, Johns Hopkins and Emory universities. Ono, 50, holds appointments in both the UC College of Medicine and the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences.

Administrators pointed to his experience as provost, UC’s top academic officer, in which he led the development of “UC2019,” the university’s academic master plan, as well as his ability to build consensus and advocate for UC, whether uniting community resources or vying for state funding.

Finally, alumni were intrigued by many aspects of his story, including his beginnings in an immigrant family who came to the United States in 1958 with literally nothing more than the suitcase they were carrying.

A humble start

Ono’s parents and his older brother, Momoro (now a professor of music at Creighton University), were able to leave a very poor, post World War II Japan because Santa’s father, Takashi Ono, was a noted mathematician who had published some internationally important papers. His work caught the attention of famed physicist Robert Oppenheimer, who invited Takashi to be a visiting member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J.

Once working in the United States, job offers from American universities soon followed, but the family’s green card was nearing expiration. They had to leave the country for a period before they could re-enter. That led his father to take a position at the University of British Columbia, where in 1962 they had their second son, Santa --  named after Santaro, a Japanese folk story character.

“I don’t think they knew what they were setting me up for by naming me Santa, especially around Christmas time,” the president says. “People teased me about it as a boy, but I have no problem being called Santa. It is a very happy name. And it is a great icebreaker at parties.”

The family returned to the states to follow Takashi’s career to the University of Pennsylvania where they welcomed their youngest son, Ken (now a mathematician at Emory). By the time Santa was 7, Johns Hopkins University lured the Onos to Baltimore, where his dad, now 84, still worked full-time until his retirement last fall.

“He was a tough bargainer,” said Santa. “My father wasn’t only a math professor but a pianist. He said, ‘I’ll come to Johns Hopkins under one condition, that you buy me a grand piano.’ And it had to be a Steinway.” Obviously, they did.

Having inherited their father’s love for music, Ono and both his brothers studied at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore. Eventually, Santa would become an accomplished cellist, as well as a vocalist.

Bitten by biology

By the time Santa reached high school, his path toward biology began to come into clear focus, an inner drive inspired mostly by a pair of excellent ninth- and 10th-grade teachers, the latter of whom used to take him to Johns Hopkins lectures to hear how scientists were beginning to understand how to splice genes together.

“I got enthralled by the recombinant DNA revolution,” Ono explains. “DNA is the software of who you are. And that’s magical. I’ve always wanted to take my interest in science and hopefully benefit people who are sick.”

At UC, Ono’s principal research delves into issues involving the immune system, eye inflammation and age-related macular degeneration, which is the leading cause of blindness in the Western world.

“In my lab, we are trying to develop a blood test so that we might be able to identify people who are progressing toward blindness well before it happens. We’ve found some biomarkers in the blood that might help. Now there are things you can do to arrest the whole process.”

He even helped start up a biotechnology company several years ago in Vancouver called iCo Therapeutics, which is publicly traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange. The company, of which he is chief scientific officer, focuses on developing and commercializing compounds to treat sight-threatening and life-threatening diseases.

Meeting students on their terrain

The only name currently more popular on campus than “Santa Ono” may actually be his virtual self -- “@PrezOno” -- which is his Twitter handle and (at last check in April 2013) exceeds 15,000 followers, many of them students.

Since joining Twitter while provost in November 2010, Ono’s number of followers is exceeded only by his total volume of tweets, upward of 16,000 (or an average of about 17 posts every day).

But it wasn’t until he was officially named president in October that his online hipness truly skyrocketed. Buoyed in part by the interest surrounding head football coach Butch Jones’ exodus to Tennessee and UC’s next-day hiring of Tommy Tuberville in early December, @PrezOno gained 4,000 followers in one six-week span.

Most would say Ono’s communication style is beyond transparent, particularly for the office he holds. On the morning Coach Jones resigned, for example, the president tweeted the following:

“You can buy a person a lot but you can’t buy his heart. His heart is where his enthusiasm is, where his loyalty is. My heart is with you UC.” And then this 132-character blast just seven minutes later: “#BearcatNation we are bigger than any one person and I will make sure we continue to compete at the highest level. I have your back.”

Though plenty of his tweets are boosterish in nature, a good many simply reveal his pop-culture curiosities -- from Rhianna to the Reds -- further fanning the interest of undergraduates, many of whom see him as an important figure in their lives who happens to retweet their events, pictures and accomplishments to his throng of followers. It also doesn’t hurt their chances for a retweet if they use Ono’s favorite coined hashtag: #hottestcollegeinamerica.

So why does the school’s top administrator allow such access? Mostly, it’s about listening and connecting with students. But Ono says he started tweeting shortly after taking UC’s provost job on the advice of university spokesperson Greg Hand, who pointed out that social media was one of many effective tools that could help him communicate with the campus community.

It was Hand who “created the monster,” laughs Wendy Yip, the president’s wife. “He never tweeted before he got here. Not a single one. I opened up a Twitter account (@Wycincy) when I realized I couldn’t beat him, so I might as well join him.”

Still, it is the president who hand-feeds the digital beast each day by tapping out scads of updates on his iPhone and PC. Only about 5 percent of his posts come from someone on his team. The rest originate with him.

“There are lots of students here,” Ono says. “I can’t physically get in front of them all the time, but through social media, I can find out what they are worried about. I try, where it is appropriate, to allay any of their fears and, where possible, to mobilize people to address things that I otherwise wouldn’t see. And they seem to appreciate the fact that they know what I’m doing and what I care about.”

Ono does most of his digital replying between 4:30 and 7 a.m., up until he wakes his family. It gives him a chance to respond or forward a wide variety of communications from his constituents. He recalls a few examples of what students share with him through social media.

• “The lights are too dim in a certain area of campus.”
• “Why don’t we have access to a facility during a peak time?”
• “One Stop (student service center) isn’t working well today.”

And most of the tweets that ping his page get some sort of an answer, whether it is a question about how to get basketball tickets or a complaint about customer service.
“He’s great as far as reaching out to students,” says Elizabeth Rodgers, a sophomore in the College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning and a cashier inside TUC’s MainStreet Express Mart. “You can tweet him, and he tweets back. He is really great for student morale. He is what every college needs.”

UC’s president is even the envy of the Ivy League, according to Yale Daily News columnist Evan Frondorf, who admitted in the country’s oldest college daily that he believes in Santa. “It’s hard not to get caught up in Ono fever,” Frondorf wrote. “I’ve never seen a university president so happy to talk with his undergraduates, so excited to root for Cincinnati teams and so willing to be a public representative of his university and the city of Cincinnati.”

In the end, it all seems to come down to sway.

According to Klout -- an analytics company that scores influence across social media accounts -- @PrezOno rated near rock-star status with a score of 82 out of a possible 100. For comparison’s sake, the average person’s score is 40. Yet Ono’s score is the same as Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, who has more than 2 million followers.

And for perspective that’s closer to home, UC head basketball coach Mick Cronin (@CoachCroninUC) has just over 11,000 followers on Twitter, compared to Ono’s 15,000, and a Klout score of only 63, while coach Tuberville (@TTuberville) has more than 17,000 followers and a Klout influence of 58. Similarly, Ohio State University President Gordon Gee, another prolific tweeter, is followed by more than 44,000 people, but his Klout number hits just 58.

Taking time for family

President Ono is commonly asked how he finds the time to get everything done. He quickly points to the talented teams around him that make it all possible. In his lab, for example, though he meets with this team regularly to discuss findings, they are the ones doing the experiments.

“My calendar is very tightly scheduled,” he says. “There are times when I’m quite extended. It is very demanding on me to do research, function as president and be a husband and a father.”

On most mornings, Ono drives one or both of his daughters -- Juliana, 14,  and Sarah, 8 -- from their Mount Lookout Home to school so they can spend a bit of time alone. Both girls play musical instruments, and he strives to attend as many of their performances as possible.

“They are ‘Daddy’s girls,’” says Ono’s wife, Wendy Yip. “He very much believes in praising them, which is the American model. He grew up in a more Asian culture, where parents believed you shouldn’t praise a child too much. Otherwise, they might become self-satisfied. He likes to be much more positive.”

Wendy says the biggest challenge for her husband is finding a balance.

“He is a sucker; if somebody needs him, he is there,” she says. “And I understand that. We are both like that. It is a wonderful community, and there are so many needs. But there are always needs, and we all want to do great things.”

The president’s executive assistant, Larry Lampe, does Ono’s scheduling. He says the president’s office gets between 30 and 100 inquiries a day, and most of them are requesting some of Ono’s time.

“He’s definitely the people’s president,” Lampe adds. “He’s very approachable and personable. People wonder whether or not it is genuine, but once you get to know him, you realize this is the real thing.”

Open about his faith

When it comes to influences on his own life, nothing seems to impact President Ono quite like his faith. He and his family worship at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Hyde Park, where Ono also serves as a Eucharistic minister, a layperson licensed by the bishop to give communion.

Yet growing up near Baltimore, Santa and his two brothers rarely found themselves gracing a church pew. “We only went to church a couple of times when I was kid -- either at Easter or Christmas time,” he says. “My parents were not Christians at the time.”

Ono begins the tale of his roundabout path to God in high school. That’s when it became increasingly clear to him that his parents were more strict than his friends’ folks.

“I grew up in a very traditional Asian family where, unlike many of my friends who would go to parties in high school, I never did any of that,” he says. “My parents wanted me to do well in school and go to college.”

But once out of their home and on his own at the University of Chicago, the college freshman would go from one extreme to the other and ended up making some decisions that could have cost him his life. “When I went to college, I was out of control,” he admits.

“To be frank, I could have really hurt myself. I went to parties. There was one occasion where I was on the fourth or fifth floor of my dormitory, and I could have fallen out of my window and died.

“You see it around here, too. Young people will do things they shouldn’t do.”

Ono credits Christians for stepping into his life and becoming positive role models, including his roommate, Steve Barry, a Catholic student, who invited Santa to Bible studies as part of the University of Chicago InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. The next Christian influence came from the woman who would become his wife. While doing his graduate work at McGill University in Montreal, Wendy invited him to Westmont Baptist Church.

“There was a pastor there who really played a very important role in bringing me to Christ,” he says. “And I was baptized as a 20-year-old in Montreal. For me personally, being introduced to Christ provided a spiritual and moral rudder that has helped me stay on course.”

While Ono has embraced his role as a high-profile Christian leader on the various campuses that highlight his resume -- even serving on InterVarsity’s national board -- he recognizes and respects the fact that UC is a multi-faith institution.

“I believe in all faiths,” he says. “I don’t want to use my position in any way to be evangelical on a secular campus. I think that being involved in a Muslim group, a Jewish group, a Catholic group or a Protestant group on campus can play a very important role in the development and stability of students.”

At the same time, he’ll never be what he calls a “stealth Christian,” an academic who hides his faith out of concern for what others on campus might think.

Leadership style

Ono is clear that UC’s core mission is, and should always be, focused on students.
“We have incredible assets at this institution, and we exist to educate the young,” he says. “Not only their minds, but also their hearts. So I focus on them.

“That’s why I try to make decisions that will enrich their experience. I look at situations and try to figure out how a decision I make will impact people. And I really try to focus on the most vulnerable people. I guess my overriding principle is this: What can I do with my privileged position to help others?”

To learn what he can do, he often opens up a dialogue across campus, and not just through Twitter.

“He always wants to know what you’re thinking,” says chemical engineering senior Maesa Idries, then student government vice president. “He’s someone who wants to bounce his ideas off of other people. And I think that is so important.

“He’s amazingly accomplished, but at the same time, you can go to him and say, ‘Hey PrezOno, join me in a Conga line, and he’ll do it. I’d venture to say there are few university presidents like him.

“Honestly, he is unlike anyone else I have ever met.”

Parting shots

Images by UC Photo Services

UC President Santa Ono
UC President Santa Ono
UC President Santa Ono
UC President Santa Ono
UC President Santa Ono
UC President Santa Ono
UC President Santa Ono
UC President Santa Ono

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