Finishing the race: Q&A with outgoing President Santa Ono

President Santa Ono’s office windows look out across campus toward the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre. He has a stunning view of the ocean and of the mountains north of Vancouver. His office is spacious and full of light, its walls covered in photos of him with various public figures — like former US President Barack Obama and Leon and Thea Koerner, the namesake of many campus spaces.

In a month, the office walls will be bare.

In July, Ono announced he would be leaving UBC to be the president of the University of Michigan in October, prematurely ending his second term as UBC’s president.

“I didn't want to just leave. I love this place dearly. I've spent a lot of time trying to build this place up,” he said of his departure in an interview with The Ubyssey in September. Ono has served as UBC’s president since 2016.

Over the summer, The Ubyssey collected student questions to ask Ono with the original intent of giving students insight into his work. With the announcement of Ono’s departure for the University of Michigan in October, the focus of the interview changed.

Ubyssey editors sat down with Ono this week in his sweeping office on the top of Koerner Library to reflect on his term and talk about everything from his perspective on UBC's response to COVID-19 to why he doesn’t wear bowties anymore.

Below is the full transcription of the 45-minute interview.

The transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.

The Ubyssey: What do you think that students should know about the job of the president? What do you do in a day?

Santa Ono (SO): I actually don't think it's necessary for students to know what a president does unless they're interested, because the job of a president is to do everything they can to make the experience — whether you're working, doing research or studying at the institution — the best possible. I hope students don't worry too much about it because they should be thinking about their classes and their extracurriculars and things like that. I'm reviewed on an annual basis by the Board of Governors against a set of priorities that I agree upon at Board meetings. It's done in a public meeting. It's there for anyone to see. That's what I focus on.

But, in terms of the different buckets of responsibilities, they vary. Part of it has to do with being the face of the university and the spokesperson to almost any stakeholder — students, faculty and staff are one set of stakeholders. Another very important set of stakeholders are actually government officials because we rely upon considerable funding from the provincial government and the federal government, so that's essential for the university to run. I interact with the prime minister, the deputy prime minister, ministers and heads of different units within the federal government. They also provide a similar amount of resources to the institution in terms of grants and support for students and faculty during a pandemic.

I also advocate for the entire post-secondary sector. I was the chair of the Research Universities of British Columbia [RUCBC]. I was the chair of the U15, which is the 15 most research intensive universities in Canada. I travel to Ottawa and Victoria to interact with government officials, to make the case for support for Indigenous students, or increased financial aid for students, for example. During the pandemic, we developed policies on how to support students that are affected by the pandemic. That $9 billion that flowed from the federal government to students was because I and about three other people sat there for hours just developing the financial instruments that have to be created to support students that are in need because of the pandemic. That's part of my job, to help develop policy at the provincial and federal levels to support faculty, staff and students in the university.

The Ubyssey: You often go to the government and ask for money. Do they ever ask certain things of you, like ‘we want to see UBC doing this’? What would be an example of that?

SO: There are national targets and plans in terms of the climate emergency. UBC is considered to be best of class for that globally, and also in Canada. They're constantly asking me for advice and for experts at the university about what the best approach will be. The same thing happens because we have probably the most advanced Indigenous Strategic Plan in the country, if not the world. We are consulted regularly about the government’s truth and reconciliation process. If you look at UNDRIP — the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People — we were the first university in Canada to sign on to that commitment. It was integral to British Columbia's own commitment to meeting those expectations and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. So constant back and forth between ourselves — myself, experts, the university, with different ministries, to help advise them.

When we're talking about systemic racism, we did two major things. We published the anti-racism task force report with 50-something recommendations. We're actually already implementing the first tranche of them: the Beyond Tomorrow Scholars Program, the largest of its kind in Canada. That's really informative and helpful in the province as well as nationally. We had a summit on the Scarborough Charter on Anti-Black Racism. The government follows that because we're considered a thought leader at the national level. We had the first national dialogue on anti-Asian racism that resulted in the creation of a new centre to study anti-Asian racism. I'm directly contacted [by the government] about what's happening with anti-Asian racism on a national and global level. And so [the government does] ask us for advice.

Ono points to one of his prized photos on his office wall.
Ono points to one of his prized photos on his office wall. Isabella Falsetti / The Ubyssey

The Ubyssey: Just to narrow that question a bit more: the question is not, ‘Do they ask you for advice?’ Does the government ever ask the university to do specific things, like focus on this more or implement this kind of policy?

SO: There are mandate letters from the federal government as well as from the Minister of Advanced Education. There's autonomy in the province of British Columbia. They're not directive, but because they're providing a significant operating grant and they have specific grants that are designed to move the province in certain files, for example, the economy and innovation. UBC does 90 per cent of the research in the province, so if UBC isn't contributing to the vision of the premier and the ministers then the province won't move as quickly. There is an annual mandate letter — the [Board] chair and I review it, we sign off on it — that's something that we integrate into our own planning and priorities on an annual basis. That's the mechanism by which UBC does and should actually contribute to the betterment of all British Columbians. Similar things happen at the federal level.

To go back to your first question, government relations is one aspect, another area is philanthropy — foundations, donors, things like that. One thing that we’ve launched was the Blue and Gold Campaign. We set a target for $100 million, we reached that quickly, we went for $200 million, we passed that — we’re at about $207 million. We're going to raise even more money for scholarships. The reason for that is that we've heard loud and clear that affordability is really, really important for all students. These are new scholarships for students. Thousands of UBC students benefit from them as we speak today.

I'm the guy who’s asking a lot of people for money, and so some of that money comes to us in small bits, but large bits come in because I actually sit in this room with people and say, ‘Can you make the gift of a UBC education possible?’ We don't have enough scholarships. We want to grow that. Fortunately, more people than we thought believe that that's a good cause and have contributed to the Blue and Gold Campaign. I've been here for six and a half years — five out of those years have been the highest fundraising years in the history of the university. I spent a lot of time growing the amount that we get, and if we grow that and we grow the amount of money that comes from the provincial and federal government, that takes care of more of the operation of the institution, and allows us to keep tuition and fees from going up too much.

There's the government relations part, there's the generating resources [part], talking to foundations, donors and high net-worth organizations — which is non governmental — then there's just running the university. I'm the interface between the Board of Governors and the Senate and the executive. I choose all the vice-presidents around the table. My job is to find them and make sure that they work together, that they focus on the priorities that we've agreed to with the Board of Governors and that we report back at Board of Governors meetings about what we've done. I'm held accountable on an annual basis, they ask, ‘Has this guy actually delivered on the mandate letters and the priorities that we agreed to at the beginning of the year?’ My job is to create a team and to meet with them a couple times a week to make sure that we actually make progress towards those priorities.

In addition, I would say there's part with just being the face [of the university]. To go to football games, to go to basketball games, to go to the Chan Centre or to be there being enthusiastic and articulating to the world why UBC is such a great institution that I'm proud to be part of.

The Ubyssey: You're leaving UBC in a time where students are really concerned specifically about affording food and housing. Is there anything you've done in specific in the last few years to try to address those affordability concerns that keep mounting for students?

SO: We can provide you with a spreadsheet of all our contributions to food banks, the AMS Food Bank and similar initiatives on the Okanagan campus. There's a conversation going on right now because there have been asks for bricks and mortar contributions in terms of food insecurity and also contributions of food itself. That's something that I don't actually personally manage. That's VP Students Ainsley Carry. My office has made investments, and I think you’ve reported on that directly. That's one aspect.

In terms of affordability, you know, one of the most important things has to do with a waiting list for rooms in residence. UBC has the largest residential community of any university in North America. In my six and a half years here, we've added thousands of beds. The most urgent priority for me in terms of managing affordability was to create places for students to live. We're not exactly where we want to be; we probably want to add a couple thousand more rooms. But, in this period of time, what we have added in terms of the number of beds on both campuses, I think, is unprecedented anywhere else in the world. [The University of] Michigan has a smaller number of beds, and they came up here because they knew what we've done and they want to do the same thing. There's more work to be done. I wish we could provide room for every single student. It's expensive to live off campus. There's not enough availability. That's a problem. One of the ways we're trying to solve that is to actually continue on this pretty aggressive strategy to expand the number of rooms.

The other way it really is — the cost of books can be prohibitively expensive — so Vice-Provost and Associate Vice-President Teaching and Learning Simon Bates is really looking at how to provide more materials sourced from UBC that are provided by the university as opposed to buying it from a publisher — which can be several hundred dollars for a semester. But there's a whole list of things that we're trying to do.

The most important thing I think, in the affordability plan, which is my primary commitment and the Board’s primary commitment, is to significantly increase need-based aid. UBC has a good bit of aid, but a lot of it is merit aid — it's used to recruit students with the highest credentials to the institution. Often there's a pretty tough bar to keep the money, which I personally feel isn't ideal because … if you just go a little bit below what the high bar is, you lose the money. That's really not something that's conducive to support and wellness for students. For that reason, one of the big pillars of the affordability plan is to vastly increase need-based aid, not just merit aid. If we increase need-based aid, then we hopefully can minimize the stress on individuals needing to work one or two jobs to have the resources to pay for school.

The Ubyssey: You're leaving in October — is there anything that you're committed to finishing up before you leave?

SO: There are two provosts that I'm searching for: one on this campus and one on the Okanagan campus. I was searching for the head of the Equity & Inclusion Office, I announced that great hire. I’m searching for a registrar, I'm about to announce that — I can't say who yet because it's embargoed information. I'm looking for a chief financial officer. We have pro-tems and interims for those, but I'm happy to say that I think I should be successful in almost all the searches except maybe one. The provost search on this campus might take a little bit longer, but we don't want to sacrifice shared governance and due process and consultation for the end result. The Board has asked me to try to finish this, and I'm doing my level best to do that.

The second thing they've asked me to do is, I have all these relationships with foundations and donors. We're in the middle of asking for money. I'm trying to wrap those up so that I bring in the resources that I've been involved in advocating for before I leave. There'll be a big announcement, on September 24, which will be part of the capital campaign, one of the largest in the history of Canada, which I've been really involved in trying to identify the areas of focus with the vice-presidents and the deans. I'll be there to officially launch the open phase of the campaign.

The Ubyssey: Can you tell us more about the decision making behind leaving UBC, and why you're leaving in October?

SO: Unlike many other universities, UBC has term limits, sort of like the US presidency — you can only serve for two terms. At UBC each term is for five years, and I'm just starting my seventh year which means I can stay for three more academic years beyond this one. It's not uncommon for people not to stay until the very last year, and it's a practical matter. The presidential searches and jobs are incredibly competitive at that level. University of Michigan is one of the top 20 to 25 universities in the world, so hundreds of people are considered for the presidency of the University of Michigan. It's very hard to be chosen to be the president and vice-chancellor of UBC, it's very hard to be chosen to be the president of the University of Michigan. As a prospective future president, you don't choose when they're looking.

What happened in Michigan is that their president was let go, essentially fired in mid-January with no notice. They were going to be looking for one or two years from now and they told me that they were very interested in me. They know who’s out there in the landscape and they were very impressed with UBC and what we've done here, so when that individual was let go, they contacted me and a small number of other people that they had their eyes on. That's why it happened now.

Your question about why October, why not the beginning of the term, is because I wanted to finish these things for UBC. The university needs me to identify these vice-presidents. I didn't want to leave the institution in a lurch. Michigan wanted me right away, and I said, ‘This is an important, critical time for an institution. I've agreed to do these things with the Board and I want to finish them before I leave.’ We negotiated, and October 15 was chosen. I didn't want to just leave. I love this place dearly. I've spent a lot of time trying to build this place up.

"I love this place dearly. I've spent a lot of time trying to build this place up."
"I love this place dearly. I've spent a lot of time trying to build this place up." Isabella Falsetti / The Ubyssey

The Ubyssey: Students know you to be a big mental health advocate, but a lot of students have voiced concern about how hard it is to access mental health services on campus. What have you done, in particular, during your tenure to address this?

SO: I'm really proud of what we've done. When I first arrived, we invested more than $2 million in additional counselors. We spent $4 million on that modular facility, which is a placeholder before Brock Commons Phase 2 is finished. It opened in March 2020 to expand space for mental health counselors centrally on campus. That's only one of the prongs of what we've done. We spent $500,000 in additional resources in 2021 to embed mental health counselors in 10 faculties.

So they're actually in each of the faculties, but we've also put them into residence halls. We started off with one residence hall, we're now expanding to other residence halls. For a first-year student, it's usually not Monday to Friday, 9–5 when you need counseling. It's often Sunday night, in your first term, when you're not doing well. Getting counsellors into the residence halls gives the counsellor an option to get to know the students one-on-one on a regular basis and to be able to detect changes and whether they're waking up, going to meals, going into class. That kind of cohabitation allows the counsellor to know the students and hopefully make it more comfortable for students to actually reach out to the person that they know, as opposed to going out into some building in the center of campus that they've never been to before.

We're pretty proud of that. The pandemic was a difficult, challenging time, and there was an increased requirement for mental health counselling. Along with the province, we added 24/7 multilingual tele-counselling for domestic and international students. 24/7 students could call a counselor from anywhere in the world. This type of access to mental counselling never existed in the history of the university. They actually track the no-show rate of students having an appointment and actually being counseled. If you have to leave your dorm and actually go somewhere and there's a little stigma with being seen to go into those places, that results in no shows. Obviously tele-counseling is independent, you're in the privacy of your own room. The no-show rate went down from 25 per cent for in-person counseling to 0 per cent for tele-counseling, so that's a positive thing. Those people typically wouldn't show, are showing and they're getting the counselling support that they need. This is a top priority for the institution.

The wait times have gone down significantly, I wish they were zero, but I think it'd be hard to find any institution where the wait time really is zero. But we'll continue to try to improve because that's what we'd like to do. The most exciting thing is what we're doing now is construction. Some of it is for the Faculty of Arts, much needed space. Some of it is for student services. There’s going to be a new rec centre. I'm proud that before I leave, the office of the president has actually contributed resources to make that a reality. There’s the Gateway Building, which is going to be one of the largest academic buildings on campus. In there, there’ll be a whole floor of expanded counselor rooms, which will allow us to expand even further the number of counselors. It's a very significant investment. The whole building is $180 million — I would say about $30 million is devoted towards enhanced mental health counseling. We've committed more than $10 million over the next five years to expand even further, as I said, so that we can anticipate that we could staff at a greater level in the expanded space in the Gateway Building. We're going to hire multicultural counselors because we know that one of the barriers to effective counselling is language differences and cultural differences.

The Ubyssey: Two and a half years of your tenure has been during a pandemic. How do you personally think UBC has done on that return to campus? Do you think that it's done enough to support immunocompromised students while also balancing provincial health advice?

SO: We have been the most conservative institution in BC in terms of our approach. And that hasn't always made us very popular with the provincial government. In terms of mask mandates through last year, when we actually started later than the other institutions, those were all much more conservative than all the other universities in the province. We did weigh [public health official] advice, but we also weighed our own internal advice. I'm proud to say we have great experts here at UBC. Three people that I contact on a regular basis because they monitor through the BC COVID-19 tracker what's actually happening are [Drs.] Sally Otto, Dan Coombs and David Patrick. Patrick is probably one of the nation's top experts on public health as relates to infectious disease.

Whenever we make this decision, what happens is we get a read from those three about what the landscape is. What does the wastewater data show, what do the hospital admissions show, what do we know from sequencing of samples in the province of the prevalence of different variants, and they know a lot about how transmissible each variant is and how pathogenic they are? It's one thing for people to get infected, but if they're not going to the hospital, it's less of an issue — while admitting that there are things that we don't understand like long COVID.

I'm a biomedical scientist. This is actually a sweet spot for me. It's very easy for me to interact with those experts to understand what's going on. Every single decision we've made has been after we've talked to internal experts and received public health advice. In our case, we have been the most conservative in this province, and that's because of the additional information that I’m privy to that maybe some of the other institutions aren't from our internal experts.

To answer your question, how we've done? There have been similar and smaller institutions in the United States where students have died prior to the vaccine. Certainly, there's been an impact on all of us. I don't want to minimize that. It's been scary, it’s been distressing. But if you actually look at, during all that contract tracing — there was a lot of concern about how the exams in December 2021 and the videos of people coming down, but we actually know how many people, through contact tracing, actually were infected in there. The concern was that they would be superspreader events. The actual facts, and you can talk to Patrick and Coombs, is that they weren't superspreader events. You've reported on the fact that the actual infections that did occur in socializing, for example, in the Sauder case that you reported on. If you look at the entire pandemic, most people on the outside would say that we've done really, really well in terms of health and safety.

Now, here's the thing. You asked a question about the immunocompromised. We have a current snapshot of time where — guided by the internal and external experts — they feel that because most people have been infected or been vaccinated, that the utility… masks are imperfect. They have to be perfectly fitting, a certain kind. There's a lot of information on that and there's contradictory publications out there. There's no actual standard view by experts in the field.

That’s one variable, but in terms of the current state, our internal experts and the public health officer have said that it's not necessary at this time to have a mask mandate like we did last year because of the numbers they have on individuals who have been either vaccinated or infected and because of the current variant, which is predominant, which they don't think is a public health risk at the time. It could change if a new variant comes in.

That information that I get is then shared with all the deans, all the provosts, all the vice-presidents. We share them with the student societies and the unions, we get all that kind of feedback. I get a sense about what the level of comfort is of the institution. You’re never going to get 100 per cent of them saying we're comfortable with this. But for example, in this decision, the predominant response from both campuses for most faculties — with a couple of outliers — was that they're comfortable without having a mask mandate. We made it really clear, they wanted us to be clear that monitoring the public health situation, we might change that to a mask mandate, if the public health conditions from the [Provincial Health Official] PHO and our internal experts actually recommend that.

We are ready to shift if needed, and we also have experience with actually capturing vaccination and booster information. And if we have to, we can start up testing again. But at this point, this time, the PHO and our internal experts think that's not necessary. Immunocompromised individuals are a small minority of the entire population. Most people are not immunocompromised. We care about the immunocompromised people. The way the university is working on that is at the unit level. The deans and the department heads are having conversations with those few people that are immunocompromised in their unit. If there's a faculty member or student that is uncomfortable being on campus for whatever reason, they can make accommodations with their chair or their dean, and they can elevate it even further if they're not happy with the accommodations being made.

The Ubyssey: This summer, we asked students what they wanted to ask you. One question we got a few times was, where have your bowties gone?

SO: It was a casualty of the pandemic. Everything was on Zoom. I don't know about you guys, but on Zoom, it's not very motivating to get dressed up. I'm still pretty casual compared to what I'm normally like. I don't know if this happened to you guys, but most everybody's dropped their ties. I anticipate once things get back to normal, I'll start wearing them again. I still love them. But, if you guys really want I could put them on.

The Ubyssey: To wrap things up, what kind of advice would you give to your first-year self if you could talk to him now?

SO: Take things at a pace that's right for you. Everyone's different. Some students are fortunate that they've had the secondary education that prepares them to hit the ground running at UBC from day one. Others — like me, I didn't have the best high school. I probably should have taken fewer courses than a typical student to ease myself in. I also did this crazy thing where I tried to be involved in five clubs and take five classes, which is a recipe for disaster. My advice to myself would be, you don't have to do five clubs in your first semester. You can choose maybe one, and you maybe take fewer courses. Maybe you don't have to sign up for the highest level mathematics course because you were never good at math anyway. So just practical things like that — pace yourself and be honest with yourself about where you are. It's not in any way saying to myself that I can't get better with time, but we all are starting from different places depending on our circumstances.

I would have told myself to pace myself, to make sure I was focusing on my wellness, having fun, getting involved, making friends, because all of that will ultimately position me and the students, hopefully, for long-term success. I often say that life is a marathon, not a sprint. I really believe that because if you're doing a marathon and you're not training and you go out too fast, you're gonna crash. You’ve got to ease into the race and go the pace — and that’s different for every person. The key is to finish the race, not to be the fastest in the first mile or kilometre.

Charlotte Alden, Anabella McElroy, Iman Janmohamed, Nathan Bawaan and Paloma Green contributed to this piece.