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One-on-one interview with UBC President Santa Ono

Click to play video 'EXTENDED: Sophie Lui talks with UBC President Santa Ono' EXTENDED: Sophie Lui talks with UBC President Santa Ono
Sophie Lui sat down with new UBC President Santa Ono for this exclusive interview – Aug 25, 2016

Dr. Santa Ono has the best office on campus, but he’s definitely not the ivory tower academic you’d expect in a university president.

For one thing his name is Santa, a shortened version of Santaro, a character in a Japanese folktale and a video game.

“It was initially a pain from October on… everyone including teachers would make fun of me,” the 53-year-old Ono told Global News.

“But as I got older… If you’re going to be called something a little embarrassing, Santa’s a good choice.”

Ono is hands-on with the students and apparently his students at the University of Cincinnati were hands-on with him. In December 2013, Ono crowd surfed during a UC vs Louisville football game and raced the school mascot to the top of Nippert Stadium.

“They actually picked me up and I crowd surfed from the bottom of the stadium to the top of the stadium,” Ono explained.

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“My expression is probably a mixture of this is really strange and I’m scared but they took care of me. They didn’t drop me.”

His love for the University of Cincinnati is obvious but he’s definitely part of the UBC team now. The 15th president and vice-chancellor at UBC, is their cheerleader in chief.

“UBC is a stunning place,” he says. “And its students are remarkable.”

But Ono’s relationship with UBC goes way back. He was born in Vancouver in the 1960s when his father was a mathematics professor. Telling his parents about his new job was a big moment for Ono.

“It was incredibly emotional,” Ono said.

“My father was professor of mathematics and at that time Norman MacKenzie was the president of UBC and I said, ‘Dad I’m living in Norman MacKenzie’s house’ and there was just sort of almost a gasp, and clearly emotion [from both his parents], even though it was over a phone.”

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WATCH MORE: Who is UBC’s new president Dr. Santa Ono?

While it seems like it was meant to be, Ono’s arrival comes at a tumultuous time. The university has been gripped by a governance crisis since last August, when former president Arvind Gupta abruptly resigned. In the months that followed, the board chairman stepped down amid an academic freedom controversy and the faculty association passed a resolution declaring it had lost confidence in the board.

Did it give him second thoughts on the job?

“Universities are incredibly resilient institutions and I don’t know of any university in their history that hasn’t had periods of challenge,” Ono said.

“And certainly what happened at UBC was significant but knowing a number of faculty here and knowing UBC is a world-renowned institution, it didn’t give me that much of a pause.”

READ MORE: New UBC president plans to restore transparency

And despite the turmoil, Ono is optimistic. He’s laying out his plan to involve the whole campus in deciding the school’s future.

“In terms of how UBC can get even better, it’s a process that has to involve the entire community,” he said.

“We will be leading ideation and strategic vision stage in the next few months, where we talk about our collective vision for the university and produce a document which will be a strategic plan from which many decision and resource allocations will flow.”

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Ono explains he’s not “a top-down kind of person.”

“I want to hear from faculty staff and students and shape collective vision of where we want to go. If there’s anything we have to work on, its defining that vision but it’s something I’ve done twice before.”

Ono is careful to point out that he’s not just the school’s president, he’s also a teacher.

“I’m already signed up to teach in six different courses in my first two terms as president. I want to earn the right to call myself professor.”