Inside The Box: What Santa Ono could mean for UBC’s Future

In the hours since word leaked that Santa J. Ono would become 15th President of The University of British Columbia—replacing Martha Piper, the Grover Cleveland of UBC leaders—the prevailing response has not been disappointment, confusion, or anger. Nor has it been filled with complete elation, surprise, or unbridled joy.

Instead, there is a sense of pleased relief and renewed optimism, that after months (and months, and months) of embarrassing headlines, UBC has found a new leader who, on the surface, has quite a lot going for him, with no immediate drawbacks.

Prior leadership experience? The University of Cincinnati President certainly checks that box.

Someone that will give hope to a faculty association that has been in open revolt over the last year? Check.

A person who can form a modern connection with students and alumni? Check.

A compelling life story that plays well for both national and international markets? Check and check.

In choosing Ono, UBC has found someone who’s already led a public university with 50,000 students and an endowment over a billion dollars, stayed free of controversy, gave large bonuses back to students who needed support, and created a social media campaign on the strength of his own Twitter account.

And did I mention he was born in Vancouver?

In short, he is conventional. Safe. And not Arvind Gupta.

Remember that Gupta fella? If you recall the halcyon days of 2014, the former UBC President was introduced as someone with “inspiring vision and the courage to chart a bold course.” Not by columnists or fawning professors. But by UBC itself.

Back then, UBC was trumpeting its ability, after 30 years on a steady path from regional university to global research powerhouse, to transform once more into….well, something. Nobody was quite sure how UBC was to become a truly elite university, while dealing with the pressures of static government funding and diminishing returns from the twin forces of internationalization and real estate construction that had fuelled the campus’ rapid growth.

However, many people thought that Gupta—with his unique experience working with the private sector, research community, and provincial and federal governments—would be the best person to bring UBC into that new era.

And then, very quickly, he wasn’t.

Now, why was that somebody pondered for the 30,000th time in the last ten months? In the months following Gupta’s departure, opinion quickly split into two narratives.

The first, whispered quietly by senior administrators and influential campus stakeholders, was that Gupta simply wasn’t cut out for the job. That the one thing he didn’t have—experience running a faculty or being a vice-president—was his undoing. That his immense success running Mitacs, a small fiefdom within UBC, couldn’t be replicated across a complex university, with yearly revenues around two billion and untold deans and VPs and board members and donors that needed to have confidence in him. And that, rather than struggle along for several years, it was best to cut their losses quickly.

The second narrative, trumpeted loudly by professors on social media, was that Gupta was trying to nobly reduce UBC’s administrative bloat, instead putting a renewed emphasis on faculty and research…until UBC’s secretive board of governors and suspicious professional staff got wind of his plans. Then they undermined him, never gave him a chance to succeed, forced him into masculinity contests he could never win, until he felt no option but to resign.

Now, this narrative battle soon became very tiresome. And it became subsumed by the larger tire fire that was UBC’s public reputation after a series of unforced fuckups stemming from Gupta’s resignation.

UBC Public Affairs over the last year.
UBC Public Affairs over the last year.

But because the vast majority of UBC’s problems over the last year did stem from Gupta’s departure, it’s important to try and understand why it happened. And the truth, as is often the case in these situations, is that both sides were mostly right.

It hasn’t been a very commonly argued opinion in the past year, because those on social media with the most passion tend to have the least nuance, and arguing “maybe both sides have a point” will quickly get you expelled from The University of Takes for Aspiring Pundits.

However, if you consider that #GuptaGate was caused by—shock—both sides having erred, and that the university internally recognizes that, then last the few months makes more sense.

The university has now admitted, in so many words, that the accountability and transparency from the Board of Governors had atrophied to an embarrassing level under former Chair John Montalbano. There seems to be an awareness that having so many secret meetings was probably a bad thing. Multiple board members have resigned or stepped down earlier than anticipated.

Giant universities operating under interim leadership do not make changes to their bureaucratic operations quickly, to put it mildly and verbosely. But these are encouraging signs.

And if improving administration governance is repairs one side of the narrative, than the other is choosing a new president who won’t make the same mistakes.

When multi-billion dollar organizations make outside the box decisions, and those decisions backfire in spectacular fashion, it usually does not beget another outside the box decision, regardless of who is to blame.

And so, Ono. UBC is scaling back the rhetoric, and doubling down on stability.

There is virtually nothing that can prepare you for being President of UBC—a university, city, research corporation and real estate company all in one—but if there’s one silver lining of the last year, it’s that Ono fully knows what he’s getting into. And that many university stakeholders, desperate to avoid another debacle, will give him every chance to succeed.

Still, plenty of caution is required. The structural problems Gupta was hired to hack—no obvious solutions for revenue growth and a society that wants universities to provide more career-ready students—still exist. UBC has had two years without a full executive team or stable strategic direction, and is still without a permanent Provost. And that whole “Vancouver real estate crisis” you may have heard about is becoming an increasing impediment for attracting and retaining staff and faculty.

All those things will take time. Over the summer, Ono will say the right things publicly, make the right cues to donors and board members privately, and work on convincing faculty members to put down their pitchforks.

Nice, boring, competent things to turn the ship around. Not the type of things that will lead to fawning, intrigue-filled profiles, but important first steps nonetheless. And there’s little in the new president’s history that suggests he won’t succeed.

No, Ono (sidenote: Ubyssey editors are going to have a field day with their headlines for the next five years) isn’t an outside the box pick.

He’s inside the box. But in the short-term, he’s the tonic UBC needs.

And in the long-term, he could be much more.

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