Even before trustees tapped him as the school’s new president, Santa Ono was a campus rock star. But does the tweeting, Bearcat-loving, Ivy League–trained scientist have what it takes to lead the University of Cincinnati into the big leagues?

As the University of Cincinnati played football against Rutgers on November 17, a circle of UC cheerleaders hoisted the school’s new president, Santa Ono, aloft on the sidelines of Nippert Stadium. Clad in a red blazer, surrounded by rustling pom-poms, Ono waved to the crowd as the crowd cheered back. “Does your president do this?” one student tweeted, shooting a photo of the antics out to her followers. “I didn’t think so.”

It wasn’t a one-off moment for Ono—he is all over Twitter, relentlessly selling UC to itself and the world outside. He hangs out with alumni and faculty before football games, steps in to conduct the UC band, chats with Senator Rob Portman on election night in Columbus, and does the Wobble with other Big East presidents at a Chicago meeting. The moments are all preserved and promoted to his 12,000-plus followers, many of them students who send him requests for tickets, advice on campus, and suggestions for improving UC athletics.

It’s been just over three months since UC’s board of trustees chose Ono to replace Gregory Williams, who abruptly quit his job in late August, citing only “personal reasons.” That’s a short turnaround for a job as complex as Ono’s; he now oversees an institution the size of many municipalities—60,000 faculty, staff, and students—with an annual budget of $1 billion, and one of the region’s largest employers with an economic impact estimated at $3 billion. And he does so at a time of unprecedented challenges in the field of higher education, from budgetary woes and demographic shifts to essential questions about who to educate and how to do it.

Ono has only begun to settle in, of course, but the contours of his presidency, his priorities and ambitions, are starting to emerge. Though he is focused on improving UC’s academics and raising its profile, he also wants the university to understand how far it has already come, and how good it already is. “This is a stunning institution. I don’t think we broadcast enough how strong we are,” Ono told me in November, as we talked in his sixth-floor office at University Pavilion. “There are very few institutions that can boast the breadth and excellence [that] UC does.”

Joseph Steger is best remembered as the UC president who remade the campus, Nancy Zimpher for standing up to Bob Huggins, and Gregory Williams for telling the university’s board of trustees to take the job and shove it. It is hard to know what new challenges await Ono, but for now his boosterism suggests a mission to convince the UC community that it really is, as his favorite hashtag proclaims, the “#hottestcollegeinamerica.”

And then, for his next trick, he’ll try to convince the rest of collegiate America.

Though Ono’s ascendancy to university president was unexpected in its timing, it was clear when he interviewed for the job as provost in 2010 that he was presidential material. Ono, who is 50 and the son of Japanese immigrants, was named provost and moved here from Emory University, where he had served as senior vice provost. His career so far has been a series of blue-chip institutions and plum positions: degrees from the University of Chicago and McGill University; training in biochemistry and molecular biology at Harvard University; and a series of faculty appointments at Johns Hopkins University, Harvard, and University College London. His medical research focuses on the human immune system and eye diseases.

On paper, Ono seems an unusually good fit for UC. About half of the school’s annual budget goes to the College of Medicine, and Ono’s background in the hard sciences (he serves as a professor of pediatrics at the college as well as a professor of biology in the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences) reassured people at the medical school that he understands what they do. Born in Vancouver and raised primarily in Maryland, he was once an accomplished cellist who studied music as a child at the Peabody Institute, a conservatory associated with Johns Hopkins, so he has a natural affinity for UC’s College-Conservatory of Music.

Still, when UC’s trustees named Ono president only two months after Williams’s sudden resignation—without ever considering any other candidates—that raised some eyebrows. The search for a university president commonly takes about a year, and it’s rare for someone to be named president of a large research institution without prior experience as president somewhere else, or at least a long-term stint as a provost.

“There’s 20 or 30 possible people for a job like that,” says Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity and an economist at Ohio University. “It’s a complicated job that requires a lot of skills.” For one thing, provosts don’t usually have fund-raising experience—or exposure to the state funding process. “I’ve always thought people should move into a presidency [of a large public institution] only after being president somewhere else,” Vedder notes. “Or maybe provost for a long time so you know the major donors and have been to Columbus a few times.”

And unlike a provost, a president has to have a long-term, big-picture perspective on where the university is going. “Is UC going to be a premier public research institution and improve its good-but-not-great reputation?” Vedder asks. “Is it going to try to be another Ohio State or Case Western?” Moving an institution from open-access education to selective admissions, or shifting the enrollment emphasis from commuter to residential students, can mean a sea change at a campus. And in times of change, “presidents usually have to pick winners and losers,” Vedder says. “University presidents have a lot of competing interests and a good president has to balance all those interests.”

The unanswered questions about why Gregory Williams left complicated the situation. Though no single reason has emerged for his sudden departure, people on campus acknowledge that relations between Williams and the board had been strained for some time. Williams declined my request for an interview, and has not publicly spoken about his resignation. But people familiar with the situation who declined to speak on the record confirmed an account in The Cincinnati Enquirer that Williams felt trustees micromanaged him, some of them calling him daily with questions, ideas, and advice. There were others, though, who had contact with Williams and found him remote and difficult to work with, and they echoed the board’s reported frustration with what they perceived to be a lack of communication on his part.

Strife between a university’s board of trustees and its president is nothing new, and in a difficult time for higher education, cases of public squabbling seem to be on the upswing. The University of Virginia’s board forced president Teresa Sullivan to resign last June, purportedly unhappy with her vision for the school, only to reinstate her several weeks later after students and faculty protested. The University of Illinois’s board has forced two presidents to resign in the past three years. Like UC, Virginia and Illinois are both public universities, where the pinch of state budget cuts can’t readily be offset by increases in tuition. And all three universities have trustees who are politically appointed and answerable to no one; in UC’s case, they serve nine-year appointments. Attorney Stan Chesley—a man known for speaking his mind—is in the midst of his second nine-year term.

While many observers expected Williams to leave or be forced out of UC’s presidency, no one expected his departure to be so abrupt. That said, Williams was at an age—he is 68—when he didn’t have to worry about how his resignation would look to his next employer. Caught flatfooted, the board quickly appointed Ono as interim president and set about finding a replacement.

Those advocating for a more deliberate search for a new president had good reason: Williams had been named to the post just four months after Nancy Zimpher left to become chancellor of the State University of New York, and they wondered whether a more thorough vetting at the time would have raised red flags about his communication skills and leadership style. Even some of Ono’s fans think a more thorough search would at least have made the case for Ono even more compelling.

Ono, however, argues his two and a half years as provost made him the best person for the job. Though the new president is warm, funny, and occasionally goofy on Twitter, in person he is clearly focused and ambitious, exuding an I-got-this confidence. He is soft-spoken, with a thick head of black hair and a ready smile that helps him blend in with groups of students, but he can quickly morph into an authoritative figure when the occasion calls for it. C. Francis Barrett, who heads UC’s board of trustees, recalls a UC football game Ono attended against Virginia Tech University at FedEx Field last year where he “mingled in the luxury seats with donors and older people, then mingled in the stands with the hard-core fans,” and after the game, went into the locker room to talk to the players. In a charming moment from a UC video made for Ono’s 50th birthday in November, his wife Wendy Yip recalled his transition from gangly Ph.D. student to “PrezOno, a tweeting, cheerleading president of a Division I university…with a Klout [score measuring social-media influence] of 77.” Observers say in his stint as provost and now president, he’s also masterfully handled the personalities of the nine-member board, providing them with reams of information and making sure they feel taken care of.

Ono made no secret of his desire to become UC’s new president in the wake of Williams’s resignation. He quickly (and maybe a little presumptuously) changed his Twitter handle from “@ProvostOno” to “@PrezOno” when he was named interim president and, after a subsequent interview, tweeted “Fingers crossed that they will keep me long term.”

A university provost acts as chief academic officer, overseeing course offerings and faculty appointments; in UC’s case, Ono was already responsible for about 70 percent of the annual budget. He also had worked with Williams to create UC 2019, the academic master plan that charts the university’s course toward its bicentennial six years from now.

“For someone totally new to the university, to the city, there could be a learning curve, but for me these are things I’ve been intimately involved in for a long time,” Ono says. “We’ve already set the agenda for what we’re going to do as an institution with our strategic plan. All that is already running. A new president would have to come in and say, ‘What is it that I really want to do? How am I going to make my mark on the institution?’ That’s something Greg Williams and I had already done. The transition has been seamless in that that’s something we thought of together as partners.”

Barrett says the decision to make Ono interim president was a logical one, but that there was more debate about how to find a new permanent president. Some on the search committee—which included students, alumni, professors, deans, and others—wanted to offer Ono the job immediately, while others favored a national search. Ultimately Ono’s performance in interviews, and the fact that he’d proven his abilities at UC already, convinced the committee he was the best person for the job. Those charged with the search also worried about losing Ono to another university, and they felt the best candidates might shy away from a search in which there was already a clear front-runner.

“He did exceptionally well in the interviews, and people were extremely impressed with him,” Barrett says. “He was the product of a national search three years ago. And even if we did a national search [this time], we wouldn’t be able to find someone we could have confidence in as a known quantity the way we do with him.” Barrett said there was broad agreement on the committee to offer Ono the job after his interviews.

Athletics is an area where Ono could not claim prior expertise, and his first month in office was plagued with high-profile problems: a hasty conference realignment that has left UC one of the few colleges still standing in the Big East, and football coach Butch Jones’s leap to the University of Tennessee in early December, which was followed quickly by the hiring of Tommy Tuberville from Texas Tech University. Membership in the Big East was considered a step up for UC when it joined in 2005, but as schools like Notre Dame, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, and Louisville left the conference late last year, the future of the Big East—and the lucrative television contracts that accompany the right conference membership—were suddenly thrust into jeopardy. Mike DeCourcy, who covers collegiate athletics for The Sporting News, says UC has some work to do to improve its prospects.

“They have a basketball arena that’s not a good place to watch a game and they have a football stadium that’s out of date,” DeCourcy says. “What they need to do is fix their facilities problem and make themselves presentable because there’s a very good chance this isn’t over.” In addition to facilities, DeCourcy says the university could assume the debt the athletic department now owes on the Varsity Village complex and continue to improve the department. “The most realistic risk [of inaction] is you get yourself into the next round of conference upgrades, but you don’t upgrade the athletic department so you can compete in a better conference,” DeCourcy says. “The worst-case scenario is you get left out when there’s more movement.”

Ono concedes that athletics is an area that’s new to him, but one he appears to have thrown himself into, tweeting his support for athletic director Whit Babcock and assuring students and faculty that the administration is working hard to make sure UC isn’t left behind. In fact, some faculty and alumni grumble that so far Ono seems most interested, or at least most visible, on athletics when campus safety and academics deserve a higher profile. He posted regular updates as Jones was courted by a handful of schools, and on the morning Jones announced he was leaving Cincinnati for Tennessee, Ono still managed to sound both upbeat and consoling.

“#BearcatNation,” he tweeted December 7, “we are bigger than any one person and I will make sure we continue to compete at the highest level. I have your back.” The next day, after the Tuberville announcement, he told his Twitter followers, “Promised you the sun would shine again soon.” At the same time the university announced a drive to raise $60 to $70 million to renovate Nippert Stadium.

One of the central questions at UC today is who its students should be. As a municipal college, one of UC’s traditional focuses has been on educating local students who are the first in their families to attend college. Yet marquee programs such as CCM and the College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning successfully vie for the best and the brightest students from all over the world, and the academic master plan lays out a goal of competing with the country’s most elite institutions.

One influential measure, the annual rankings from U.S. News and World Report, shows both how far UC has come in recent years and how far it still has to go to join the upper ranks of academia. Though university administrators everywhere decry what the rankings have done to the college selection process, they have no choice but to pay them heed, if only because prospective students and their parents do. Ono trumpets the fact that UC has risen 17 spots in the U.S. News rankings since he became provost, though its rank among national (both public and private) universities is only 139, tied with schools such as Arizona State University, George Mason University, and Oregon State University. In comparison, Ono’s former employer Emory is ranked 20th, Ohio State is 56th and the University of Kentucky is 125th. He points out that UC has numerous individual programs graded among the nation’s best; in fact, of the 39 UC programs and colleges nationally ranked by U.S. News, 34 land in the top 50. But he also laments the outsized influence such rankings have, and draws a distinction between UC and other institutions ahead of it.

“I think that [the U.S. News] number is not really that important,” he says. “It’s important for certain kinds of parents and kids who are obsessed with that ranking. For those typically affluent upper-middle class parents and kids, that U.S. News ranking that is focused more on the metrics of the freshman cohort—the intake—is something they get obsessed with. And it’s misguided, to be frank, because it’s not really looking at how the institution transforms that student, it’s not looking at the total experience the student gets on campus, it doesn’t look at the value added.

“Elite private schools are historically more selective and accept more of those high credentialed kids,” he continued. “That’s something you really have to think about. I love Emory, I won’t say anything negative about it. It’s the right institution for those who want a small liberal-arts college experience and want to be among a not-very-diverse student body that’s very selective. But I’m very proud of what UC stands for. UC has its roots as being a municipal university where a lot of first-generation students came, got an education, and blossomed from that.”

In its academic master plan, UC sets goals based on the performance of the elite schools that include the Association of American Universities (AAU). It has long been a semi-public aspiration among UC’s administration to join the invite-only AAU, which represents 62 of the leading research institutions in North America, including all of Ono’s alma maters and most of his former employers, as well as the University of Michigan, Ohio State, and Indiana University.

Based on the performance of top research universities, though, UC still has work to do. The school aims to have a six-year graduation rate of 75 percent by 2019, up from its current 58 percent. It would like 200 National Merit scholars enrolled (up from 157 now), a first-year retention rate of 90 percent (up from 85 percent), and a Top 100 ranking from U.S. News. The university has made strides toward most of these goals in recent years, and sometimes the progress is striking, such as a 31 percent increase in the number of National Merit scholars enrolled since 2009.

Maintaining these sorts of improvements would seem to assure admission to the AAU, though Ono seems reluctant to articulate that as a goal. The AAU, he notes, is “essentially a club of university presidents. It’s always nice to be part of a club, but that’s something that should be secondary. What I’m much more focused on as the president is thinking through with the university community what the university is going to be known for, moving into its third century, so we become different from the other 4,000 colleges and universities in North America, and that we have something truly distinctive.”

Ono isn’t being dismissive. Higher-ed observers point out that admission to the AAU comes at a cost. Funding the research required for AAU membership can mean diverting limited resources from undergraduate teaching or athletics; in an era of tight budgets it’s hard to do all three at the highest levels. “It’s not wildly unrealistic to think of AAU membership” for UC, says Richard Vedder of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. “The question is, is it really worth it? What is there for UC students in membership? What is there for the citizens of southwest Ohio? On the other hand, every school has to decide what it wants to be, and there’s a tendency for many schools to want to be in the top 50 or 60.”

And even as it seeks to improve academic performance, UC retains the mission of educating lower-income students who are the first in their families to attend college. Such students are nearly four times more likely than other students to drop out of college, which adversely affects a university’s graduation rates and other measures of academic success. Five years ago the university opened the Gen-1 House, reserved for first-year, first-generation students who are required to receive tutoring, attend study sessions, and get other support to stay in school. The house, which accepts about two dozen freshmen a year, has succeeded in reducing the dropout rate for first-generation students, and the concept is being copied at other universities in the U.S. Ono says UC will keep and expand such services to maintain the school’s historic mission. “You need different kinds of institutions in America,” he says. “I will sacrifice the absolute U.S. News ranking any day for what this university stands for. We accept a broader portfolio of students and we make a difference.”

As we roll through the issues facing UC in the coming years, Ono seems to have an answer for each: He understands the pressures of research funding faced by the medical school because he’s a professor there. He gets the need for sufficient practice space at CCM because he studied music seriously. When we discuss the push for research universities to produce discoveries that can be commercialized, Ono mentions he has experience in this field too; since 2005, he has served as chief scientific officer of iCo Therapeutics, a Vancouver company that develops existing drugs for new purposes.

For a college president in the Buckeye State right now, that’s an enviable credential. An Ohio Board of Regents task force formed last year to encourage economic innovation found that the state’s universities are laggards in commercializing their research. One study ranked Ohio 29th overall—and considered it a “third-tier state”—when it comes to promoting technology commercialization; another index placed Ohio 38th out of 50 states in “economic dynamism.” Tom Brady, the Toledo-area entrepreneur who founded Plastic Technologies Inc. and who served on the task force, underscores the need. “We’re trying to leverage this massive intellectual resource we’ve invested in,” Brady says. “There’s always caution about changing the academic world. It’s very protective of intellectual freedom. But we have to create incentives for this. Unless you put incentives in place that reward [university researchers] for applied work that leads to commercialization, it’s all just words.”

On this subject, Ono exudes pure I-got-this confidence. “I think I’m the only president of a public university in Ohio that has a background in biomedical research and in the launching of companies,” he says. In fact, he’s spoken with Governor John Kasich about the need for the state to increase its profile in this area. “I know how to bring intellectual property from within the university to commercialize it to create start-up companies. Many presidents are lawyers, like [Ohio State president] Gordon Gee. [University of Toledo president] Lloyd Jacobs is a medical doctor, he understands health care delivery—but he doesn’t understand commercialization and intellectual property like I do.”

It’s a new mission for research universities, to play a critical role in a region’s economic development, and there’s a correlating goal of turning out workers for the economy rather than simply educating students in a broad range of subjects. Ono seems to have a nuanced understanding of the issue. On one hand, scientific research can take years to pay off, and the most marketable discoveries are often made by accident (like George Rieveschl’s serendipitous discovery of Benadryl at UC back in 1942). On the other hand, the relationship between research and commerce is one that other regions and other countries understand better than ours, and it’s critical that as a region we catch up.

“I wouldn’t say any university in Ohio is good at [commercializing research], to be blunt,” Ono says. “I think most of the presidents and provosts, some of the faculty at these schools, would agree that we’re not at the cutting edge—we’re not an MIT, a Stanford, a Carnegie Mellon. We have the research going on but there’s not a culture in the region—not just at the university—in knowing how to do it. There’s a lot of moving parts, there’s a lot of money involved, and you need to build an ecosystem.”

Some business leaders in Cincinnati have grumbled that UC’s scientists don’t get this notion. But  the university is encouraging such a culture by investing $10 million in the start-up incubator Cintrifuse, hiring lawyers to patent discoveries, and helping researchers navigate the world of funding through the Office of Sponsored Research Services. UC researchers have long received significant funding from the National Institutes of Health and other federal resources—hundreds of millions of dollars a year. But that money is in decline and in further jeopardy from future spending cuts, so researchers everywhere are scrambling for new sources. Ono—and other university presidents—are “articulating their case”
to state and federal officials to spare schools from even steeper cuts, and he warns that the Cincinnati area risks falling further behind if UC’s efforts aren’t supported.

“We can’t fall asleep at the wheel,” he says. “As long as I’m president I intend to make the decisions and investments to position ourselves to be an economic engine for the city. With all due respect to Xavier and Cincinnati State, there is no other institution in Cincinnati that has the resources and the volume of activity to positively move the economy of the city.”

When Ono was being considered for the presidency, trustees wanted to make sure he wasn’t simply a cheerleader for the university, that he could say “no” when needed. In some faculty circles Ono was already known as Williams’s enforcer, implementing sometimes-unpopular measures to improve the university’s bottom line, including performance-based budgeting.

The budgeting process rewards programs that succeed in attracting large numbers of students, grant money, or gifts. It’s designed to make units within the university balance their budgets, but in practice it has led to difficulties. For instance, CCM can’t increase class size as easily as other colleges because adding more students means adding more practice space. Different colleges have begun offering similar courses to keep tuition dollars in-house, and some professors complain about deans exhorting them to “get more butts in the seats”—not exactly a high-minded approach to education.

But performance-based budgeting was introduced at UC in response to a real budget crisis brought about in part by the campus renovation that took place a decade or so ago. Remaking the campus was seen as an essential first step to raising the school’s academic profile, but it came at a cost of about $2 billion. At the same time, state contributions to higher education have declined steadily, leaving administrators to find other sources of revenue. In response, UC managed to expand enrollment significantly, from about 34,000 in 2003 to around 42,000 today. The increased tuition along with belt-tightening was enough to stabilize the university’s financial outlook, though the nearly $1.3 million severance the trustees granted to Williams—and the decision to pay off Ono’s $172,963 mortgage in Atlanta—rankled many on campus who are regularly told how tight finances are. So do hiring freezes in the College of Arts & Sciences, the university’s largest school, when the stadium’s renovation will cost $70 million and Coach Tuberville will receive roughly $2.2 million annually.

Fran Barrett defends Williams’s severance as a fulfillment of his contract, though he says he understands the outrage that greeted it. As a tenured professor in both the colleges of Law and Arts & Sciences, Williams was entitled to the top salary of the most senior professor in either college for life—currently $255,000 a year—and he had various bonuses and agreements due him. “We let his lawyer negotiate with our lawyer. They compromised down and we compromised up,” Barrett says. “When people step down they have a severance package, and we didn’t want to compromise our ability to attract future candidates.”

Ono says he’s open to tweaking the budgeting process to make sure it’s fair to all the colleges. And though state and federal funding remains uncertain, and cuts pose a real threat to UC’s programs, Ono manages to sound sunnily optimistic even on this topic.

“We get 17 or 18 percent of our funding from the state,” he says. “Call some university presidents in Virginia, in Pennsylvania, in California. Their funding for universities, total university budget, is sometimes 5, 6, 7 percent. There were better days, but we have to look at it in the context of the entire state economy. Other parts of the state budget have been told to expect a 10 percent cut. We have been told by Governor Kasich that if we do it right, we can expect flat funding or maybe a supplement. So what do we have to complain about?”

As we talk, trying to cover all the issues a large public university could face—the coming decline in the number of college-aged people, the rise of online education, the incessant churn UC has experienced in some top administrative positions, the constant need to raise funds—Ono points out that the biggest challenges his predecessors faced were ones that came by surprise and were hard to prepare for. Nancy Zimpher spent much of her time creating alliances with community institutions, and faculty speak admiringly of her efforts to improve UC’s academic profile, yet she is better known as the woman who fired Bob Huggins. Gregory Williams traveled extensively, hoping to raise UC’s national profile as Zimpher had done locally. Yet he also had to grapple with the disintegration of the Health Alliance, which left UC’s health system without its more profitable partners. And judging by his quick exit, the failure of his relationship with the nine bosses on the board of trustees was clearly something he didn’t anticipate.

Though Williams hired him, so far Ono reminds observers more of Zimpher, who was completely invested in the job—highly visible around the community and the university, even when people were yelling at her across campus or throwing things at her during basketball games. Which raises the question: How long will he stick around? Zimpher stayed for six years, and while she was committed to the university, no one at UC was surprised when she left for a bigger job. Ono, who waxes rhapsodic not just about the university but also the city, signed a 10-year contract in December.

While the goals of his presidency come into focus, the details are still unfolding. How long he’ll stay, how the Big East turmoil will unfold, whether budget cuts will affect the school’s plans for improvement—so much of Ono’s tenure, and UC’s future, remains up in the air. But at least with this president, students and staffers can watch it unfold on Twitter, 140 characters at a time.

Originally published in the February 2013 issue.
Photograph by Ryan Kurtz

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