When UBC President and Vice-Chancellor Santa Ono was first appointed in 2016, he said that “the most important investment we can make [is in] the people of the university.”
Starting his role after the abrupt resignation of former President and Vice-Chancellor Dr. Arvind Gupta, Ono focused on strategic planning, the climate crisis and mental health during his first term, with a recent focus on anti-racism.
The Ubyssey talked to Ono and other university community members on how he fared in his first term and what he should focus on as he moves forward with his second.
During his first term, Ono led the consultation process in creating UBC’s strategic plan Shaping UBC’s Next Century. According to the UBC broadcast, Ono “spearheaded initiatives supporting teaching and learning excellence, attracting top faculty members in a wide range of disciplines, and world-changing research, including interdisciplinary work across the university.”
Shaping UBC’s Next Century stands out from its predecessors in “having tens of millions of dollars on an annual basis that are really focused on making sure that we make progress on things,” said Ono.
AMS President Cole Evans said that strategic planning has been a strong suit of Ono’s.
“When it comes to strategic planning at the university [Ono] has been very good at setting a clear direction for the university and making sure all the relevant university units are on board with it,” said Evans.
The plan committed to the meaningful advancement of the human rights of Indigenous people, but faced extensive delays that Dr. Sheryl Lightfoot, senior advisor to the president on Indigenous affairs, and Board of Governors Indigenous Engagement Committee Chair Andrea Reimer pointed out at the July Board meeting in which the plan was endorsed.
However, Ono said Indigenous reconciliation continues to be a priority for him.
Ono cites the opening of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre, issuing an apology for UBC’s involvement in the residential school system and the installation of the reconciliation pole as “visible examples of [UBC’s] commitment.”
One of Ono’s goals for his current and next term is “to see the Indigenous Strategic Plan go from now being endorsed in principle to actually gaining momentum.”
“It’s ... considered by many people both inside and outside of university to be one of the most ambitious and forward looking such plans anywhere … It’s pretty unique in that we are going to be investing millions of dollars towards that on an annual basis,” said Ono.
“After we launch it, we will be investing resources in moving towards the different action steps that are spelled out in that plan.”
The Blue & Gold campaign
In his first term, Ono said that he and former Chancellor Lindsey Gordon noticed that UBC didn’t have “as deep a portfolio of scholarships for students as some of the older universities had.”
Seeking to change that, UBC launched the Blue & Gold Campaign for Students, a fundraising campaign with an initial goal of raising $100 million by 2020. The campaign is the largest fundraising campaign for students in UBC history, and was able to meet its goal a year early, having since doubled its goal to $200 million.
The money raised goes toward various student awards including fellowships, scholarships, bursaries and experiential learning opportunities such as co-op, with an emphasis on supporting students in need, students from underrepresented communities, graduate students and leadership-based awards.
Chris Hakim, former AMS president and a current student senator, complimented the campaign.
“It isn’t just getting donors, community members to contribute to the campaign … it’s generating this culture amongst donors. Seeing the importance of students, finding a way to give back to students, I think that’s been very critical during [Ono]’s tenure,” Hakim said.
Commitment to climate action
In late December 2019, Ono declared a climate emergency and reaffirmed the university’s commitment to divestment. He was also appointed to lead the University Climate Change Coalition (UC3) over the summer, a coalition of 22 North American research universities committed to climate action.
“UC3 is something that UBC has been a founding member of. It has its own strategic plan, it has its own research plan, and UBC’s very active in that,” said Ono.
Michelle Marcus, a member of Climate Justice UBC and co-chair of the Climate Emergency Task Force, said that Ono had an “open door for members of the climate community at UBC.”
“To have a decision-maker that’s willing to meet with you and sit down and genuinely want to understand and support makes a really big difference,” Marcus said.
She noted that the rest of the UBC administration has not been as supportive of climate activism as Ono, citing a Board of Governors report presented in September 2019, prior to the UBC Climate Strike, which essentially said “divestment is not effective,” according to Marcus.
“That’s been a challenge, when you have a decision maker that’s enthusiastic but the rest of the institution isn’t on the same page.”
Marcus considers Ono’s role in UC3 as an opportunity for “[Ono] to make a really big impact.”
“I think that it could go either as a kind of a continuation of what the organization is already doing, or it can be an opportunity to really amp things up, increase ambition, do some really innovative and cool impactful things,” Marcus said. “I think in order to do that and to be successful, the president needs to be bringing other people into these conversations, particularly students.”
Persisting gaps in mental health support
Ono has demonstrated his passion for mental health advocacy, and he made it a priority in his first term to invest in more counsellors and psychiatrists.
“We've invested with the province and are working together to try to make available 24/7, remote counselling support… this is less of a situation now because we have fewer people in residence, but we piloted putting in now, not one, but two 24/7 counsellors within residence,” said Ono.
Ravia Arora, the UBC Mental Health Network Chair said she thinks Ono understands mental health and illness better than many people at the admin level.
“But what I've heard across the board, and personally agree with, is we love that he's talking about [mental health] and making it seem like this matters and we matter... but now we do need the help,” said Arora, citing a lack of mental health workers when compared to UBC’s large student population.
“There's too much pressure on the mental health workers because there's just not enough of them, and then there’s just the backlog and the fact that students often feeling like they have to literally be at their breaking point to find help is not a good thing,” said Arora.
Focus on anti-racism in next term
Ono said anti-racism and anti-discrimination are a priority for him. This year, issues of anti-Black racism and discrimination on campus have been brought to the forefront, in part a response to the anti-racism protests worldwide.
Black At UBC, an Instagram account that has now amassed almost 3000 followers launched this summer, has become a place for Black students to share their experiences at UBC, documenting incidents of racism at all levels of the university.
“This is not a one year activity. This is something that I commit to doing for the rest of my time at UBC. Eliminating systemic racism anywhere, but including universities, will really take a serious effort which is sustained,” said Ono.
Ono made a long list of commitments this summer to address racism at UBC.
“The commitments I’ve made are to take a look at policies and practices across the institution, to look at diversity at every level, whether it's faculty, staff, or students, to begin with conversations with the groups that are affected,” said Ono.
According to Ono, a website establishing the group’s commitments, activities, meeting minutes, and more would be developed.
To certain student groups, Ono’s commitments ring ‘hollow.’
“Will @ubcprez be able to fulfill his recent anti-racist commitments? All signs point to no ... This is the same @ubcprez whose administration collaborates with alt-right groups to host extremists on campus,” wrote UBC Students Against Bigotry in a statement on Twitter.
In a statement to the UBC community in July, Ono acknowledged the conversation and announced changes to the event booking process.
“We have revised the event risk assessment and mitigation process for these bookings to clearly identify the level of risk for these events and therefore more clearly support decision-making regarding speakers,” he wrote at the time.
“In addition, all requests for event bookings at the UBC Vancouver and Okanagan campuses or Robson Square are being assessed through the lens of the BC Human Rights Code by an external legal expert specializing in human rights and civil liberties law.”
Hakim said that despite that tumultuous environment that Ono entered into, he’s been able to “bring everybody together” and “provide stability within the university.”
“And not only that, he's been able to make sure that the university is flourishing. We're talking about student financial aid, student campaigns,” Hakim added.
Both Evans and Hakim spoke of how much they see Ono cares about students and the university.
“I think the impression that we get from President Ono, is he is somebody that cares deeply about the university. He cares deeply about students,” said Evans.
“You see countless students taking pictures of Santa, everybody has their stories of having had the opportunity to talk to him about their experiences. I think that is such important leadership to students, as well is being able to see somebody off the ground, caring for students as well,” said Hakim.
When asked what he was looking forward to working on during his second term, Ono cited the development of the Indigenous Strategic Plan.
“I'm really looking forward to confirming UBC’s commitment to the Truth and Reconciliation process. I'm really looking forward to working with the entire university community on that.”
This article was updated to reflect that Michelle Marcus is co-chair of the Climate Emergency Task Force.