This holiday season, I started believing in Santa. No, not the one so admirably portrayed by Tim Allen in a series of gripping biopics. I’m talking about Dr. Santa Ono, the new president of the University of Cincinnati. In just a little more than four months as president at UC, Ono has captured the attention of an entire city. He’s renowned for his research on eye diseases and has an incredible educational resume including work at the University of Chicago, McGill and Harvard.
But it’s not his research on eye inflammation that has made Ono an instant Cincy-celebrity. It’s his active online presence and commitment to UC athletics — and education. He’s all over Twitter as @PrezOno, and Wikipedia tells me his Klout online influence score is higher than any other university president in the world. Sounds good to me. During his time as UC provost, the school moved up 17 places in the US News & World Report rankings from 2010 to 2012, and UC is now among the top 10 producers of Fulbright scholars — more than any Ivy League school. Sure, there is definitely a size difference between UC’s 32,000 undergrads on its main campus and our 5,300, but the Cincinnati Bearcats are now proving themselves in the classroom and on the court.
I’ve never seen a university president so happy to talk with his undergraduates, so excited to root for Cincinnati teams, and so willing to be a public representative of his university and the city of Cincinnati. And importantly, Dr. Ono understands the concerns of his “constituents.” When football head coach Butch Jones left for Tennessee, he promised to find an even better replacement in an university-wide email. And he may have done exactly that through the hire of Tommy Tuberville. When conference realignment ravaged the Big East, Ono once again sent a comforting message assuring the university that the administration would do everything it could to secure a strong position in college athletics. Unfortunately, the Bearcats’ first bid to join the ACC failed, but a football bowl win, promised renovations to facilities and top-notch basketball — all of which have happened under Ono — may change that soon.
I went to three Bearcats basketball games over the break, and I’m pretty sure he was at each one, throwing T-shirts into the crowd and even risking his life on top of a pyramid of cheerleaders. Just last week, he shaved his head for charity after a game to celebrate 10 straight victories for the men’s basketball team. The campus is energized. For a school often overshadowed by its more prominent neighbors — Ohio State, Kentucky and even Louisville — UC is now the place to be. PrezOno has made it clear through his popular hashtag: UC is the #hottestcollegeinamerica, and Cincinnati may very well be the #hottestcityinamerica.
It’s hard not to get caught up in Ono-fever. And the buzz in Cincy got me thinking — what if Yale President-elect Peter Salovey had even half of that community presence? I understand PrezOno and soon-to-be PrezSalovey are working in two very different worlds. Ono, in a way, represents an entire city and a large public university looking to improve its reputation both academically and athletically. The University of Cincinnati is a Big East school with a lot riding on its athletic success and academic rise (and possibly its ability to find a new conference with the Big East in shambles). Yale is already a world leader in research, the pinnacle of academia, a historical wonderland and so on. I don’t expect Salovey to run around John J. Lee Amphitheater with his hair (and that lovely ’stache) shaved off.
But showing up to a few games, talking with some students on Twitter, and generally making an effort to connect with the Yale community? That doesn’t sound like too much to ask. That’s my belated Christmas wish for our new president-elect. He’s already making greater strides than other administrators — apparently he met with the football team for a pep talk before The Game, and that turned out pretty well for 55 minutes, right? If Salovey publicly and actively supports Yale athletics, students will do the same. I’ve already seen it happen in Cincinnati, where the student section at Fifth Third Arena is full, Ono is a courtside celebrity and students are buying into the whole #hottestcollegeinamerica mantra. Salovey doesn’t have to proclaim us the hottest college in America, but #hottestivyforsportsontheeastcoast sure would be nice.