By Dan Sewell
CINCINNATI: Elevated suddenly into the presidency of Ohio’s second-largest university, Santa J. Ono hit the ground running — and tweeting.
Now in his second year leading the University of Cincinnati, Ono sometimes seems as if he’s everywhere — tossing out T-shirts at football games, surprising freshmen by helping them move into their dorms, setting up chairs for an evening student gathering. Interacting on social media around the clock furthers the perception.
In recent days, he used Twitter to provide updates on everything from how UC did on an annual national ranking of U.S. colleges to the score of the Bearcat rugby team’s victory. He replied to a student on places to find the Browns’ game on TV, and to an anxious father on how his daughter could request a security escort late at night. He weighs in on food, music, sports and pop culture in general — everything from Rihanna to Pokemon.
Willing to interact
“Students love it,” said Joe Blizzard, 22, the student body president. “We’re in a day and age now when anything and everything can be on social media. He’s really willing to interact with anyone.”
As a vice provost at Emory University, Ono realized students were more likely to respond to a text message than voicemail. He started using Facebook and then, after joining UC as provost, he setup a Twitter account. After his predecessor resigned for personal reasons just before the 2012-13 school year began, Ono was named president of the school of nearly 44,000 students.
He goes by “PrezOno” on Twitter and uses the tag “hottestcollegeinamerica.” It’s a claim that’s still more cheerleading than reality, but was boosted this month when U.S. News & World Report listed UC tied for third among “up and comers,” while ranked 135th overall.
Rapid and efficient
“It’s a very rapid, efficient way to communicate with a lot of people simultaneously: students, parents, alumni who are all over the globe,” Ono said of the 140-character Twitter messages. He has nearly 22,000 followers of his tweets, which come between meetings, while waiting at airports, after he and his wife have put their two daughters to bed at night, or soon after he arises at 4:30 a.m.
“He’s smart to take advantage of the opportunity to see the university from students’ eyes; over the long haul, it will build his personal connections,” said Molly Corbett Broad, president of the Washington-based American Council on Education. She said higher education officials are increasingly using social media, but noted that Ono, 50, is younger than the typical college president, “from a newer generation” comfortable with digital communication.
Ono said his tweeting and high-visibility appearances at football games aside, he spends most of his long hours on priorities such as continuing to build the school’s record enrollment, nurturing newly expanded ties with China, coping with budget issues and working to attract money for academic and capital projects.
Ono declined to move into the presidential home, which has been put up for sale, and refused a bonus and raise to his base annual salary of $525,000. He drives himself whenever he can in his red Audi he calls “the Catmobile,” saying he wants to set an example in the effort to control higher education costs.
Among Ono’s other attention-getting moves have been shaving his head for charity after the basketball team won 10 straight games and dressing up on campus as Santa Claus. But his ebullience dissolved during his formal investiture as president, tearing up as his Japanese immigrant parents watched.
Cincinnati’s first Asian-American president has spoken to several Asian groups locally and nationally.
“It makes you think twice about everything you do, because people are looking at you as a role model,” he said.
He’s also aware that “as a president of a state university you are always sort of under a microscope,” underscored this year when Ohio State University President Gordon Gee retired after criticism for remarks jabbing Catholics and rival colleges.
So, Ono said: “Before I push ‘send,’ I try to wait a little bit and then look at it again.”