You’ve probably already heard about his impressive résumé, his social media savvy, his talent with the cello and his penchant for bow ties. Many will likely be clamoring for a #SelfieWithSanta since his arrival at the University this month.
But at the University of British Columbia, where Ono served as president for six years, some of us have come to realize that the glowing profiles of him aren’t telling you everything.
Forget the hype from the Board of Regents: the students, faculty and staff of the University deserve a fuller picture of their new president. In that spirit, here are a few reasons to think twice about President Ono.
Ono hosted a fundraiser with an alleged abuser of Indigenous children. John Furlong was disinvited as keynote speaker of the fundraiser because of allegations of physical and psychological abuse, but as president of UBC, Ono reinstated him following pressure from wealthy donors. The allegations against Furlong stem from his time as a teacher in a remote Indigenous community. Some of his alleged victims attended protests against him led by UBC students, and the only Indigenous member of the university’s Sexual Assault Policy Committee stepped down from that committee because of the fundraiser.
Ono failed to take appropriate action against a climate of sexual violence. During Ono’s tenure at UBC, at least six students in one night received medical treatment for suspected druggings at a frat party. The university’s Sexual Assault Support Centre said it was “troubled by UBC’s response” and “urges the university to refrain from dismissing this incident as an anomaly” — echoing events at Ono’s previous university, the University of Cincinnati. Soon afterward, when a female professor criticized the frats involved about being invited to participate in a Remembrance Day ceremony, she was subjected to a torrent of misogynistic verbal abuse and threats online. The university, rather than condemn the abuse, responded by affirming its “commitment to freedom of expression and academic freedom” on both sides.
Ono supported UBC’s hosting of dangerous far-right figures. The university hosted, or attempted to host, a range of speakers during Ono’s tenure who were peddling white supremacist, Islamophobic and neo-Nazi propaganda. On most occasions, these speakers were invited by student groups known for their extreme views and looking to provoke controversy, and at least one anti-trans speaker with known ties to an alt-right street gang rented a room directly from the university. In the latter case, Ono provided inaccurate information to the university, incorrectly claiming that as many community members supported the event as opposed it, after which UBC was barred from the annual Vancouver Pride parade. At another event, attendees physically attacked protesters outside the venue in the presence of campus security, and Ono’s Vice President of Students, Ainsley Carry, subsequently had dinner with the organizers.
Ono repeatedly failed to address concerns from students, faculty and staff. One month before another speaking engagement, Ono received a letter signed by 25 concerned faculty members and graduate students, and his administration only replied five months later — that is, four months after the event. In spite of further outcry from the community, the university continued to justify these events by issuing a release, again citing its 40-year-old Statement on Academic Freedom and callously referring the students who were negatively impacted to the university’s already overburdened mental health services.
Ono failed to act to keep tuition affordable. Students endured consistent annual increases in tuition fees under Ono’s tenure, including during the pandemic — driving students “further into poverty and debt.” For domestic undergraduate students, these increases were as high as was legally allowed. In 2021, the university attributed the tuition hikes, in part, to “equity, diversity, and inclusion initiatives” and Indigenous reconciliation, before deleting the relevant web page. After the backlash to these increases, UBC became even less receptive to feedback on tuition fees. In 2022, the annual tuition “consultation” process, already widely perceived as a charade, was replaced by an even more restricted “engagement” process.
Ono demonstrated a lack of financial transparency. Amazon announced plans to open Canada’s first “Cloud Innovation Centre” at UBC while the company was under scrutiny for the obscene wealth of its founder Jeff Bezos, for the abysmal working conditions of its employees, and for providing the tech infrastructure for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). There was no consultation with the university community on the matter, and the terms of the deal were not made public. The contract was finally obtained by a student group through a freedom of information request after a nine-month delay. Later, it was revealed that Ono was following orders from Amazon to keep $3 million in funding from the company a secret.
Ono allowed UBC to try to avoid responsibility for environmental harm. Despite its reputation for sustainability, in 2019 UBC was convicted of dumping ammonia into a creek that flows into the Fraser River, poisoning much wildlife. The incident occurred in 2014, before Ono’s arrival, but under his leadership, the university chose to appeal the conviction as well as the 1.2 million CAD (approximately $900,000) fine earmarked for local habitat restoration to repair damage caused by the dumping. A spokesperson declined to comment to reporters on the cost of the legal fees, or whether the appeal was being funded with public money. As part of the appeal, UBC argued that the ammonia solution dumped was not a “deleterious substance.” It lost the appeal.
A university president deserves credit for their successes. But as a public official who will be raking in over $1.3 million per year plus benefits, the community must also hold him accountable for the mistakes for which he is responsible.
We largely failed to do so at UBC: Ono, who was granted a second term as president here, leaves midway through this term having faced few if any repercussions, let alone formal sanctions, from the university for the incidents described above, and appears to be as popular as ever. Hopefully you’ll keep a closer eye on him at the University of Michigan.
Jonathan Turcotte-Summers is a community organizer and Ph.D. student in Educational Studies at the University of British Columbia.
Have thoughts about our pieces? The Michigan Daily is committed to publishing a diversity of Op-Eds & Letters to the Editor. Submission instructions can be found here.