Nassif Ghoussoub: UBC's new president Santa Ono is not a mathematician, but...

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      The last time I saw the fabulous Frances Bula, she said that she liked my tweets whenever I commented on mathematics and mathematicians. I think she really meant for me to leave the rest of the news and analysis to her and the pros.

      However, thanks to Stuart Belkin, I now have a chance to do both. I mention the chair of the UBC board because I hear that —fortunately I must say—he is the one in charge these days, including of the presidential search.

      The remarkable choice of Santa Ono (yes Santa!) as UBC’s 15th president is nothing but a victory to those among us calling for a renewed spirit of research excellence, academic freedom, diversity, decency, humanity, and fair play among the UBC leadership, be it mid-level and up.

      By the time you read this, UBC communications will already have issued the mandatory press release describing Santa Ono’s numerous qualifications for the job, including that he is a Canuck in the U.S., born in Vancouver, McGill PhD, and a highly accomplished medical researcher who is the President of the University of Cincinnati.

      So, I shall focus here on what UBC communications may not be enclined to tell you, yet may be quite consequential for UBC’s future direction. After all, life experiences, gender, race, class, and character are what shape leadership.

      Worth noting is the well-publicized fact that president Ono and his brother Ken grew up under relentless pressure to achieve academically. Both their father and mother were tiger parents, discouraging their children “from any interests unrelated to the steady accumulation of scholarly credentials”.

      How will this affect the student experience at UBC? I know what I will be getting from my own children, having been accused of being a tiger dad myself. But more importantly, and in view of what I heard about the last Senate meeting, I expect that student leaders, block party promoters, and other “flexible learners” will be tempted to tamper further with the scholarly credentials we normally expect from our graduating students. But it is the responsibility of the faculty to stop this slippery slope.

      President Ono seems to have had battles with mental illness, and has been courageous enough to deal with it and to publicly disclose it—as recently as May 24—so as to destigmatize struggles that many people go through. It is interesting to note the two events that led the president to have suicidal thoughts:

      “At the age of 14, the reason why I made an attempt on my own life was really feelings of inadequacy and concerns about my own academic performance as a young boy.” 

      This should bode well for the effort, started by Stephen Toope and boosted by Arvind Gupta, to bolster the university’s support system for the mental well-being of our students.

      “As an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. The pressures then were focused on the fact that I was at a soft-money institution, and my salary and the operations of my laboratory were fully dependent on my receiving grants from the National Institutes of Health.” 

      Here, I can see a definite positive impact on the lives of some of our colleagues on the faculty (a.k.a a break from their administrators) while enduring hard battles with mental illness.

      President Ono has been a champion of diversity in leadership. At the University of Cincinnati, he brought greater diversity to the President’s cabinet, appointed the university’s first full-time chief diversity officer, and increased investments in diversity and inclusion. Awareness of the need for diversity in leadership at UBC is an irreversible reality. A legacy of the Gupta era and what followed.

      The pursuit of excellence be it coerced or not, the close encounters with deep depression and the resulting awareness of students' mental well-being, the personal commitment to diversity, the natural inclination for public engagement—Ono’s life experiences bode well for UBC. A relevant question is whether he can/will stand up to the bullies, if and when they manifest themselves again.

      Here is another dimension to the story, that will hopefully add to the conspiracy theories that have been pushed by the Georgia Straight's Charlie Smith and others“Cherchez les mathematiciens.”

      President Ono’s father, Takashi Ono, was a professor of mathematics here at UBC. Yes, right here in the outhouse behind the crystal palace that his son will soon occupy. Here is the proof. He eventually moved to Johns Hopkins, but not before his offspring, our next president, was born in Vancouver. Takashi Ono was a good mathematician, distinguished enough to receive “an invitation from J. Robert Oppenheimer to join the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton".

      And the president’s brother, Ken Ono, is also a highly visible and prominent mathematician, who has helped us on the BIRS Scientific Advisory Board, and with many connections to UBC mathematicians. He is an interesting academic for many reasons, not the least of which for probably being the most extrovert of the tribe of nerds. 

      You may have heard by now about the difference between an introverted mathematician and an extroverted mathematician? The extrovert looks at the other person’s shoes. Ken Ono has made this joke obsolete. Just check his Facebook page.

      Most recently, Ken has been on a worldwide tour promoting a movie in which he was a mathematical consultant. The Man Who Knew Infinity is the story of legendary mathematician, Ramanujan, a unique genius who was born into poverty in late-19th-century colonial India and who, despite his genius, struggled to gain acceptance from western mathematicians. Ramanujan struggled to overcome racism, poverty, and his status as an outsider in imperial Britain. “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.“

      We expect a great deal from president Ono, and we wish him loads of good luck.