CINCINNATI – University of Cincinnati chemistry professor James Mack's aunt in South Carolina loved her nephew, but she couldn't name any of UC's presidents that he worked for since 2003 – until Santa Ono took the helm in 2012.
"He made us visible in areas where we never were before. That #hottestcollegeinAmerica hashtag worked," Mack said.
The UC community is taking stock and looking back on Ono's four-year tenure as president after the surprise announcement that he is leaving to lead the University of British Columbia, where his dad served on the faculty and where Ono was born in 1954.
"It was UBC that gave our immigrant family a chance to settle in North America," Ono wrote in an open letter following his hiring. "This is that unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to return to my birthplace in Canada − for my life to come full circle."
Beverly Davenport, provost and chief academic officer, was named interim president. A national search for a permanent replacement will begin in the next few weeks.
UC faculty, administrators and even state officials praised Ono for raising the university's profile and helping lead UC to record enrollment.
“President Ono capably led the University of Cincinnati. His willingness to engage with students, faculty, staff and the community is a trademark of his tenure. I wish him the best of luck in his new endeavor. We will miss him in Ohio," Ohio Board of Regents Chancellor John Carey told WCPO.
With Ono heading west, leaders of the university he'll leave behind were also quick to point out that UC was moving in the right direction before Ono took over and will continue progressing without him.
"He's a student magnet, and he's been very helpful in that regard," said Caroline Miller, vice provost for enrollment management. "This trajectory started before he got here. He helped it, obviously, but a lot of people worked hard (to successfully increase enrollment)."
Ono leaves UC with record enrollment in spite of a dip in the population of high school graduates. The endowment has grown by $200 million to $1.2 billion, and he can point to a raft of new construction, capped off by the expanded Nipper Stadium.
Cincinnati State, Northern Kentucky University and Gateway Community and Technical College have suffered enrollment losses while UC bucked the trend.
"He's done many great things for this university, and we are proud of him," UC Board of Trustees Chairman Rob Richardson said. "He helped remind us how great we are."
While academics continued to improve, the July 2015 fatal shooting of Samuel DuBose by a UC police officer during a routine traffic stop also marked Ono's tenure.
Mack, a leader of the UC Black Faculty Association, said Ono didn't distinguish himself with efforts to diversify UC's faculty and student body before the DuBose shooting, which put the national spotlight on UC.
"I don't think he was the (Ku Klux Klan) grand dragon. I don't think he was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was somewhere in the middle," he said.
After the shooting, though, Ono became engaged and effective at seeking answers to the problem of low percentages of African American students, faculty and administrators, Mack said.
"Had he been doing that from Day 1, we'd be much better off, and the Sam DuBose shooting would have never happened. Sometimes it takes events to spark a change," he said.
Ron Jones, president of UC's AAUP faculty union, credits Ono with raising UC's profile and his "consistent pledge to invest in people." His enthusiasm is tempered by current, contentious contract negotiations and the administration's current proposal that would include a modest raise that would be more than offset by increased health care costs.
Davenport said Ono was "revered" by students thanks to his philosophy of always putting them first.
"To students, I want to tell you that you have been at the forefront, and you will continue to be at the forefront," she said.
Mitchell Phelps, president of the UC student government who is entering his fourth year at UC, said it was "very shocking" when he heard Ono is leaving.
"I'm very happy for him and grateful for the foundation he laid," he said.
Tracy Herrmann, president of the faculty senate, credited Ono for being a passionate supporter of faculty.
"He just really brought a unique energy to the university," she said.