Leadership & Governance

Getting Personal on Twitter Pays Off

Santa J. Ono, U. of Cincinnati

April 01, 2014

Video and editing by Julia Schmalz


Santa J. Ono, president of the University of Cincinnati, talked with The Chronicle about how being genuine on Twitter can bolster a leader’s reputation and the university’s, too. Watch the interview here.



SARA HEBEL: I'm joined today by Santa Ono, and I appreciate you coming in. Thanks for being here.

SANTA ONO: It's a pleasure to be here.

SARA HEBEL: One thing I wanted to talk to you about today was the fact that you are the first Asian American president at the University of Cincinnati when you took over about a year and a half ago. And in fact, you're one of very few Asian American college presidents in the United States. Only about 1.5% of all presidents are of Asian descent. Why do you think that is, and why does that matter?

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SANTA ONO: Well, first of all, I think, not only am I the first Asian American president at the University of Cincinnati, I think I'm the first Asian American president of a major university in Ohio. And currently, if you look at the research one universities, there's only about half a dozen of us that are presidents right now. For me, I have mixed feelings about being the first. I think the first of any category, those individuals have a feeling of excitement, a feeling of responsibility, and I have all those sorts of feelings. I know that a number of different Asian groups have invited me to speak.

Ohio State Asian students have actually invited me to speak at their annual conference in a few weeks. So, when I interact with those groups, whether they're K through 12 kids, or college kids, or faculty members, I can really tell from their questions that they look up to me, and they view me as a role model. So, I think it's important, when you're the first of anything, to really take your position very, very seriously. And you have a responsibility, not only for yourself and your institution, but also for the group that you're representing.

SARA HEBEL: One thing that some folks who've studied this issue have said is that perhaps one of the reasons that there are so few Asian American college presidents is because people don't really recognize it as a problem, per say. Do you think that's true, and is it a problem?

SANTA ONO: I think that there have been a number of articles that have been written about the small number of Asian American presidents for a while in the Chronicle, but also in other magazines such as Science. And I think that certainly there's a pipeline, there's been a pipeline of Asian American students at some of the best universities for a very long time. The question about why there are so few and there hasn't been much movement in the numbers of Asian American leaders, presidents, I think is probably there are multiple explanations for that.

One probably has to do with the areas-- the career foci of Asian Americans as they go through higher education. Many of them are really focused on science and STEM disciplines, and they really have been traditionally focused on excellence in that sphere. And most of them really do not seek out administrative managerial positions within academia. So, I think that's part of it. A lot of them stay in the professoriate. Another reason I think has to do with cultural aspects of being in Asian, especially in my case. I am a Japanese American.

I come from an immigrant family, and when you're raised in an Asian American family, part of the culture is really not to stick out at all. So, no matter what you're doing, to really focus on the greater good and a team mentality, and really not to toot your own horn, so to speak. Whenever you apply for a deanship or provost position, or if you're in a major search for a presidency, soft spoken individuals usually don't get noticed as much as individuals that articulate and talk about their accomplishments. So, I think that's part of it as well.

The third part I think has to do with the lack of role models. When you are. the first of any category, in any position, you don't have someone you can call up and mentor you and ask questions about how should I round out my portfolio of activities so that I'm qualified for the position. So, there are very few people that you can look towards, and people tend to be most comfortable interacting with people that are like them. And in the case of Asian Americans, there are very few role models out there. So, it's for that reason that I take my interaction with Asian American students and faculty members very seriously because I want to be there for them.

SARA HEBEL: That bridges nicely into what I was going to ask you about next. Another way you've been standing out in your presidency so far is through your use of social media, and especially you're very active on Twitter. How do you see that as being a tool of leadership for you, and what works, what doesn't in that medium?

SANTA ONO: Well, Twitter is a very, very new medium, and I, at first, wasn't sure that I wanted to use that medium. And it was really the students, first at Emory University. The student body president really encouraged me to get active on Facebook, and I started using that, I think only in 2009. So quite recently. And when I came to University of Cincinnati, it was actually the communications vice president who said,

Twitter is something which is really just going to grow, and if you really want to connect, especially with the younger generation, and prospective students, current students, and now increasingly people over 55 are actually on Twitter. You should really have some sort of presence on that. And that's really-- they created a monster I think because I'm, as you said, quite prolific on that. It has turned out to be, I think, something very positive for myself and for the University of Cincinnati. I'll give you a couple of examples.

One is that if you actually look at the demographics of people who interact with me, they range from middle school students all the way to 70 or 80 year old individuals, alumni. And I'll give you a couple of concrete examples of why it's been positive for the University of Cincinnati. One is that when I go to a middle school or high school to talk about the University of Cincinnati, those students, many of them will eventually end up following me, and they learn a lot about the University of Cincinnati.

And just earlier this week, I got an Instagram, I'm also on Instagram, message from a student who said, I have chosen the University of Cincinnati because I started following you on Twitter, and then Instagram, and that feeling of connection with the president is something that differentiates the University of Cincinnati from other schools. So, that's one example of how Twitter has been positive in terms of connections with the youngest members of society. But also with current students, it's a way for me to listen to them. They're actually driving the car, if you will, of the University of Cincinnati.

So they know what's going well, and they know what we can do better. And they're not shy about tweeting to me about a room that needs new tiles, or a vending machine that needs more Cheez-Its. And they actually tweet to me and we respond and they become more satisfied with their experience at the University. And they've told me so. So, it's a way for me to listen, to communicate with them, and also even to have a dialogue about important issues, such as diversity.

I think there's two more, if you will, examples that I wanted to share with you. One is that I was tweeting with an alumnus before I was going to a trip to California, and I didn't know that this individual called Tom Davis was quite a senior manager at NASA's Ames Research Laboratory, and he invited me to tour NASA's Ames Research Laboratory. And when I went there, I met the director of NASA's Ames, and that resulted in the University of Cincinnati becoming a Space Act Agreement University, which opens the resources and facilities and funding from NASA up open to our faculty and students. So that started because of a Twitter interaction.

And the other thing I wanted to say is that time when I tweet about upcoming alumni events, such as in Washington DC, we've noticed that the number of individuals that actually show up sometimes doubles or triples compared to the year prior. So, that kind of connectivity actually brings alumni to the events, and I'd say at least three or four occasions people have written to me, or on the spot have said that we're going to give you a $50,000 check or a $60,000 check. In one case, a million dollar check because of the connection that you have with current students and alumni through Twitter. So, that's a great ROI. It costs us nothing to be on Twitter, but as you can see, we can even land million checks because of interactions, and also major collaborations with institutions such as NASA because of that interaction on Twitter.

SARA HEBEL: Yeah. I guess it costs you time though, and certainly there are risks to it as well. As we've all seen, I mean, there are times where one errant post, or one controversial post can take off and create a bad situation as quickly as you can create a good one sometimes. How do you avoid those pitfalls, and where do you draw lines between sort of personal privacy and how much we need to know about how fast you can run it 10k, or what you're doing on any particular evening, and keep a professional personal boundary that's the right mix?

SANTA ONO: To be Frank I would be dishonest if I said that I have all the rules and procedures down pat. There haven't been many presidents of who have been very active on Twitter or social media. So, we're really sort of writing the rulebook as we run, if you will. And I think just common sense is the way to go about it. We haven't made that many mistakes, I think, moving forward thus far, and knock on wood it'll stay that way.

I use this test called, what would it look like on the front page of USA Today, so to speak. And so, before I push send, I always look at the tweet, and ask myself what would look like on the front page of USA Today, and then I push send. And so, I have deleted things because of that. So, there haven't been that many tweets that I've sent out that I regret sending out.

In terms of how fast you run a 10k, or what's your favorite restaurant, or what movie do you like. Those things are actually, I think, very important to the people who you interact with because it differentiates you from an institutional account. They realize it's really you. And it really is me, 99% of the tweets are really from me, and authenticity is something that's incredibly important. You will lose followers if it's not really you.

SARA HEBEL: Yeah, it's true that many accounts are pretty dry and straightforward, announcement oriented. And so, that would be a way to set yourself apart. Let me ask you one more question on this front too, I mean we've seen a lot among faculty professors in terms of their use of Twitter and social media, and institutions taking very different approaches to setting guidelines, parameters, rules, about what's appropriate and what's not. There are recent controversies such as the NRA tweet of the journalism professor in Kansas that didn't go well for the university or the professor. So, what is your stance on that and what is your guidance that you give to the people on your campus about how to use these mediums?

SANTA ONO: Well, there are a lot of faculty members at the University of Cincinnati, and administrators, that are on Twitter. And, like I said knock on wood, the good news is that I think that the impact has been nothing other than positive thus far. I think it's true for anything, whether you're speaking on a news interview, or whether you're being interviewed by a traditional newspaper, there are always risks associated with that.

And so, whenever you're moving into a new medium, I think the important guideline is just to be thoughtful and to be sensible and to use common sense. I do not want to micromanage how faculty and deans interact on social media. I think that there are faculty that have told me that they have actually taught using social media. So, it really is a new Vista, and I think it's up to us as individuals in the frontier of this space, if you will, to do it in a responsible and respectful manner.

SARA HEBEL: President Ono, thank you for taking the time.

SANTA ONO: You're welcome. Thank you so much.

Sara Hebel is assistant managing editor at The Chronicle. She directs a team of editors and reporters who cover broad trends in higher education and the people who grapple with them. Follow her on Twitter @shebel, or email her at sara.hebel@chronicle.com