We met with Dr. Santa Ono to discuss college admissions, ways to rank colleges, and much more. Enjoy!
"So I think that it really should be based upon what the student cares about. Some students care about institutions that have that teacher-scholar model but also have Division One athletics, and so that ranking should incorporate that into the rank."” – Dr. Santa Ono, President of the University of British Columbia
The University of British Columbia President, Dr. Santa J. Ono, discusses the infinite ways of ranking colleges based on a student. He also shows how impartial “output” data is often more representative than the standard data used to create ranks. Follow along as President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of British Columbia, Dr. Santa Ono, talks with Dr. Jed Macosko, academic director of AcademicInfluence.com and professor of physics at Wake Forest University.
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(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)
Jed Macosko: Hi, this is Dr. Jed Macosko at Wake Forest University and Academic Influence. Today, we have with us a president of an university, which is kind of a new thing for us, so this is President Santa Ono at the the University of British Columbia. And President Ono, I have a question for you, "How did you become a president of a university? How did that work out?"
Santa Ono: That’s rather accidental, I’m an immunologist. And I, like you, spent my time getting my education and then moving the ranks of being a faculty member and getting tenure. And eventually people started asking me to lead progressively larger units within the institution. And before I knew it, I was a provost and then a president of an institution. So it’s not something I set out to do, it just something that happened, but I feel very fortunate to lead an institution like UBC.
Jed: It’s really amazing, and one of the things that’s unique about you is that you have written on the topic of university ranking. So I was wondering, not every university president writes about that subject, although of course, all university presidents have to be aware of it. So did you get interested in university ranking before or after you started getting into administration?
Santa: Usually, really after, and I was aware of US News and World Report, Times Higher Education US rankings, I was aware of all that, as a customer, someone who was trying to make decisions about where to go to school or where to teach, but I really started to look at them a little bit more in depth once I became a senior vice-provost at Emory University in Atlanta.
Jed: And what did you find? What were some of the thoughts that you’ve now since written on when it comes to university ranking?
"in a vacuum where there's not a lot of information and there are thousands of institutions to choose from, these are rankings that are influential, and people look at them when making decisions."” – Dr. Santa Ono, President of the University of British Columbia
Santa: Well, there are many different rankings, and what administrators like to do is that they like to choose the one that puts their institution in the best light, because administrators know that rankings, just that was the case with me as a prospective student, and then as someone looking for a place to call home, as an academic home, something that people look at.
And in a space, in a vacuum where there’s not a lot of information and there are thousands of institutions to choose from, these are rankings that are influential, and people look at them when making decisions. And so it becomes important to think about them, think about their weaknesses and shortcomings, and there are many, and perhaps what might make a better ranking methodology.
Jed: Well, that’s true, and of course, that’s what we are trying to do here at Academic Influence, trying to come up with different methodologies.
And of course, everybody wants to put their university in the best light, and wouldn’t it be great if there was enough rankings so that everybody could be first place, and everybody could get a little award? But that’s of course not possible.
So it is probably good to have, what do you think, a dozen different rankings or rankings that are designed for different things, like in an ideal world, what kind of ranking would we do for universities?
Santa: Well, one of the shortcomings of rankings is that each of them has a set of metrics that they look at, and there are problems with some of those metrics. Some of them are self-reported, some of them are not impartial.
There have been instances where universities have actually submitted data which is not correct, and those are well-publicized. So you can see some of the shortcomings. Another shortcoming is that any particular ranking may actually be measuring things that don’t matter to the prospective student or to the prospective faculty that’s considering the place as an academic home. So that’s a major flaw.
The other problem is that many rankings will look at, what we call input data as opposed to output data. And so if you can sift through US News Best Colleges, and they’re ranked as national or regional institutions of liberal arts colleges, a lot of the data that’s used to rank institutions is how many people apply and how many people are rejected, and what are their credentials. And that has to do with the students before they even step foot on campus, and that’s flawed.
"The way to really measure the impact of the institution is what happens to [the student] while they're there, and what do they eventually become once they graduate and become alumni of the institution."” – Dr. Santa Ono, President of the University of British Columbia
The way to really measure the impact of the institution is what happens to them while they’re there, and what do they eventually become once they graduate and become alumni of the institution. And so one of the things that I think it would be...
To answer your question, how many should there be? There should be an infinite number of rankings. And one of the things I think is powerful is to be able to use impartial data, to use data which can be refreshed on a regular basis during a year, because things are changing all the time, something that makes use of publicly available information, and something that can be sort of customized.
I’ll take for example, of your institution, Wake Forest University, if you look at Wake Forest University from research volume or number of graduate programs, that might be an appropriate way to look at Wake Forest University as a particular kind of student that wants a research university, and Wake Forest certainly is a research university.
But the real excellence, what makes Wake Forest outstanding, is its commitment to the teacher-scholar model. And that’s something that wouldn’t be measured by the volume of research grants, and it’s not necessarily measured by citations.
And so a student, prospective student considering where to go to college shouldn’t use that kind of ranking, but should look at different kinds of measurable data such as the student-faculty ratio, or the satisfaction of the student, or what are the success of students at Wake Forest in getting Rhodes scholarships or becoming independent scientists in their own right.
And so, some kind of customizable ranking that asks the prospective student, the customer, "What is it that you’re looking for in terms of geographical area, size, strengths in teaching, the success of students who’ve gone through Wake Forest?" If you look at it in that way, then Wake Forest will rank very, very high.
And so I think that it really should be based upon what the student cares about. Some students care about institutions, to have that teacher-scholar model, but also have a Division One athletics. And so that ranking should incorporate that into the ranking.
Jed: Yeah, and that’s really the essence of the website that my friends and I have built, is that you can use influence, which we use to find the people to interview, including your brother, but we also have something called desirability, which is where people choose to go, using the wisdom of previous students to guide your search.
And then, we have ways of mixing and matching all kinds of different other things, like you mentioned, athletics or the size of the campus, student-faculty ratio. And so it ends up becoming a DIY ranking site. And it’s infinite, like you said, because there’s an infinite number of different ways you can turn all the dials and switch all the levers. And I think that’s really... That you should customize it for your own needs, and that gives you the best kind of ranking. So I’m totally on board with you there.
"It's wonderful to have a platform such as yours, because the typical high school student is kind of busy. And so figuring out how to assess this and to mine all the data out there that's always changing, it's impossible for any particular student or family to do, and you have done it for them."” – Dr. Santa Ono, President of the University of British Columbia
Santa:It’s wonderful to have a platform such as yours, because the typical high school student is kind of busy. And so figuring out how to assess this and to mine all the data out there that’s always changing, it’s impossible for any particular student or family to do, and you have done it for them.
Jed: That’s right. It’s all been processed and now you can just hit the things you wanna search by, order it by that, and weight these other things, so it’s really nifty.
But I was gonna say that you were at Emory, and one of the people that we interviewed earlier was Jeff Salingo, and he actually spent a whole academic cycle in the admissions department of Emory and talked a little bit about how that school has really been an up and coming school. So while you were there, what were the kinds of things that, as an administrator, you tried to do to help bring that school up?
Santa: Well, there are different ways to answer your question, to approach that issue, or challenge, or opportunity, whatever you wanna call it. I know Jeff. I know about his book. I know some of the conclusions [0:09:17.5] ____.
As you know, if you read the book, one of the conclusions of the book is that it’s almost a crap-shoot. If you look at the number of people who apply at universities, including Wake Forest and Emory, spend a lot of time growing the number of applications, because they know that one of the data points is how many people applied, how selective are you, how many do you actually reject or accept.
The lower the acceptance rate, the better it is for your ranking. It’s kind of perverse. But he also found, in sitting in that admissions office, and it’s the same for all institutions, private, elite private institutions or liberal arts colleges, because of this volume of applications and things coming into the office in different times, and the fact that a number of people read the applications, it’s an imperfect science, and some of the decisions are probably not right.
Those are some of the things that he found and actually sitting inside such an admissions office. And so, that’s the first thing I wanna say about Jeff, because you bring him up, and he’s fantastic.
Jed: And he mentioned that on his interview, that it is really, in a lot of ways, a crap-shoot. Unless you go as a recruited athlete and then your way is paved for you, [chuckle] which a lot of affluent families, he said, do. They put their children into sports programs and they pay for those, and then that’s their ticket to getting into the elite colleges. Yeah, very interesting. I hadn’t even thought of that.
Santa: But to answer your question, the right way to look at what you’re doing at an institution is what Wake Forest does, is they actually... Wake Forest thinks about, very deeply and seriously, about what the institution wants to accomplish. I think everyone’s on the same page at Wake Forest, that what matters is not so much the ranking, but how you transform the individual, not just in terms of what you learn, but how you become a leader and an ethical leader because of your time at the institution.
So I applaud Wake Forest for focusing more on what are you doing substantially, than where do you place in the rankings. Wake Forest places very well in the rankings, but it’s got its priorities right in focusing on what’s happening to the student while they’re there.
Jed: Yes, I couldn’t agree more. Well, now, the last line of questioning, of course, is if you went around the United States and Canada asking university presidents, "What was your biggest challenge this last year?" Everyone of them is gonna say, of course, COVID. And you are trained as an epidemiologist, do you think that you saw things differently and did your fellow presidents at other universities turn to you for some ideas? How did that play out in your role?
Santa: I’m actually an immunologist.
Jed: Okay. Sorry.
Santa: One of my friends, we talk together at Johns Hopkins’, he’s Mark Slissal at the University of Michigan, and you can actually compare and contrast what we did to what Mark did in Michigan. And I’ll say that what a president does, the president doesn’t have absolute carte blanche or freedom to make those decisions. You have to make those decisions with your board. You have an influence of public health professionals that have legal authority over what you can and cannot do.
If you’re a public institution like Michigan or UBC, you have to be in-step with the government, the regional government and the federal government. So you don’t have complete autonomy, even though you have a say in what happens, in terms of whether it’s fully remote or hybrid or face-to-face. You have a say in terms of what happens with athletics, everybody has an opinion, so it’s not easy.
But I will say that certainly, many people did ask me about my opinion at different levels, at the level of British Columbia, the whole nation, and internationally, we get together as presidents in different groups to wrestle with these issues.
And what actually happened during this year, you’re absolutely right, it’s one of the biggest challenges that I and any president has had to face. It’s historic. What’s happening, it’s not over. We’re not anywhere near a state where vaccines will roll out so that we can achieve herd immunity. And as you know, there are variants of the virus that are coming up as we speak.
So this is a current issue, but you’ve seen, across the thousands of institutions around the world, everything from complete remote to hybrid to trying to be fully face-to-face, such as UNC Chapel Hill. And there’s no right answer. For the schools that tried to be fully face-to-face, some of them started and had to send everybody home in a matter of weeks. That’s a challenge. It’s difficult.
For those that are fully remote, there’s a different kind of problem. There are very few cases. People are healthy, but their mental health is challenged because they crave the special environment of being on-campus, to be able to meet with their professors and to learn from their peers. All that’s gone, because they’re sitting in their bedroom at home, looking at a computer screen, looking at a PowerPoint presentation, it doesn’t approximate even 10% of what you learn being residential in any university or college campus.
So it is a challenge. There’s no right answer. We’re in the midst of deciding what we’re gonna do in September of 2021. A lot of it depends upon what’s happening with the vaccine and the advice we get from public health officials.
Jed: And we can just hope for the best and hope that those new strains are still fended off by these vaccines.
"...you're actually changing how institutions are evaluated. It's a transformational change that I hope that many people actually take a look at your platform."” – Dr. Santa Ono, President of the University of British Columbia
Santa: Can I just end by congratulating you and your team? It’s an amazing story that this is a group of faculty members, you lead it, funded by DARPA, you’re actually changing how institutions are evaluated. It’s a transformational change that I hope that many people actually take a look at your platform. It doesn’t just rank universities. Like I said, it’s customizable, but you actually look at influence in different sectors, in different fields. And so it’s really remarkable what you and your team have accomplished, and I congratulate you on that.
Jed: Well, thank you so much, President Ono. It has been so fun to get a chance to chat with you today, and we look forward to hearing more about what amazing things you do and the wisdom that you bring to higher education. So thank you.
Santa: Go Deacs! Go Deacs!
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