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Two years of focus under No. 30: Q&A with President Pinto

February 20th marks the second anniversary of University of Cincinnati President Neville Pinto’s first day on the job as UC’s 30th chief executive.  During his first 24 months in office, President Pinto has appointed new leadership in key areas, launched the university’s strategic direction, Next Lives Here, and presided over a major milestone in UC’s history as it celebrates its Bicentennial. Read on to learn more about his thoughts on the accomplishments so far and his hopes for UC’s future.

Students pose with President Neville Pinto during an ice cream social on campus.

President Pinto poses with a group of students during an ice cream social as part of a finals break on campus. photo/Andrew Higley/UC Creative Services

What has been your biggest focus?

During my interview process, I heard stakeholders express a need for stability, focus and a long-term perspective. I took that input to heart and set out to build a leadership team with that desired impact in mind. People like Kristi Nelson, our Provost, who has more than 35 years of experience in higher education; Peter Landgren, the president of the UC Foundation, who has a unique mix of academic, strategic and community expertise; lifelong entrepreneur David Adams, who has worked in for-profit and non-profit settings, as our first-ever Chief Innovation Officer; a trusted and astute General Counsel, Lori Ross; and a talented group of deans to fill openings at DAAP, CCM and UC Blue Ash. I also expanded the portfolio of Bleuzette Marshall, our vice president for equity and inclusion, to include community impact. I am truly honored to work with such an outstanding senior leadership team.

What would you point to as your most significant success?

The best organizations have a clear and compelling sense of who they are, why they matter and where they want to go. Given the number of leadership changes at UC in recent years, our university needed that type of long-term vision. And I believe we achieved that clarity with the launch of our strategic direction, Next Lives Here. The vision is one in which all of us can rally around: to lead urban public universities into a new era of innovation and impact. I also think our approach to this endeavor—of developing a strategic direction versus a strategic plan—was inventive. In fact, two higher education experts recently published an essay (in the book Practical Wisdom) on how leaders can be more innovative and effective when it comes to such planning. Their advice was to create a directional framework that is flexible enough to respond to the fast-paced, far-reaching changes happening throughout society. In other words, create a compass, not a map. I think that analogy captures the essence of Next Lives Here. 

Can you update us on the progress of Next Lives Here?

Presidet Neville Pinto holds up information about his Next Lives Here strategic direction.

One of the most visible successes so far is our 1819 Innovation Hub. Its grand opening attracted a packed house of roughly 1,800 people. Plus, in less than a year, more than 13,000 people have taken advantage of its courses, events, activities, start-up accelerator and makerspace. Meanwhile, the list of partner tenants is both impressive and expanding—and now includes P&G, Kroger, Cincinnati Bell, Cincinnati Insurance Companies, CincyTech, Village Life Outreach Project, Live Well Collaborative, Simpson Center for Urban Futures and Edaptive Computing Inc. Last May, we opened the university’s first-ever Staff Success Center, and the outpouring of interest and engagement has been inspiring. We also established a Staff Senate, another first for UC, to better integrate their voice into our decision making processes. For the faculty, we plan to open a new Faculty Enrichment Center in the fall. In all, under our three platforms of Academic Excellence, Urban Impact and the Innovation Agenda, there are nine pathways in various stages of development and implementation. In the first phase of funding, we allocated nearly $12 million in one-time and ongoing central funds for pathway initiatives. 

More than a place, you talk about innovation as a mindset. What are some examples?

We recently approved a 99-year sale/lease of the Kingsgate Hotel and Conference Center. Our agreement will generate nearly $23 million, which we will place in a quasi-endowment to generate annual income to invest in academic initiatives. (I should add before anyone gets concerned about the parking garage there, we still own the garage.) Another example is that we stopped using outside search firms for talent acquisition, saving more than $2.1 million in two years. These types of innovative solutions underscore our efforts to think more creatively about how we can better resource our core mission of teaching, research and service. 

Of all the activities on your schedule, which moment has been the most memorable?

Being part of the naming our newest residence hall in honor of UC alumnus and civil rights icon Marian Spencer was a profound moment. The granddaughter of a slave, Marian was not permitted to live in campus housing when she was a UC student in the late 1930s and early ’40s. It was tremendously fitting and fulfilling to be able to pay tribute to her and all that she has accomplished as a challenger of the status quo. She has persistently pushed for civil rights, equity and inclusion throughout her life, even here on the UC campus. Marian Spencer Hall will allow her name to live on to inspire future generations of UC students. She’s truly one of my favorite people. I feel very blessed to have the opportunity to get to know her better.

UC President Neville Pinto, university architect Mary Beth McGrew, Marian Spencer's grandson Oliver Spencer and Board of Trustee Chair Thomas Cassady cut the ribbon at the dedication of Marian Spencer Hall.

UC President Neville Pinto, university architect Mary Beth McGrew, Marian Spencer's grandson Oliver Spencer and then-Board of Trustee member Thomas Cassady cut the ribbon at the dedication of Marian Spencer Hall in March of 2018. Photo/Joseph Fuqua II/UC Creative Services

UC has turned 200 on your watch. Does that make you feel a greater sense of responsibility?

In January, it was exhilarating to see the great turnout of students, faculty and staff for our Charter Week opening event and the birthday cake celebrations on our four campuses. It is humbling to be part of this major milestone in UC history. I am awed by our predecessors and their foresight in establishing the Medical College of Ohio and Cincinnati College in 1819—when the population of Cincinnati was about 10,000. They realized the importance of higher education in the future of this city. That makes me feel a greater responsibility to make sure this university continues to thrive and, above all, fulfill its mission as an urban public research university.

Our beautiful campus continues to shine. Can you talk about some of the new building projects underway?

In April, we’ll cut the ribbon on the new building for the UC Gardner Neuroscience Institute on our health campus. It will house research and treatment facilities for more than 200 faculty and staff from 15 clinical specialties that focus on neurological and psychiatric conditions. Our new Health Sciences Building, which includes a new entrance to Kettering and becomes the home of the College of Allied Health Sciences and other health spaces, will celebrate its ribbon cutting on September 12th. On September 19th, the new home of the Carl H. Lindner College of Business will be dedicated and doubles the footprint of the former home. Muntz Hall, the original building on the UC Blue Ash campus, has also been undergoing massive renovations and those are still in process with another phase to begin this summer. That UC can continue to invest significantly in our physical plant is a testament to how desirable our campus community has become for growing numbers of students, faculty and staff.  

UC fans enter the reopened Fifth Third Arena.

UC fans enter the reopened Fifth Third Arena during the Bearcats first game of the 2018-19 season. photo/Jay Yocis/UC Creative Services

For our many Bearcats sports fans, what excites you about athletics? 

NFL linebacker  Connor Barwin stands in his graduation gown inside Nippert Stadium with President Neville Pinto, Thomas Cassady and Mike Bohn.

NFL linebacker Connor Barwin returned to attend his graduation ceremony in 2017. From the left are Thomas Cassady, Barwin, President Pinto and Athletics Director Mike Bohn.

Most folks start with the success on the field. But I like to begin with the academic prowess of our scholar-athletes in the classroom. The average GPA of our student-athletes is 3.328. Last May, in the latest NCAA Academic Progress Rate report, 11 of 17 Bearcats teams received a perfect APR score and the Bearcats reached a school-record 988 APR (based on 2016-17). Having that context of academic success, in my mind, makes the on-field success even more impressive. In terms of excitement, our newly renovated Fifth Third Arena is spectacular. Our growing base of loyal fans deserve that type of first-class facility. I am also excited about the type of character-driven coaches that Mike Bohn is recruiting to lead our programs. For instance, Coach Michelle Clark-Heard has the women’s basketball team on the verge of their best season in 16 years. Coach Scott Googins is building the right type of culture within our baseball program. Mick Cronin has taken the Bearcats to the NCAA tourney the past eight seasons, and five of the last six senior classes have graduated everyone in the class. And Coach Luke Fickell led our football team to an 11-win season for the third time in program history. It is energizing to see our Athletics Department excel at such a high level. 

What is the most fun and enjoyable part of your role as president?

I’m still a teacher and an academic at heart, so being with students tops my list. I enjoy hosting student groups at sporting events, at our annual international student dinner and at pop-up events to share treats during finals week each semester. Last year, my wife and I served pancakes for a midnight breakfast in conjunction with the Wellness Center for Stress Less Fest, and we plan to do so again this year. New Student Convocation and Commencement are my favorite times to be with students. I love the sense of promise that I see in the faces of our thousands of incoming students each August and the sense of pride and future potential as thousands of graduates shake my hand on the platform at graduation. 

UC President Neville Pinto and a recent graduate celebrate during commencement.

President Pinto celebrates with the final student to cross the stage during the undergraduate commencement ceremony in December 2017.

Looking ahead, what exciting projects are on the horizon?

Two projects quickly come to mind. One is preparations for our comprehensive fundraising campaign. Our Bicentennial celebration will continue through 2019 and provide a springboard to launch the public phase of the campaign. It will be impact-based and resonate with our Next Lives Here strategic direction. An underlined theme will address student affordability and access, to build financial support for more students to experience the transformational impact of the highest-quality university education at the University of Cincinnati.  The college education that UC provides changes the lives of our students, who in turn will transform the lives of their family members and the community.

Rendering of the new Digital Futures building at UC

Rendering of the Digital Futures building to be constructed adjacent to the 1819 Innovation Hub in the Uptown Innovation Corridor.

The second is our upcoming Digital Futures building. As the 21st century continues to advance, the digital realm is changing every aspect of our lives and every discipline. This is a time of challenge and opportunity. Across the street from 1819, we will be leasing a 180,000-square-foot facility to create a research commons focusing on the digital future. Slated to open in 2021, it will create a space for our faculty and students to imagine what’s next and discover new knowledge, technologies and approaches that connect to this revolutionary transformation. 

When it comes to UC’s future, you often say that the best is yet to come. What does that mean for you?

It sums up what I hear in my visits with alumni, donors and business leaders here in this region and across the country. They emanate a sense of excitement about UC’s growth and momentum and the potential for the university to rise even higher in reputation and reach—to always strive for greater impact and the next horizon.


Featured image at top: UC alumnus and civil rights icon Marian Spencer with UC President Neville Pinto at a UC ceremony where she was honored.


Next Lives Here

UC's new strategic direction is designed to lead urban public universities into a new era of innovation and impact. Learn more about Next Lives Here.