President's Message: McMicken Recommendations
Dear UC Community,
I write today to share with you my recommendations to the Board of Trustees regarding the life and legacy of Charles McMicken. As you may recall, a special university-wide working group was charged last academic year with examining McMicken’s historical affiliation with the College of Arts and Sciences. Before commenting on their work, I want to personally thank each of these dedicated individuals, and particularly the co-chairs, for the countless hours they committed to this effort.
After several months of research, analysis, input gathering and dialogue, the working group released a detailed report of their findings and recommendations in November. The full report delivers a notable level of context and nuance that is hard to replicate in summary form. All of us would be well served to read the report in its entirety.
As I reflected on how best to respond to the report, my head nudged my heart for guidance. How do we elevate this decision off the page and into the lives of real people who have invested their hopes and dreams in our campus community?
For me, clarity came with a concrete example: the diploma. For graduates, the diploma is central and cherished. It is displayed prominently in your home or office to let the world know a simple truth: I am a Bearcat. Your affirmation is both humbling and inspiring to us. Indeed, no better proof point of our impact exists than your decision to proudly display your diploma for everyone to see. In short, a UC diploma is a tie that binds all of us together—bridging the distance of time, geography, background, belief, identity, politics and perspective. It symbolizes that UC’s tent is big enough to showcase all of our stories.
So what happens to our Arts and Sciences alumni when that prized possession causes pain or resentment because it memorializes McMicken? Would you want a daily reminder of this on your wall? And how can our future possibly be brighter if members of our Bearcats family feel the need to hide that diploma because of McMicken and his desire to fortify exclusion at our institution?
The same logic extends to our students, faculty and staff in the College of Arts and Sciences. If this name is unwanted, how can it be anything but a distraction from the College’s mission? Or to its deep-seated commitment to access and inclusion? Would you want this concern to define your day? And how can our future possibly be brighter if members of our Bearcats family feel forced to identify with a historical figure whose biography reflects division and oppression rather than unity and freedom?
Truth be told, McMicken’s place in our history has been too tidy for too long. There is no visible sign we have wrestled with his troubling past. No sign we stand, united and unequivocal, against his exploitation of enslaved people. No sign we own up to the paradox of his life: namely, his philanthropy helped get us here, but his legacy, left unquestioned, won’t get us there—to a more vibrant tomorrow. In short, no sign leaves little doubt we have yet to come to terms with the problematic nature of McMicken’s role in our history. Now is the time for us to act on the working group’s well-honed findings and recommendations.
With this brief context and reflection, and based on the working group’s report, I am submitting the following recommendations to the Board of Trustees for review and action.
Based on the evidence and rationale set forth in the report, I believe using Charles McMicken’s name in affiliation with the College of Arts and Sciences has significant detrimental effects on the university’s mission and core values. Therefore, I endorse the working group’s recommendation to “discontinue the practice of using Charles McMicken’s name in affiliation with the College of Arts and Sciences—the academic unit itself—whenever formally or informally referring to the College.” By way of context, it is worth underscoring the report’s finding that “McMicken’s will neither requested nor required that his name be associated formally with the university in any way. Moreover, the university’s use of the McMicken surname in an honorific or commemorative fashion was inconsistent and informal.” Moving forward, I recommend the entity henceforth be known as the “College of Arts and Sciences.”
As the report confirms, McMicken’s role as a philanthropist cannot be denied. Maintaining his name in conjunction with the building and other spaces (e.g., McMicken Hall, McMicken Circle, McMicken Commons and “Mick and Mack” statues and restaurant) is a more fitting tribute to his original gift (building and land) and its positive impact on the university, presuming it can be contextualized appropriately. Accordingly, in close proximity to these named spaces, I recommend creating digital displays that more fully and fairly represent McMicken so that his “legacies and the university’s relationship to him, in all their complexities, remain a vital and living part of the university’s history.”
Given the UC Foundation’s purview of giving societies and scholarships that bear McMicken’s name, I have charged UCF’s leadership and governing board with assessing those usages in light of the report and the aforementioned recommendations.
Lastly, I fully support the report’s conclusion that the university create “an established process that permits proposals for assessment of a tradition, practice or symbol for possible change to be considered in a respectful, deliberative and orderly fashion.”
In terms of process, the Board of Trustees is expected to review these recommendations at their next meeting.
Our Future is Now
I realize good and thoughtful people find themselves on opposite sides of this issue. From my perspective, the difference has less to do with Charles McMicken per se and more to do with our varying conceptions of history and time. In effect, we seem to be struggling with a complex question: Is it appropriate to apply present-day standards to long-past behavior?
At first glance, it seems utterly unfair to do so. After all, it is hard to do better, as the saying goes, when we don’t know better. In McMicken’s case, though, plenty of his peers did not need the advantage of hindsight to know slavery was evil. The Cincinnati that McMicken knew was more than a city of its time. It was a community intent on rising above its time to serve as one of the nation’s historic gateways to freedom, dignity and hope.
Stepping back from the aforementioned question, what comes into focus is the realization that neither the past nor the present should win the day. Because the wiser question for academic institutions like ours points us positively forward: How can we prepare future leaders and innovators for a tomorrow that will be decidedly different from today?
Envisioning UC’s next 200 years, I believe our future will be more inclusive and dynamic, not less. Our goal then should be to welcome—with open minds and sincere hearts—more people from more backgrounds with more distinct ideas into our community. Saying so is, frankly, the easy part. The tougher task? To admit when we fail to shape our ideal future in the here and now. Which is why speaking out against exclusion is as essential as speaking up for inclusion. Our bigger, bolder future depends on it. Right here. Right now.
If there is any doubt our future is now, we can look no further than our past for guidance. Though McMicken’s bequest called for our University to educate “white boys and girls,” the reality is that our institution instead enrolled African Americans as early as the 1880s.
If our predecessors were wise and courageous enough to listen to the future and shape it accordingly, we can too.
Some may view these recommended changes as unnecessary. Others may view them as insufficient. And still others may agree or find fault elsewhere. Disagreement is not defeat. If anything, it should be expected, or better yet encouraged, in a learning community as demographically rich and intellectually honest as ours. But the soul of this great institution will suffer if we allow our differences to be used against us, to sow disrespect or division.
More than ever, we must stand together. Not despite our differences, but because of them. Because it is the combination of uniqueness and unity that makes our University so special, lasting and needed. Here, again, our past not only informs but also inspires. Atop our University’s seal is the Latin phrase Juncta Juvant, which translates to “Strength in Unity.” It is our lodestar for this moment, as well as for any other.
The second, perhaps less known, motto that adorns our seal is Alta Petit, which translates to “Seek the Highest.” For me, the intent is clear: We must never stop learning, improving, aspiring and excelling. So, too, is the implication: We must be the type of institution that is brave enough to revise itself—even, perhaps especially, as it remembers.
Working thoughtfully to balance the revising and the remembering remains, in the words of the late Toni Morrison, at the heart of a great university. In Professor Morrison’s words, “No student is expected to be content with the acquisition of data, of information. It is demanded of her to move beyond the stasis of what is known to what is knowable; toward more and other knowledge, knowledge that might one day contribute to the wisdom of the past.” She continues, “Tradition is not there to bedevil us. It is there for us. It is not there to arrest us; it is there to arouse us. That is the continuum; that is the reconcilability of tradition and the future.”
My sincere hope is that we, as a Bearcats family, can rally around the wisdom of our mottos to further advance our shared devotion to this great institution—to our past, our present and our future.
Neville G. Pinto