President's State of the University Report

UC: A Tower of Strength

The State of the University report I deliver to you now is not the one I envisioned just five weeks ago. Keeping in line with orders for sheltering in place, I am sharing this in writing rather than in person. 

First and foremost, I want to wish you and your loved ones good health. For any of you who have lost family, friends or neighbors, your Bearcats family grieves with you and I know that the pain and anguish is doubled by the isolation and restrictions on gatherings. 

These unimaginable times bring to mind three words from our alma mater.

Tower of Strength.

We cannot fully know what Otto Juettner intended when he wrote those words in 1907. 

Yet, as we cope with this global crisis, I know his words were prescient and never truer. The University of Cincinnati is that tower – a tower of bricks, not ivory.

Bricks of learning and student success. Bricks of 300,000 living alumni and those who came before them. Bricks of discovery, scholarship, creativity and innovation.  Bricks of trial and error. Bricks of compassionate and life-saving health care. 

Throughout UC’s history, our turret of strength has weathered catastrophes spanning floods, pandemics, wars, steep recessions and deep depressions. Our third century now opens with a new one that is not yet fully understood or defeated: COVID-19.

At this time, our university remains open, thanks to the rapid adjustments, sacrifices and very hard work of our entire UC community, but especially our faculty, who converted more than 8,000 in-person courses to remote teaching. I want to express my heartfelt appreciation to all divisions, departments and units for their towering efforts. 

One lesson revealed in all that has been happening is the essential and relevant role of our nation’s research universities, especially Carnegie 1 Research institutions such as the University of Cincinnati. Without the warnings of an approaching pandemic from scientists around the world, and the availability of knowledge and experts to guide our response, the grave reality of our current crisis would be even worse. In facing this threat, our Academic Health Center and our research mission have been key assets putting our home region and Ohio in a better position to manage it. 

I am enormously proud of our students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends, and how all of you have risen to the challenge to forge ahead. Let me share several examples directly related to the COVID-19 crisis:

  • The quintessential exemplars are our colleagues at the Academic Health Center and UC Health, the true heroes on the front lines of this disease every day.  Their clinical work, as well as the research and expertise they share around the world, remind us of the reasons our research university matters so much. 
  • Colleges and departments across the university have been donating to UC Health medical staff any equipment they have in their labs, including much-in-demand chemical reagents, masks, goggles and gloves.
  • UC College of Medicine students are running “Cincinnati + NKY COVID-19 Match” – a network connecting healthy, younger volunteers to older and more vulnerable citizens to run errands.
  • Building on the work of Distinguished Research Professor Chong Ahn and  alumnus Jay Han, a startup has developed faster testing for COVID-19 via a DNA/RNA detection device.
  • Students, faculty and staff in the College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning and in our 1819 Innovation Hub are designing quick and creative solutions for the shortage of personal protective equipment, sewing fabric masks and designing face shields. 
  • Education faculty and students in our College of Education, Criminal Justice and Human Services are assisting area K-12 teachers, including at the Cincinnati Public Schools, in creating and implementing online lesson plans. 
  • To support our most vulnerable students, the UC Foundation, working with student leaders and Student Affairs, created a Student Emergency Relief Fund. We are grateful to the hundreds of donors who generously responded. 
  • UC alumni created a cyber showcase to replace the College-Conservatory of Music’s annual Senior Showcase in New York so that the Broadway dreams that the Class of 2020 has worked so hard to achieve would not be dashed. 
  • Given the impact of the outbreak on the mental well-being and health of our students, faculty and staff, the Provost Office is coordinating an assessment of our current offerings of support across the university. Faculty and staff can find tips and resources  at Emotional Wellness 101 and Helpful Resources on the Bearcats Landing intranet. 

I have charged our leadership to approach the pandemic and evolving economic crisis with a three-phase strategy of protection, management and reboot. We are, first and foremost, safeguarding the health, safety and wellbeing of our university community and the community at large. We are also planning for any possibilities, continuing to approach the present and the future with hope and optimism.

Although we may be separated physically, we are still one UC. Let’s take a moment to celebrate key accomplishments this year and discuss potential challenges that lie ahead:

Educating the next generation of leaders. Defying the demographic curve, in August 2019 UC once again surpassed record-breaking enrollment for the seventh consecutive year. And we attained a new high of 71.6% in our six-year graduation rate. Looking forward to Academic Year 2020-21, we received a record number of applicants for our programs. The deteriorating macro-economic climate will challenge us, like never before, to support the ambitions of these students as well as those currently enrolled in our programs. We are determined to overcome these hurdles. 

Advancing new knowledge and creativity to make the world a better place. The very good news for this year is that the research awards and contracts of the University of Cincinnati and our affiliates have reached the highest level in our history at $452 million (FY 2019). And our scholarly faculty continue to impressively advance the frontiers of knowledge and understanding in a broad array of fields of societal importance.  Our tower of research strength has a solid base to keep building brick by brick.

Unfortunately, beginning in March, the work of many researchers across the university came to a halt. Critical research continues, but non-critical research that is dependent upon campus facilities has come to a standstill. To those faculty and lab teams affected, I want you to know that I understand how devastating this is. 

Advocating for our university.  Be assured that university leadership and I are approaching state and national elected officials to urge their support during these unprecedented times. We are reminding them of the need to protect and invest in the excellence of our nation’s Carnegie Research 1 universities. We also continue to strongly advocate for additional regulatory relief and additional funding, especially for students in light of economic hardships placed on families and for research that has been disrupted.

Engaging with our community for powerful impact. In the months leading up to the pandemic, UC reached new heights in its partnerships with the community. Our Early IT Program in CECH, under the guidance of Dean Lawrence Johnson and Professor Hazem Said, grew from its  inception in 2017 into a national model serving  1,300 students throughout Ohio. The Ohio Cyber Range Institute marked its digital ribbon cutting at the Statehouse and established the preeminence of a multi-disciplinary faculty team from A&S, CEAS and CECH as the lead experts for Ohio. And in a truly redefining moment in early March, Governor Mike DeWine announced at the 1819 Innovation Hub  an unprecedented investment of $100 million from JobsOhio  to build out UC’s research enterprise, expand the number of our STEM graduates and create the Cincinnati Innovation District,  with the university as its research and talent engine.

Preparing for economic unknowns.  As we emerge from the health protection phase of our COVID-19 response, there will be a substantial economic aftermath to which we will be called to respond. Every sector of society is coming to grips with this reality. Although some will be hit harder than others, none will be insulated from these turbulent times, including higher education. We can anticipate challenging times ahead, especially as it relates to state subsidy, maintaining student enrollment and competing for research funds. As more economic information comes to light, know that I will keep you fully engaged in how we, together, will weather this storm.

Whether in extraordinary or ordinary times, UC’s role endures as a special and unique one. Together as one UC building a Tower of Strength, we will continue to aim high, to reach the objectives we have set for ourselves and to add our own bricks of fortification to this stronghold, this university we love.

Thank you for all you do on behalf of this great and grateful institution.

Neville G. Pinto