CINCINNATI — A report recommends the University of Cincinnati stop using the name of Charles McMicken, the 19th-century slaveowner whose posthumous donations helped found the school, to refer to its College of Arts and Sciences, following a year-long re-examination of his legacy.
University President Neville Pinto appointed a working group of faculty, board members and student government leaders to weigh the question at the end of 2018, after UC’s student government voted to remove the name from the college. Students who supported the removal at the time told campus newspaper The News Record they believed the school could continue to acknowledge its history without honoring a man who bequeathed land and money specifically for a college “where white boys and girls might be taught.”
The working group agreed.
Its final report, which utilized student and alumni feedback, looked to other universities for examples and studied the history of McMicken College of Arts and Sciences, argues that continuing to use McMicken’s name would associate the school with ideas that do not reflect or support its mission of "excellence and diversity" and potentially create an unwelcoming environment for black students. Objections to its use aren’t new – they date back decades, nearly as long as the name had been in formal use.
“Discontinuing the practice is by no means an erasure of history,” members wrote in their final report, adding: “Charles McMicken’s legacies and the university’s relationship to him, in all their complexities, remain a vital and living part of the university’s history. It is incumbent upon the university to find appropriate means to present that history fully, fairly and accurately, and in ways that make that history a valuable source of education that is accessible to all.”
McMicken, who died in 1858, was a Pennsylvania businessman and landlord who bought, sold and rented slaves throughout his life. He also fathered two black children by women he owned, acknowledging neither of them in surviving personal correspondence or in the will that set aside land and cash for city of Cincinnati to build a school.
His name did not become formally associated with the university’s arts and sciences college until around 1953, according to the working group. By the ‘70s, black student movements openly objected to the name, arguing – like the students who voted to remove it in 2018 – that it associated the university with views that didn’t align with its mission.
The university resumed the use of the name in the early 2000s, then began to phase it out in 2017 following more objections from student groups.
The complete report addresses common objections to the name – that it gives McMicken more honor than he deserves – and objections to its removal – that it would represent a dishonest attempt to scrub stains off of the university's history or unfairly judge a historical figure by modern moral standards.
Members of the working group wrote that they agreed no person is perfect but that the university as it exists in 2019 owes more to its community than to tradition. Additionally, they wrote, changing one tradition does not represent a wholesale erasure of history as long as the university works to make that history appropriately available in other places.
“When seeing Charles McMicken honored as the namesake of the College of Arts and Sciences, people cannot be expected to avert their eyes from his legacy as a donor who intended his bequest to be used to establish ‘two Colleges for the education of white Boys and Girls’ – a segregationist legacy made only more acute by McMicken’s experience as a slaveholder,” the working group wrote in its report. “While UC understandably may wish to acknowledge and show gratitude for McMicken’s contribution and his influential role in its history, his racially discriminatory and segregationist aims for UC constitute a legacy that is plainly relevant to his fundamental relationship with the university, fairly encompassed.”
The working group's members stressed that their report was a recommendation only for the College of Arts and Sciences, not for the street or honor society also named after McMicken. They recommended the university develop a set of naming guidelines to address other structures named after controversial figures in the future.
Read the full report for yourself here.