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Q&A: University of Cincinnati's new president wants nimble graduates who succeed in global economy

Posted at 7:00 AM, Feb 28, 2017

CINCINNATI -- When new University of Cincinnati President Neville Pinto left UC in 2011 after 26 years to seek a fresh challenge at University of Louisville, he and his wife joked that it was pretty mild as midlife crises go.

Pinto, 59, flourished at UL, rising to become acting president. But the opportunity to return to UC proved irresistible. WCPO sat down with the newly installed leader to learn more about his plans for the university.

Q: You clearly have a deep affection for UC. When you left for U of L after so many years here, did you have an eye on returning to UC some day?

There was a degree of excitement to go to a new challenge. I felt that I had become very comfortable here at the University of Cincinnati, and I worried about me getting stale at the job. I wondered whether I would I be successful with a new challenge.

There was a degree of excitement about that move (to Louisville).

We came into Cincinnati to see friends, even spending Labor Day here. When this opportunity came up, we were sort of primed for that move. (Our goal is to) finish out and retire here.

Q: You've mentioned that enrollment should be about the optimal size to deliver on UC's mission rather than being about growth for the sake of growth. How does that translate into your plan for the future?

I don't have a plan that's specific. I have ideas and philosophies that I'm going to share with our faculty and stakeholders.

Enrollment and growth is a very fundamental question to the university. That's our main business and our main product. But there is also the business side of education.

I would look at it from the output end. How are our students doing when they graduate? Are they in demand in society? The six-year graduation rate is about 65 percent. What do we want to attain? Based on that, we ratchet back. You want to look at your outputs before you adjust your inputs. (We want to) grow the university in quality and reputation.

Q: You were instrumental in launching the FirstBuild concept at University of Louisville (a collaboration among academics, General Electric and outside entrepreneurs to get products designed and on the market more quickly). In your role as president rather than dean of engineering, will you have the opportunity to foster innovations with research and development at UC?

That was one of the opportunities that made this job so attractive. We did a lot here (developing) the 1819 Building (the former Sears department store on Reading Road and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive that will connect entrepreneurs with UC students and researchers). To me that was terrific that UC had already seen that as an enormous opportunity.

RELATED: University of Cincinnati's Avondale research hub triples in size with new tenants

The 1819 Innovation Hub is moving into a former Sears department store, which is being dramatically renovated and expanded.

We have to give them those experiences while they're in college.

Q: UC is still recovering from the shooting death of Sam DuBose, which thrust the university into a larger national conversation about race and policing. How would you characterize the state of police/community relations as you take office, and what are your goals for further improvement?

I want to emphasize how sorry I am for what happened. It's a tragedy of unmitigated proportions. We have to make sure that never happens again. I believe the university is working very hard to change the culture on campus. A safety department is very important to students, and we need to work ensure that we our police are well trained.

(An outside report produced) significant recommendations that we'll pursue, and I have every confidence in (Vice President for Safety & Reform) Dr. Robin Engel. We've had a couple of conversations about what it will take to get us to where we will be a model for the country.

Q: UC is located within a city that is nearly half African-American but a metropolitan area that is about 12 percent black. Do you aspire to increase the number of black students, and do you have a goal that would represent fair representation?

We are very proud of our mission of access and inclusion. We have to do better not only because it's the right thing to do but because it's strategically important. If we are to be a destination for students throughout the country, we have to be a campus welcome to all students.

This is not about taking quick action. I see it more as a long-range opportunity. What we need to do is marshal all our resources and connect with our community partners, K-12 schools, churches, businesses, and ensure that every child in this city has an equal opportunity. We want them connecting with our folks so they understand there is an exciting world out there and to fully enjoy their lives they need an education. I expect that will be a major thing that we'll be working on.

Q: I reached out to members of AAUP (faculty union) to ask what's on their minds, and they expressed concern about the high price of athletics and the return on investments like renovations at Nippert and Fifth Third Bank Arena. What's your take on the status quo, and what are your hopes for the future of athletics, including the quest to join a higher profile conference.

If you look at public institutions across the country, you see that strong academic universities have strong athletic programs. That's something that has to go hand in hand.

 

Athletics is an important form of entertainment for our society. When it works well, it is a positive. We have to get the best leaders in everything, and we have to be competitive, get to winning. I understand the perspective of faculty, and I've met with (Athletic Director) Mike Bohn, and I'm very confident in his abilities.

Q: Faculty also wanted to know more about how UC can balance its aspirations to serve a national and international market without de-emphasizing its mission to serve the Tri-State. How do you strike that balance?

Diversity and inclusion does include globalization for our students. The reality is that only a smaller fraction of our students can go abroad for an experience. It's more cost-effective to bring students here for our (local) students (to interact with).

Access does not mean lowering our standards. A quick solution is lowering your standards. That's not what this about. We've come too far. 

Q: You've witnessed big changes in higher education during your career, and you've mentioned the need to look far into the future to prepare for what's to come. What's next?

The professional work environment for students is going to be substantially different. They're going to be required to still be educated at the same level, with disciplinary knowledge, to think critically, to communicate, soft skills, working on teams. But over and above that, I think they're going to be challenged to be really creative and adaptable. And to me the ability to work in an environment that crosses national boundaries but in a virtual world will be critical.

It's going to be a deliberate strategy for developing a competitive and economic advantage. We need to educate them in that. We have to partner with (employers) while the student is being educated. We're well-positioned to do that. You can think of this as Co-op 2.0.

A traditional co-op involves a physical move, you set up a curriculum, spend a semester here and work a semester there. Now need an integration of that work experience. With an 1819 Building type of facility, student can spend time there and on campus in the same day.

What you need to do is now is think about is how you connect through social platform media. I think it slowly evolve into that.

Q: Your elevator pitch to prospective students?

This is a university that prides itself in educating you to be ready for the world into which you graduate. Our focus is on experiential education, and we are always pushing the boundaries.

I'm very glad to be here. I feel very privileged with this position. My heart is with this university, and I'll give it my best shot.

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