My Quest for a Just Community
by Mitchel D. Livingston
According to the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber, I am a Great Living Cincinnatian.
It is a grand title, one that my wife, Carol, has a hard time taking seriously. This recognition is an affirmation of a quest that began three decades ago. It was my quest for a Just Community that brought me and my family to Cincinnati, and it was the University of Cincinnati that helped me fulfill that quest.
My quest began in Albany, New York, where I arrived as vice president for student affairs of the SUNY campus there in 1987 after a stint as dean of students at Ohio State University in Columbus. The Albany experience was part of a search for something I had not found at four other universities, mostly midwestern. I was attempting to find a broader perspective, a broader worldview. Maybe cosmopolitan is the word. Maybe something as simple as finding a more diverse community successfully living together in a college setting. Those were the defining characteristics of what I was looking for in the Albany experience, and Carol was very much a part of that decision. We wanted something unique and diverse before we ultimately settled back into a more familiar midwestern setting. While things had been relatively quiet around matters of diversity on midwestern campuses, diversity issues were boiling over on a weekly basis at Albany. It really disrupted our sense of the kind of community that we thought we had adopted. Columbus, Ohio, and Ohio State University did not have that edginess around differences. There were tensions, certainly, and people had their issues with bias and prejudice and discrimination, but it was polite, behind the scenes. You didn’t talk about it, because if you talked about it you would only make matters worse. Diversity was something that people were uncomfortable addressing, either in productive or unproductive ways. They ignored it. Just plain ignored it. In New York, it was in your face. All the time. If you didn’t do something about it, it really went beyond civility. It tore at the fabric of what a university community should be.
The biggest pressure in Albany was around demographics. The campus was fairly equally divided among “minorities” who constituted approximately a third of the total population. There were Asians, African Americans, Hispanics, Jews, all participating in a well-recognized institution that provided wonderful opportunities.
But being close to New York City allowed all the politics of the city to spill over onto the campus. Student groups set up tables and organized demonstrations, and brought in proxy speakers to the campus who would essentially just shout at one another. Black–white conflicts, Hispanic–black conflicts, you name it. That was the dynamic that we had. The challenge for me as a vice president for student affairs was: How do you make peace when a community so beautiful on the surface has such a difficult time living together in harmony?
In the middle of asking myself that question, I met a fantastic faculty member, Morris Berger, who taught ethics in the College of Education. He became my mentor over time and we discussed serious issues. What’s happening in our society?
What’s happening in our community? What can we do about it? About that same time, I came across a book that really captured my imagination, Campus Life: In Search of Community, written by Ernest Boyer. At the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, Boyer conducted a study of 300 executives at public and private, large and small, urban and rural campuses around the country, asking one fundamental question: What is your biggest challenge? The most frequent answer that was given was, “the conspicuous absence of community.”
You might have expected other answers, such as the changing demographic of our campuses, financial concerns, decaying infrastructure, or replacing an aging professoriate. But the issue that seemed most perplexing to the executive leadership was the conspicuous absence of community. That was defined in a lot of different ways: among faculty, it meant commitment to their respective disciplines, to their granting agencies, and to the external world. Among students, it was the challenge presented by coming out of a suburban or an urban environment, with all that I bring in my background and experience, and of encountering people who are so dramatically different from me. How can I make that a positive rather than a negative?
Most faculty and students come to campus hopeful and optimistic about diversity. They choose a diverse campus, but often find that they have neither the tools nor the resources nor the infrastructure on campus to guide them in creating a positive experience. How do you get a sense of wholeness out of that? How do you reconcile a situation in which everyone recognizes the value of diversity, but does not have the wherewithal, the resources, the ideals that would realize what they felt in their hearts when they saw conflict with their eyes?
Boyer identified six organizing principles around which a community could rally and organize to address these issues. One of those principles happened to be Just Community, by which he meant justice as fairness. That comes to us from John Rawls, a social philosopher who defined a liberal theory of justice, but the simple version of it is justice as fairness. Boyer recommended that if leadership really wanted to take on these kinds of challenges, it should begin by creating fairness, using Just Community as an organizing principle.
I borrowed that notion. I really liked the idea. Organizations have their scripts. They have their values. The Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, fraternities and sororities, the Masons, the Links, they all have language that they aspire to, and that’s a good thing. It gives definition. It draws boundaries. It tells the world who you are and what you are all about.
But Boyer’s recommendations were prescriptive. When I started a dialog on the Albany campus, the prescriptive approach faced intense opposition. People really did not like being told what to do. And I remember being caught, feeling that I was trying to do a good thing and getting a horrible response. So I thought, why don’t we start a dialog about what it is we want for ourselves? Let’s stop fussing at one another and define what it is we want out of this experience. What is it that we most value? Why did we come here?
Once we started talking, we found that, interestingly enough, most people came for the same reasons, give or take, and after two years, we had a whole list of ideals that people said were important to them and they only wished that we could organize in a way that made it possible to live up to them. So, we promulgated that language, and had faculty incorporate it into their curricula. There were contests, plaques, lapel pins—all the kinds of things that remind people who we are and
what we are all about.
We ended up with two things. In a Socratic-Platonic dialog, we talked with one another and examined the depths of meaning in community. Justice was at the cornerstone of that discussion, that is, Just Community, and echoed some findings in Boyer’s work. Our discussions gave us seven ideals. When students and faculty and staff came onto the campus, they would be introduced to these ideals. People were told, it is your responsibility to engrain this into the discourse of your constituencies. We also had a mechanism to get ownership for these ideals. They weren’t imposed from outside. They came out of the conversations that we had with one another. The end product was these seven precious ideals that the community owned and created. And that is the genius, if there is genius, behind Just Community.
Morris Berger and I were invited to take our Just Community experience to Israel, to the first international conference of its kind on multicultural societies with aspirations for social justice. We got to talk about our experience with a world community of educators. We saw that our conversations had a richness that went far beyond the lapel pins and lists of ideals.
Carol and I were at this time facing a personal question: What about our parents who were getting older? We really needed to get closer geographically to be there for them. It had to be the right time, so we didn’t disrupt our boys’ educations.
The shift from primary to middle school was a perfect opportunity for us to break after seven years of the Albany experience. And there was an opportunity in Cincinnati. I asked my colleagues: What can you tell me about Cincinnati? What do you know about the city? What do you know about the university? I received the worst feedback that I have ever been given professionally. They thought UC was located downtown, on the river. They thought it was a tiny school. They thought it was only a music academy. They thought it was a Catholic school. And on and on. They brought up Marge Schott and her ugly language about baseball players. They brought up the Ku Klux Klan cross on Fountain Square. Every negative thing that any community might have, that is what they remembered. When I asked about the university it was commingled with other institutions and it was clear the image of the university was completely obfuscated by negative features.
Coming to Cincinnati to interview with that backdrop of information, I wondered what I was doing, until I met UC’s president, Joe Steger. He said, I will make a commitment to you. This is a place that you really want to be. He said, you have been quite articulate about what you have done at Albany. We could use some of that here at the University of Cincinnati as well. You will have an opportunity to build in that regard. We are at a propitious moment in our ten-year master plan and there is a piece of that that looks like who you are and where you are right now. He said I understand the family situation; you’re a car drive away from your parents, four hours rather than an airplane ride. You can take care of your family; you can have a good experience with us. Joe said, I understand you have academic interests and I’ve got a meeting set up for you with the deans to see if they will accept you as a faculty member.
Dean Louis Castenell as an advocate helped me secure tenure as a full professor, which was defining and important to me and a qualitative step up in terms of my quest for community. I was given a chance to build through the master plan in brick and mortar, creating the Main Street concept and what that has meant to the campus.
Most importantly, I received a chance to convey a set of ideals utilizing the Just Community model. At UC, we had two-and-a-half years of conversations, enriched by a series of esteemed guest speakers. In Fifth-Third Arena, we brought Maya Angelou, Elie Weisel, Colin Powell, and others to help facilitate a dialog about the quest for community. As Maya Angelou said in our first session, with almost nine thousand people in attendance, “How grand it is that the University of Cincinnati would aspire to create a just and caring community,” and then told her life’s story and wove our quest into hers.
I can remember you could hear a pin drop in that vast arena. When Elie Weisel joined us and walked out on the stage, he looked up and said, “My God, I feel like a rock star.” Again the place went silent as we heard his story. Colin Powell, in a private moment, said it is with great respect and admiration that, as I am trying to become something other than a warrior, I admire your work because you are trying to aspire to be a just and caring community. All three of them did wonderful things to help us dig deep in our conversation about the principles that we committed to.
Both at Albany and at the University of Cincinnati, there were people who were captured by this because it was a passion that was in their hearts, too, and it was easy for them to join. At the University of Cincinnati, we had a core of people who have championed Just Community along the way. The one who stands out most in my mind is Lou Bilionis, someone who was captured by the way I talked about the justice model. As dean of the College of Law, engaged in a quest for community both as a legal construct and as a social construct, he gave himself fully to that effort. There were others as well, but none more passionate than Lou, as a practitioner of law, an intellectual examiner of the law, and someone who had the opportunity to apply it in a social, cultural sense around race and diversity and gender and to have a college that had that kind of conscience and what it valued both inside and outside the classroom with the Innocence Project and the work they do with women’s programs. It was ready-made for the two of us to become partners and to create a different form of community along the way. What we ended up with is a variety of different approaches to community building, the bronze plaques that say this is what is important to us, the orientation for entering freshmen who go through an experience where they make a pledge and commitment to these ideals, and an enormous banner that is almost as large as the challenge that it is supposed to take on. We gave a really good effort to get people’s attention directed to these ideals and in the main I think we did a good job. Each year, UC conducts an annual awards program where a faculty member, a staff person, and a student are celebrated for their contributions to Just Community. Joe Steger was good to his word. I had a chance to dream and to build in brick and mortar and in values, and he gave me the time that I spent generously to promote just Community not only on campus, but for over eighteen years in the larger community. There were ten different off-campus organizations that I faithfully served as either board chair, vice chair, or in a leadership role. In every instance, I found the opportunity to blend the work of those organizations that I served with the work that I did on the campus. With Bridges for a Just Community, for example, as a part of the orientation process we took busloads of UC students to the Freedom Center to march in those first few days at the beginning of the school year to trigger their conscience about social justice by putting feet in the street and then, perhaps, spending more time in an iconic facility like that.
Over the years, I received recognition and many awards. I do not serve for that reason, but it’s nice when people recognize what you do. I must say that recognition as a Great Living Cincinnatian is a whole different league. It is a summation of all of the other things that brought the university and the community together in real and productive ways. I remember saying at the Chamber event that my service was our way of saying, “We love you, Cincinnati.” And the Great Living Cincinnati honor is a way of Cincinnati saying, “We love you back.” That’s what I took out of that and it was the most poignant moment for me in this whole quest for community. Once again I felt like the university was being owned by its community through these various meaningful and oftentimes heart-wrenching experiences.
In my acceptance comments, I noted that there are fifty-four clearly defined neighborhoods that make up Cincinnati and I have had the opportunity to have my hands in all of them. I was able to embrace them and be engaged in them including working with the Boy Scouts, in high schools doing motivational speeches, on the football field with players. If you extend yourself and have a philosophy to commit in that way, it will give back to you exponentially. That’s not just my rhetoric, it’s my experience with ten different organizations from Bridges for a Just Community to Arts Wave, the Underground Railroad Freedom Center, and many others. I have said to colleagues, if you want to have a full life here, don’t
just look at what you do at your job. Take that into the community, make yourself available to serve that community and watch the way that it gives back to you. I have had three real opportunities to leave Cincinnati as vice president of larger institutions, or as president. Those opportunities allowed me to resolve the question: Do I need to be a university president before I am through? When I looked at all that I was able to do here in Cincinnati and the impact that I could make on my campus and larger community I asked myself, why do I need to be someplace else? One more rung up a ladder? It was easy to decide that the Cincinnati community was much more rewarding and more fulfilling. What human being is able to have this much joy, exposure, richness, connection, community that a university provided?
This is not the Cincinnati that was defined for me when I was leaving the State University of New York at Albany. This is a community that has its own way, its own values, its wholesomeness. Yes, it is conservative, but that is the least compelling characteristic of Cincinnati. The most significant one is, if you go after it, it will make opportunities for you to embrace it. And vice versa. As a result of that embrace, we made a decision to stay here. To retire here.
It was President Joseph A. Steger who said to me, “Forget about what all of those people said about this place. Let me tell you, you can dream here and the time is right, both in brick and mortar and your ideals. You will be welcome on this campus and in the larger community. Just know that the latter is not where I spend a lot of my time. If you want to engage with the community, you have my blessing.”
I dedicated my acceptance remarks at the Chamber Awards program to Joe as someone who dreamed for the university through his master plan and for the community through his appointment of at least this one vice president. I knew I carried that burden/opportunity everywhere. I became UC no matter where I was. Joe allowed me the opportunity. He was the dreamer, no longer with us. As I accepted the accolade of Great Living Cincinnatian, I looked up to the heavens and I said, “Joe, I hope I did you proud.”
For my wife, Carol, this is our community. We made that commitment. For our sons, Jeremy and Joshua, we raised them here and no one may say anything bad about their Cincinnati. We can rest assured that when we are no longer here they will be continuing our work. They know they have no other choice in their own hearts and minds. I once said to them that I don’t want to put any pressure on you boys and the response from both of them was, “It’s too late.”