Scattered around the University of Cincinnati campus—and decorating a handful of buildings elsewhere in Cincinnati—you can still find UC seals in stone and stained glass bearing the date of 1870. This date marks the legal incorporation of the University of Cincinnati.
If that is the case, how can UC celebrate its 200th anniversary in 2019? The celebration appears to fall about 51 years too soon. To solve this riddle, we must dive into an arcane codicil of higher education etiquette known as the academic procession.
The academic procession originated as an actual procession. In fact, academic processions take place even today. Whenever a college or university inaugurates a new president, for example, it is expected that every other college in the region and many from throughout the world will send a representative to demonstrate, you know…collegiality.
Here is where etiquette enters the calculation. In what order shall all of these august representatives stroll to the hallowed strains of “Pomp & Circumstance” while flaunting their multicolored academic gowns? Alphabetical order? By color? Shortest to tallest? By tradition, the institutions line up in order of the founding date of the institution they represent, with the oldest universities at the front and the newest bringing up the rear.
In the United States, that generally means Harvard (1636) marches first, followed by the College of William & Mary (1693) and so on. If the ceremony is prestigious enough to draw international participation, Harvard can fall back in the ranks as the universities of Bologna (1088) and Oxford (1096) take the vanguard.
As you might imagine, this led some universities to embellish their origin stories into some fairly tortuous rationales to support the earliest founding date possible. For example, George E. Thomas writes in the Pennsylvania Gazette [Sept-Oct. 2002] about the University of Pennsylvania’s efforts to document an earlier founding date:
“…debate over the founding date of the University . . . began in 1896 when The Alumni Register promoted the story that the University’s origins lay in George Whitefield’s Charity School that was ostensibly founded in 1740. Because this school was to be located in the church building later acquired by the board founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1749 to house his new Academy, it could be claimed as the beginning of the University… this mergers-and-acquisitions model of institutional history had the desired effect of placing Penn ahead of Princeton in academic processions that in turn represented, in highly schematized form, the pecking order of American higher education.”
While exemplifying this grand tradition, the University of Cincinnati’s promotion of 1819 as its founding date is far more straightforward and far less convoluted. The rules of academic procession allow a university to legitimately claim the founding date of its earliest division.
So, although the legal entity known as the University of Cincinnati was not chartered until 1870, UC can trace its founding to 1819 based on the charters issued in January of that year by the Ohio General Assembly to the Medical College of Ohio and to Cincinnati College. The Medical College of Ohio later merged with UC’s medical school and Cincinnati College’s law school later merged with UC’s College of Law.
In UC’s case, there is more to the story than a simple “mergers and acquisitions” explanation, because Cincinnati College—the organization founded in 1819—continues to exist as a functioning legal entity. When the Cincinnati Law School merged with UC’s Law Department in 1918, it brought with it the endowment funds of the Cincinnati College of which it was a subsidiary. To oversee and administer this endowment, the president of the University of Cincinnati must annually preside over a meeting of the shareholders of the “President, Trustees and Faculty of the Cincinnati College,” founded in 1819.
Every year, UC’s president is re-elected as president of the Cincinnati College. The dean of the UC College of Law and the members of the UC President’s Cabinet serve as trustees of Cincinnati College. The meetings of this august body rarely last more than five minutes, but this annual mandatory ritual allows UC to enjoy the financial benefits of the Cincinnati College endowments that now total around $10 million.
Back to those stone University of Cincinnati seals. You can calculate the age of the seal from the date shown. From 1904 through the 1930s, UC’s official seal showed an 1870 founding date. If you see a seal with two dates—1870 and 1819—it was probably made or published in the 1940s or 1950s. The exclusive use of 1819 was not official until the late 1950s.
The true champion of UC’s 1819 founding date was Walter C. Langsam, who served as UC president from 1955 to 1971. Shortly after he was appointed UC president, Langsam learned that his wife, Julia, was a descendent of the family of John Hough James, who was among the first graduates of Cincinnati College. This family connection, along with Langsam’s undoubted inclination to march ahead of a parvenu like The Ohio State University (1870) in the academic procession, led him to codify the earlier founding date.
By embracing the 1819 charters of Cincinnati College and the Medical College of Ohio, the University of Cincinnati shares a bicentennial with the University of Virginia, founded by Thomas Jefferson.
Oldest United States Public Universities:
1) College of William & Mary 1693
2) University of Delaware 1743
3) Rutgers University 1766
4) University of Georgia 1785
5) University of Pittsburgh 1787
6) University of North Carolina 1789
7) University of Vermont 1791
8) University of Tennessee 1794
9) University of South Carolina 1801
10) West Point 1802
11) Ohio University 1804
12) Miami University 1809
13) University of Michigan 1817
14) University of Cincinnati 1819
14) University of Virginia 1819
16) Indiana University 1820
This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities