An 11-year-old David Fleshler sat patiently at his desk at Dulwich College Preparatory School in London listening to a lecture on America’s Revolutionary War.
The British didn’t view that piece of history the same way Americans did, remembered Fleshler, whose father, Bertram, was a gastroenterologist on a year-long sabbatical at King’s College London in 1968.
“It was clear that they looked at the revolutionaries as overthrowing the status quo,” said Fleshler, sitting in his office in Tomlinson Hall at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. For the last three-and-a-half years, Fleshler, 55, has served as the university’s associate provost of international affairs.
“The British thought the status quo was pretty good, that they were treating the colonists in the U.S. well and there was no reason for them to be overthrown,” he said. “When I would try to speak up in class and say, ‘Well, that’s not quite how it’s looked at in the U.S.,’ it wasn’t taken the same way that it would have been taken here.”
Fleshler recognized that year that different cultures look at the same body of historical work through different lenses; a lesson that’s quickly become part of the ethos at CWRU – thanks in large part to Fleshler’s leadership.
His position is the first of its kind at the university. When Barbara Snyder became CWRU’s president in 2007, one of her first tasks was implementing a five-year strategic plan. Part of that plan called for an internationalization committee, which Fleshler joined.
The committee’s aim was to enhance the school’s international focus.
Fleshler brought global experience to the table, having served as director of the then-Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland’s department of international operations and having done consulting work with the Ohio Board of Regents to lead a statewide effort to globalize the University System of Ohio.
“He obviously had tremendous experience in international outreach,” Snyder said. “He also had the kind of personality and credibility that we thought would work well in the academic environment. … David did a wonderful job in the strategic planning process in engaging a lot of different stakeholders and it was a very, very good process that brought us to where we are today.”
But Fleshler’s work with the Federation and the OBR weren’t the only experiences that got him where he is today.
Fleshler’s parents, Bertram and Jean, met while the American-born Bertram worked as a NATO doctor in Oslo, Norway, and Jean, a native Englander, worked at Britain’s Norwegian embassy in the same city.
Internationalism is in Fleshler’s blood.
“From a pretty early age, I felt like I had a worldview that maybe not everybody is privileged to have experienced through their parents and through their families,” Fleshler said. “When I was in college, I took a year abroad in Israel. I can tell you having lived it that these really are life-changing experiences. You go and you live in another culture and you’re forced to figure out, ‘How do other people think? How do I get along in the culture?’ It really makes you appreciate other people, who they are, what the history is about.”
Fleshler grew up in Pepper Pike and attended Park Synagogue, where he was the shul’s first non-Saturday morning bar mitzvah.
“I went to Sunday school but not Hebrew school,” he said. “And yet I and my parents wanted me to have a bar mitzvah. In those days, you were supposed to go to Hebrew school in order to be bar mitzvah, but when it came time for that, they said, ‘Well, you didn’t go to Hebrew school. You can have a bar mitzvah but you can’t have it on Saturday morning at the regular service; you have to have it at the evening service.”
Like his bar mitzvah, his childhood and young adulthood were, at the time, atypical.
His travel resume reads like a frequent flyer’s fantasy: London to attend middle school; Ann Arbor to attend the University of Michigan; Boston to attend Boston College law school; Jerusalem to attend Hebrew University; Tel Aviv to work as an import/export coordinator; Tokyo to work as a marketing consultant.
“From a very early age, I just had a bug that this was the kind of stuff I was passionate about,” Fleshler explained.
Fleshler initially channeled that passion in 2000 when he was hired as director of Federation’s international operations department, where he forged relationships with organizations in Israel and Russia while securing $17 million annually from fundraising partners.
After four years, he became assistant vice president and director of the department of allocations and agency partnerships, overseeing the Campaign for Jewish Needs and the allocation of funds. He was the chief professional of the committee that allocated more than $32.7 million in 2008, but his international focus was lessened as a result of his new responsibilities.
“Frankly, that was the thing that I was most interested in and most passionate about,” Fleshler said. “When I came into the Federation, I came in because of the international work the Federation was doing.”
He was in a program to become head of a Federation before he realized he wasn’t sure that’s what he wanted.
“It’s very clear that as head of a Federation, the focus is not on international issues,” he said. “In that role, you’re almost a public official. You really have to be in front of the community a lot. At some point, I realized that really wasn’t what I wanted to do. The second thing is – and this changes after you’ve been there for a while – the initial metric as head of a Federation is how much dollars you can raise, which is perfectly appropriate for the Federation but wasn’t the thing I wanted as my focal point.”
Fleshler rekindled his passion for international affairs through his position at CWRU and has already found success.
Room for growth
When the university hired Fleshler in May 2009, he had one assistant and a small office and international students comprised only 2.5 to 3 percent of the undergraduate student body.
Today, that number is at 8 percent and climbing. Fleshler has an entire wing in the specially created Center for International Affairs in Tomlinson Hall, which buzzes with activity. Students walk in and out of Fleshler’s wing, which now contains 10 staffers.
“It’s been a fairly significant growth in the number and the percentage of international students at Case Western Reserve,” Fleshler said. “That’s quite intentional. As a tier-one research university, it’s pretty clear that when students graduate they need to understand how the world operates. They’re going into a world that might not be so different from the world you grew up in but is quite different from the world I grew up in.”
Snyder said Fleshler has done a “terrific job” in executing the school’s early goals and praised his collaborative effort between students, staff, faculty, trustees and alumni.
Snyder’s five-year strategic plan is nearing its end, but the next one won’t include an international committee – international conversations are permeating every entity and individual taking part in the next visioning process, she said, adding that’s a testament to Fleshler’s work.
“It makes clear that David is already having an impact on our plans and those plans are already beginning to bear fruit,” Snyder said. “The fact that internationalization is assumed to be part of the conversation all the time when we talk about our future is a really important statement about the work that a lot of people are doing and that David is leading on our campus. We feel very fortunate to have a leader like David as the head of our internationalization efforts.”
Fleshler, who lives in Cleveland Heights with his wife, Carla Tricarichi, and daughters Tamar, 17, and Talia, 16, said he’s led a fortunate life.
“I say to people all the time that I think I’ve had the two best jobs in town,” he said. “Certainly the two best international jobs in town. Cleveland is not quite like New York or Washington, where there’s a flood of international activity and people. There are in different ways, just not to the same extent, but to have two senior international jobs, one at a university and one at a major nonprofit organization, has been a huge privilege for me.”
David Fleshler / Quick look
OCCUPATION: Associate provost of international affairs, Case Western Reserve University
RESIDENCE: Cleveland Heights
SYNAGOGUE: Park Synagogue
NEVER SAY NEVER: “I never thought I’d be in Cleveland. I left to go to school in 1979 and I never thought I would come back. I came back after law school partly because I had family here, but in many ways primarily because of my job (at Arter & Hadden). I knew I’d be able to develop myself as a lawyer. I met my wife; she’s from here so we stayed. One thing sort of leads to another.”