When Ronald M. Berkman took over the presidency of Cleveland State University from Michael Schwartz in 2009, he rearranged the furniture. The president’s office in the administration building at 2350 Euclid Ave. looked across Euclid to the CSU science building, a 1969 bricklike structure in high Brutalist style. The boardroom was in the adjacent office, with wraparound corner windows.
Berkman flipped the rooms. He has since gone on to flip Cleveland State, turning it toward the city instead of showing Cleveland its backside.
The about-face of his offices is an apt symbol of Berkman’s tenure at Cleveland State, a longtime commuter school rapidly becoming a university of more than respectable ranking. Not only has Berkman elevated CSU’s academic status, he has steered the transformation of its neighborhood from a gaggle of institutional buildings with no discernible connection to Cleveland to a mixed-use neighborhood of distinctive architecture, a sense of adventure and a bond with a city deep into remake.
While the location of Cleveland didn’t attract him, the location of CSU did.
“For someone who’s always been interested in cities, it’s been fascinating to be in a city that’s in the process of reinvention,” he said.
Cleveland State University, with more than 17,000 students enrolled in more than 200 programs at its eight colleges, is now in full embrace of its namesake city. That’s largely due to Berkman, whom trustees have credited with helping upgrade recruitment and retention and creating partnerships with the likes of PlayhouseSquare, the Cleveland Metropolitan School District and NEOMED, or Northeast Ohio Medical University.
The younger of two sons of what he described as a lower-income working class family, the Brooklyn, N.Y., native called himself an “incredibly poor high school student.” But he caught intellectual fire at William Paterson College (now William Paterson University) in Paterson, N.J., in a philosophy course taught by a truly engaging professor.
Berkman, who lives in Shaker Heights with his wife, Patsy, graduated from William Paterson with a bachelor’s degree in political science and earned a Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1976. He has been an executive at various universities – he came to Cleveland after 10 years at Florida International University in Miami, where he ended as provost, executive vice president and chief operating officer – but this is his first time living in the Midwest.
Berkman’s tenure has not lacked for controversy. In April 2013, the CSU faculty senate voted no confidence in his administration, citing dissatisfaction with its handling of an undergraduate curriculum conversion from four to three credits a course.
The administration claims it’s playing catch-up with other universities that have shifted from a quarter to a semester system, as CSU did in 1999. Those who voted no confidence, 31-11, last spring have said they don’t have enough time to effect that switch by its deadline this September. The administration stance is that the conversion is one of a series of student-success initiatives CSU estimates will save the average student at least $4,000 – and maybe more than $6,000 – over the course of his or her college education, as well as making it possible for that student to graduate 12 to 24 months sooner.
The key challenge in his job is the many constituencies at a university, Berkman said in a Jan. 30 interview in his office. “I’d say college presidencies are really exercises in balance and exercises in focus” he said. “And then, of course, you need to raise gobs of money.”
Berkman makes a base salary of $430,000 a year, $30,000 more than his beginning wage. He also secured a $60,000 retention bonus when his tenure was extended in January 2013, and has earned an additional $100,000 as a maximum performance bonus each year since he was hired.
Berkman said he annually submits to the CSU board of trustees “bonus metrics,” goals covering enrollment, infrastructure, development, educational changes and partnerships. Once these are discussed and, if necessary, modified, Berkman spends the rest of the year meeting them. He engages in a similar process with vice presidents in charge of such areas as administration, finance and student affairs, and they in turn engage with their deans of directors. While he’s responsible for the whole operation, nine administrators report directly to him.
Collaboration becomes watchword
Berkman first visited Cleveland in the 1990s, when, he recalled, he attended a Browns game and stayed at the Renaissance Cleveland Hotel. “There were a large number of Browns fans in Browns regalia and my memory of the university was also kind of fuzzy,” he recalled, adding his initial impression of Cleveland State was “more of a fortress than a university. It had a gigantic quad and all of it had its back toward the city.” Not surprisingly, it was called the Quadrangle.
Now CSU engages with the city in partnerships like its new Arts Campus, enabling students to learn theater at PlayhouseSquare and the Cleveland Play House; the Campus International School for kindergarten through fifth grade, in collaboration with the Cleveland Metropolitan School District; and the district’s MC2STEM High School at Cleveland State, which U.S. President Barack Obama cited in his Jan. 28 State of the Union address. STEM stands for science, engineering, technology and mathematics. The President suggested “skills for the new economy” in these fields are taught at the STEM school.
As for creating a neighborhood, Berkman can point to stylish new dorms along Euclid and Chester avenues and some of their offshoots, as well as a striking new, $50-million student center designed by the late architect Charles Gwathmey. In addition, construction is underway on the Center for Health Innovations on the block framed by Euclid and Prospect avenues and East 21st and East 22nd streets.
When this $45 million health sciences building, designed by Pelli Clarke Pelli of New Haven, opens in June 2015, it will house CSU’s nursing and other health care programs and the Partnership for Urban Health, CSU’s collaboration with NEOMED.
A laboratory for change
The city’s Campus District on Euclid and Chester avenues goes from PlayhouseSquare to East 30th Street, where Midtown begins, and from Payne Avenue to Woodland Road. It’s 85 acres, its anchors St. Vincent Hospital, the Tri-C Metro Campus – and Cleveland State, which dominates the district.
“It is a campus district,” Berkman said. “The plan when I came here was not to just – although this is important – to build a sense of campus community, which is always a challenge at a commuter school. The goal was to build a neighborhood. I felt that really if there was going to be continued vitality as a campus, it could not be an island in an otherwise underdeveloped urban neighborhood. I felt the campus had to grow and the neighborhood had to grow synergistically.”
So early on, he came up with the idea that became the Campus International School on Chester at East 30th, which he said is the only school the Cleveland school district with a waiting list. Launched in 2010, the school aims to add a grade each year until it goes through 12th.
When he took the job in 2009, there was energy, mainly in the form of construction, Berkman said, crediting his predecessor, Schwartz, for getting the ball rolling. “Some of what we’ve done is an extension of what Mike began, some of it is different, just evolutionary in some ways,” said Berkman, who didn’t consider being a college president until he began to be solicited for such a position while still provost and COO at Florida International.
“I never felt I needed to be a university president to complete my life,” Berkman said. “With those overtures, I began to consider pursuing a presidency.” he said. Berkman said this would be his last job. At the end of his contract, he’ll be 69. “I know in Cleveland, that’s not old,” he said.
What does he like most about his job? “I like the fact that I think we’ve been able to accomplish something to allow kids who would otherwise not have the opportunity to get a college degree,” Berkman said. “I like the fact that it’s an institution that provides mobility for our young people. It’s enormously important to keep young intellectual capital in Cleveland and invest in it.”