Changing Views

It's tough to pinpoint exactly when I noticed for the first time. But you could tell Cleveland State University was different.

Our PlayhouseSquare offices are just on the edge of campus with a crane-your-neck view of the College of Urban Affairs building at East 17th Street. So over the past decade, we've had a front-row seat to the university's transformation.

Back in 2001, when Michael Schwartz took over as president, the chances for such an evolution seemed as likely as CSU winning a national football championship. (FYI: It doesn't even have a team.)

But that wasn't how Schwartz saw things. When we profiled him in 2002, he sounded like a guy with a game plan. "[The school] needs to be far more a part of the common life of the city," he told us. "This is a university that is here as part of the city. This is not just where we happen to be located."

He said CSU needed to "fill in the moat" between the city and the school by opening its buildings to Euclid Avenue and creating housing for up to 400 students. "The brain drain's got to end," he argued. "The way you end it is with cash."

So the university invested $500 million in a makeover fit for reality TV: Glass replaced brick, green space sprouted from cement, and drab was overtaken by dynamic. There's a new pride about the place that's evident even in the details.

What's even more encouraging is that when Schwartz retired in 2008, the momentum didn't wane. Listen to current CSU president Ronald Berkman, and you might think Schwartz had left him a script on the role of an urban university, connecting with the community and tearing down the ivory tower.

It's more than talk. CSU has partnered with PlayhouseSquare to create a new fine arts campus in the Theater District. There's a collaboration with the Cleveland schools to develop the Campus International School, an innovative K-12 school based on the International Baccalaureate program. And there's a joint venture with Northeast Ohio Medical University to recruit and train more urban primary care physicians.

And while they may be easy to overlook, these are no small changes. These improvements in attitude, collaboration and building a stronger neighborhood are what may eventually make a difference for the city and the entire region.

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