City Mission

Once an outpost of educational last resort, Cleveland State University has undergone a $500 million makeover: new buildings, green space and vitality. Now, under president Ronald Berkman, the university is integrating itself into Cleveland as never before

Cleveland State University's move-in day doesn't officially begin until 8 a.m. on this sunny August Saturday. But the first packed minivans pull up outside Fenn Tower's art deco-lettered entrance an hour early.

Two dozen residence life staffers have mobilized to help unload bags and colorful plastic crates onto four-wheeled carts.

By 9, the dollies are in short supply as the street is gridlocked. The same goes for Euclid Commons, the new brick-and-earth-toned dorms that occupy an entire block on the south side of Euclid.

As parents hurry off to park, students stand by their piles of stuff on the sidewalk, faces expressing a mix of joy, apprehension, awe, surprise and excitement.

But moving in is just the beginning of move-in day.

This is an event — not just for the first-time students and their parents, but for Cleveland State. The downtown college once known mostly as an underachiever has been prepping for this moment. In fact, a decade ago there wasn't much need for a move-in day; practically no undergrads lived on campus. Now, 1,100 students live there, three times the number from 2000.

During that time, CSU has completed more than $500 million in new buildings, landscaping and overall upgrades as part of a master plan that includes a wide-open quad at the heart of campus, more retail and dining options along Euclid, and shiny buildings, such as the glass-shelled College of Education and Human Services, which shares a courtyard with Fenn Tower.

At the heart of the first-day flurry is the $44 million Student Center. The space, with its curving walls, comfy leather chairs and landscape windows, feels like an extension of the quad it overlooks, where sunlight gleams on a black granite fountain and fills the three-level atrium.

A 20-foot green banner hangs from the third-floor balcony, "Welcome Class of 2015." To the left is a massive black and white picture of three female students with V, I, K across their chests leading a basketball crowd in cheers. It's a perfect symbol of the enthusiasm that has been building around the university.

Today, the center is busier than a mall on Christmas Eve. This is Cleveland State's largest incoming class: 1,388 freshmen. They boast the school's highest median ACT scores (21.6) and average GPA (3.24).

They are lined up three deep at registration tables, where the new Vikings receive an orientation schedule, a neon green water bottle, information packets about their new home, directions to the campus walking tours, and invitations to the Freshman Convocation and Hawaiian-themed Tiki Frosh party later in the day.

Outside, the sidewalks are crowded with teenagers in sunglasses and shorts, with lanyards and keys hanging around their necks. Some tote strained plastic bags from the bookstore, crammed with thick hardbound texts. Green and white CSU T-shirts are everywhere.

As the afternoon winds down, CSU president Ronald Berkman slips onto campus and joins the crowd gathering for the convocation. Unlike some college presidents, he travels with his wife, Patsy Bilbao-Berkman, not an entourage.

If you know whom to look for, he's easy to spot in Waetjen Auditorium's vast lobby, dressed in a button-down shirt, khakis and navy blazer with a CSU pin over his heart. At 6-foot-4 with receding gray hair combed straight back and a mostly white goatee, he shakes hands with parents and students, introducing himself as Ron.

It's rather low-key for a guy who inherited a thriving half-billion-dollar plan for long-term growth and in just two years has accelerated and expanded it so that students, faculty and even outsiders can't help but take notice.

"It makes me feel good," says Omar Kurdi, a returning international student from Jordan. "In my country, it's hard to meet the president or even email the dean. All the progress that happened with Dr. Berkman here — that transformation makes me feel I'm more of a community member."

Ron Berkman had been to Cleveland once before he was recruited as president. It left an impression on him — a bad one.

He visited in 1990, when the rising academic executive, then the City University of New York's dean for urban affairs, was selected as director of a conference of mayors.

Cleveland State greeted the national delegation as it had traditionally greeted students: with black walls and indifference.

"The university had a gulag feel to it," recalls Berkman. "It was heavily brick. It had its back to the city. Now everything we do, it looks out at the city."

Cleveland State University was established in 1964. If its future was bright, the times were equally dark. The urban campus was designed when riots were a reality of city life. The school's dark cement blocks and hidden courtyards exemplified an architectural movement called Brutalism.

The school's look and feel remained essentially unchanged until Michael Schwartz became the school's fifth president in 2001. Formerly the president of Kent State University, Schwartz had a passion for education and energy to match. He signed on as CSU's acting president and stayed.

"It was drive-by education," says Schwartz, "a place where, if all else fails, you go to CSU. Some people characterized it as just another community college with bachelor's degrees. It wasn't being respected as a university — and it should have been."

Schwartz saw students studying in their cars because they found the dank library and forboding student center so uninviting. They complained that every administrative task was a chore, from enrolling to dropping classes.

"It was as if someone had taken a great deal of time to build a moat around it," Schwartz says, "and every spring they'd bring in fresh alligators to keep people out of there."

Under Schwartz, that all changed. The school raised academic standards, dropping its open enrollment policy. Remedial courses became increasingly scarce. Cleveland-Marshall College of Law students' bar exam pass rates rose from among the region's lowest to among the highest.

The school kept pace with its students by overhauling its master plan. CSU partnered with the Kent State University Urban Design Collaborative to revamp the campus's look and feel.

In 2005, the plan started to become more than drawings. The main plaza, once a stark square between Rhodes Tower and the Student Center, became a green thoroughfare with geometric paths and a view of the city's skyline. Dark monoliths such as the Law Building replaced their heavy brick bulkheads in favor of modern glass walls open to Euclid Avenue.

By 2007, architect Charles Gwathmey, who designed the 1992 addition to New York's Guggenheim Museum and homes for stars such as Steven Spielberg and David Geffen, had been tapped to design the new Student Center.

With the plan well under way in 2008, Schwartz, then 71, told the board of trustees he planned to retire.

It was an opportunity fit for Berkman.

He'd have a chance to fulfill the mission of an urban university; the city cared about CSU, and a lot of good work had already been done. "I thought for my own education, it would be a valuable experience," he says. "It was on a launch pad."

Berkman's office suite in the new Parker Hannifin Administration Center is modest but immaculate, decorated in CSU's hushed school colors, white with forest green accents, with colorful, abstract paintings on the walls. He traded a larger office for this room with a view of Euclid Avenue.

"I could not have picked a better vantage point to see who we are when you look out that window," says Berkman, pointing west, down the bustling street, toward downtown Cleveland's skyline. "People will look out the window and ask me, 'Where does the campus end?' And I will say, both literally and figuratively, 'The campus goes as far as you can see.' "

That may not be exactly true, but Cleveland State has never been so busy, looked so good or been a bigger piece of Cleveland.

This fall there will be about 12,000 undergrads, 6,000 graduate students and 220 elementary school kids on campus.

Yes, Cleveland State has a grade school. Through a partnership with the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, Berkman brought the Campus International School to a building on East 30th last year.

"Higher education cannot continue to operate in the model it has always existed in," explains Berkman. "The world is changing. It can no longer remain an ivory tower. It has to find ways to partner with and cross-fertilize with other institutions."

So Berkman, who has been at Cleveland State a mere two years, sits on the boards of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, the United Way, BioEnterprise and NorTech. But the alliance with the Cleveland schools is special.

He knows firsthand what it's like when your school doesn't take your education seriously. In high school, Berkman told a counselor he'd like to try the college-bound curriculum. The counselor took a look at the blue-collar athlete, decided he wasn't the college type and signed him up for general education instead. When the wealthy kids were learning algebra, Berkman's group was learning to count change. He recalls the hasty categorization with calm indignation.

"It's a travesty," reflects Berkman. "At that age, the education system can make assumptions about who you are and what you can do. Unless things happen and you're lucky, which I was, I'd be working in the maintenance division at Cleveland State."

Berkman's father, Sidney, was a first-generation American, the son of Russian parents. His mother, Hannah, a Hungarian immigrant, met his dad at Coney Island amusement park. His father supported the family working as a union longshoreman, shop steward and truck driver.

Berkman spent most of his formative years in Brooklyn. He played baseball in school, where a strategic mind and slow legs made him a natural at catcher. After class, he played basketball on racially integrated outdoor courts.

"Growing up in a diverse neighborhood and going to public schools my whole life and going to a diverse public college were very shaping opportunities," Berkman says. "It gives you a very different kind of appreciation and feel for people."

If the decision had been left to him, Berkman would have never graduated. At 16, he brought home the parental-consent form to withdraw from high school several times. But his dad, who only had a seventh-grade education, always refused to sign.

By 1968, one of Berkman's friends was attending William Paterson College and seemed to be having a good time. "So I gave it a shot," he recalls. "It wasn't part of a grand plan to transform my life."

One of Berkman's first classes was urban sociology, where the teacher's academic theories chafed against his first-hand experience. "I had an activist bent," Berkman says.

For a student with his interests, the late 1960s were a great time to be in school. He attended protests, rallies and sit-ins for the causes of the day: civil rights, Vietnam, divesting in Apartheid-era South Africa. He worked nights to pay his undergraduate tuition, driving a beer-delivery truck and working in a gypsum factory.

He earned a full scholarship to graduate school at Princeton, where he studied urban and economic development. He received his doctorate in 1976, spent a year in France and a year in post-doctoral studies at the University of California at Berkeley before returning to Princeton as a teacher.

But it didn't last.

"Princeton was a great school, but I just felt the world was bigger than what could be found in Princeton," he says. He wanted to return to New York, to a public university. "I felt public education was an important American franchise, an institution to create opportunity where there was none."

At the City University of New York, the country's largest urban university, he started as an instructor and rose to become the school's first dean for urban affairs. He was smart, funny and engaging.

"What makes you want to spend another evening with Ron Berkman is his sense of humor," explains former CUNY chancellor Ann Reynolds. "You'd have a big circle around him because everybody wants to talk to someone who's a bit of a raconteur."

In 1997, Berkman moved to Florida International University, where he became provost, executive vice president and COO. At FIU, he negotiated with the teachers' union, established colleges of law and medicine, and saved the nursing school from the brink of extinction. He earned a national reputation as an expert on urban and public affairs and in 2001, even chaired Gov. Jeb Bush's Health Care Summit.

"There are people who are in the top 1 percent of the population — that's not Ron," says FIU president emeritus Mitch Maidique. "And there are people who are in the top tenth of a percent, and that's not Ron. And then there are people who are one in 10,000, and that's Ron. Ron is the smartest administrator I've ever worked with."

By the end of his time at FIU, says Maidique, Berkman was practically the university's co-president. And Maidique encouraged him to rise further.

In 2009, Berkman became CSU's sixth president, taking his third job in just less than 40 years. "I love teaching," Berkman told the Cleveland City Club in 2010. "I wound up in administration because I like the process of change."

To understand where Cleveland State is heading, you must experience it, and Berkman is happy to lead the tour.

He stops first at the Campus International School, an idea that was part of his pitch for the CSU job. For now, it's located in the back half of the First United Methodist Church at East 30th Street and Euclid Avenue.

Open for its second year, it's a smaller, elite school open to students from kindergarten through third grade. The district is adding grade levels as its classes advance, and eventually it will have its own building.

Neighborhood kids mix with CSU staff members' children and students from the suburbs who won lottery-entry spots.

The school adheres to a rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum that includes daily Chinese lessons. Students regularly visit campus for presentations by the history, engineering and other departments. Some kids think they actually attend CSU. Berkman wants them to know it's an option. He wants them to grow up expecting to attend college.

"It is the role of higher education to be part of the solution and produce kids that are ready for college," Berkman says. "I thought it would be a lynchpin in neighborhood development. A good school will attract people."

As he crosses campus, the president has a few words for everyone he passes — a waitress, maintenance workers in a dorm, Plain Dealer publisher Terrance Egger, who regularly plays basketball at CSU's fitness center.

Outside the gym, Berkman greets Black Studies department chair Michael Williams, who is giving a student a campus tour. Williams points north at a parking lot and some old buildings and asks, "When is this project happening?"

It's a hanging curve ball for the former ballplayer. Berkman talks them through the Campus Village project, a $50 million development that breaks ground this fall. Covering 6.8 acres between Chester and Payne avenues, it will replace old structures such as the boarded-up Doan Building with three- and four-story buildings with apartments, restaurants and stores.

Initially, the project spanned 27 acres and would've been funded by the university. Berkman scaled it down and found a private company to lease the land and construct the buildings.

To the south along Euclid Avenue, the school's efforts are actually visible. Businesses are already springing up like so many trees along the Euclid Corridor, from the upscale Elements restaurant to quick-burrito spot, Pedro's Pedro's Mexican Grill.

"Twenty years ago, the university could have been out in a corn field for the impact they had on the downtown area," says PlayhouseSquare president Art Falco. "And now, they are totally integrated into downtown. The fact that you now have students living on and around campus is tremendous. Having young people, having energy, is the lifeblood of a city."

This fall, the Allen Theatre Project relocates all the university's theater, arts and digital media programs into a new arts campus in PlayhouseSquare. It was a long time coming.

Under Schwartz, the two institutions had drafted a plan to let 70 students study in the theater district. Berkman expanded its scale to 500 students and faculty.

"That would not have happened without him," says Falco.

Berkman's changes add up, and they're reflected in his pay. In his first year, the president received a $400,000 salary ($92,000 more than Schwartz made). He also earned a $100,000 bonus by meeting all his performance incentives. He donated $50,000 to student scholarships.

To CSU alum Monte Ahuja, Berkman's leadership is worth eight figures, not six.

Once Berkman was hired, Ron Weinberg, then chair of Cleveland State's board of trustees and its hiring committee, introduced him to Cleveland alums, politicians and civic leaders at a private party in his home and then at the Union Club, on campus or around town.

"Very soon, people came to me asking to meet him," recalls Weinberg. "He really became a new rock star in town."

Near the top of the must-see list was Ahuja, a CSU alum who founded Transtar Industries, the world's largest distributor and manufacturer of transmission parts. The company opened in 1975, using a business plan Ahuja developed as an assignment for an MBA class.

Ahuja never forgot CSU's role in his success. He served six years as the chair of CSU's board of trustees. He donated $2 million to CSU in 1999. But, like many alumni, he had drifted away from the school.

He met Berkman at LockKeepers in Valley View. "We instantly connected with each other," recalls Ahuja.

Berkman talked about his work at FIU, how he'd made the marginal public school a central urban resource, how he wanted to do the same for Cleveland State.

Ahuja liked what he heard.

"The conversation had a gravitas to it," recalls Weinberg.

Before long, Berkman and Ahuja were exchanging calls, which led to lunches, then meetings, then dinner with their wives, then golf at Canterbury Golf Club.

Ahuja shared his concerns: The newly improved school was acting like a student who had lost touch with his or her family. Although 80 percent of the school's MBA students remain in Cleveland, the school didn't stay connected with alums, even top benefactors like Ahuja.

Berkman told Ahuja he wanted to demolish the invisible walls between the university and the community. He wanted to create new programs. He wanted to do things bigger and better. He wanted to make a difference.

Eventually, after more than a year, the subject of money came up.

This summer, Ahuja donated $10 million to CSU to fund scholarships and a professorship, the largest gift in the school's history.

"I saw what he was doing and what his vision was [for Cleveland State], and I felt compelled to do something," says Ahuja. "He is the sole person who convinced me to be involved with the school financially."

Joe Marinucci, Downtown Cleveland Alliance president and CEO, was a commuter to Cleveland State in the late 1970s. He'd ride the bus in then take it home without feeling he was missing anything on campus.

For years, CSU rarely contacted him. Now, the school is constantly inviting him to alumni gatherings and volunteer events. It's not the same school he graduated from in 1980.

"[Berkman] understands the role of the university in an urban environment," Marinucci says. "He's one of the key architects of the future in downtown."

Mayor Frank Jackson, a 1977 grad, goes further. "It's transforming not just downtown — it's transforming that part of Cleveland," says Jackson. "Dr. Berkman has the talent and expertise of a community person. He is very good at connecting his institution to the surrounding community so they become one in the same."

Take Cleveland State's collaboration with the Northeast Ohio Medical University to establish the NEOMED Academic Campus at CSU, which launches this fall. The program will get students' attention in middle school or high school, attract them to Cleveland State, give them early admission to NEOMED when they're halfway through college and teach them the profession while they intern in the community. Instead of focusing on glamorous career paths like surgery, the CSU-NEOMED partnership will train urban primary care doctors. Then maybe they'll stay, join practices — and, who knows, maybe teach one day.

The collaboration took a mere year and a half of planning. "It's lightning speed for a university," says NEOMED president Jay Gershen. "Ron Berkman did a tremendous job convincing the CSU community that it was a good thing to do. Without his enthusiasm and skills, it wouldn't have happened."

During the Schwartz years, CSU climbed from U.S. News & World Report's fourth tier to second. Now the magazine ranks CSU as one of America's best 300 colleges. President Obama has chosen the campus for three appearances.

Berkman admits recruiting top-tier faculty and staff is still "a sell," but the school is attracting more hires from prestigious colleges such as Princeton, the University of Maryland and DePaul University College of Law.

Once, Cleveland State's confrontational design helped create an antisocial environment. Now, like Berkman, it's vibrant, colorful, engaged and connected. When CSU celebrates its 50th birthday in 2014, the president hopes his school will have come of age.

"I want people to say, 'I want to go to Cleveland State because Cleveland State is closest to the pulse of this region. I want to stay in this region.' " Berkman says. "It should be both a beacon for the city, and it should be this kind of resource for the city."

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