Ronald Berkman leaving CSU in great shape


Ronald Berkman arrived at Cleveland State University in 2009. It was a crucial time as the institution needed a spark to ignite the next phase of its life.

As a traditional urban university, CSU possessed a rich history. But it idly sat in the heart of a city mired in the depths of the Great Recession. The impact of the devastating financial meltdown hit CSU as much as any institution of higher learning — potentially even more so as Cleveland was one of the hardest hit cities in the nation.

Because of this, CSU faced its share of problems, including tight budgets, aging buildings and a dearth of student housing. The university’s graduation and retention rates needed improvement, and many regional employers didn’t put CSU graduates at the top of their list to fill talent pipelines.

Today, things have changed.

As Berkman prepares to step down next year as president, he will leave CSU in better shape than he found it.

The university is financially sound. It has forged strong partnerships across Northeast Ohio. CSU’s programs have earned national recognition. And, more important, the institution has become a critical feeder of well-prepared graduates for regional employers.

“I’m proud of the way the university has been able to embroider itself into the fabric of the community and the partnerships we’ve germinated — with for-profit and not-for-profit (organizations),” Berkman says. “And especially, (I’m proud of) the impact those partnerships have had on the development of our students.”

These include the Center for Innovation in Medical Professions (home of the NEOMED-CSU Partnership for Urban Health), the CSU Arts Campus at Playhouse Square, and the Washkewicz College of Engineering (named for retired Parker Hannifin chairman and CEO Don Washkewicz).

A mindset of sustenance
But those are just the headlines. Berkman also strengthened relationships with University Hospitals, Cleveland Clinic, MetroHealth, St. Vincent Charity Medical Center, Medical Mutual and Case Western Reserve University.

He’s established collaborations with other private companies and corporations across the region that help students with internships, mentoring, and broader educational and workforce opportunities.

“In so many ways, CSU is a different university than it was in 2009,” he says.

Berkman is particularly excited about a partnership with the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, which created an “education park” comprised of two CMSD schools on the CSU campus.

“We have a very strong partnership with them,” he says. “Both Campus International High School, an international baccalaureate education program, and MC2STEM High School are now on our campus. About 75 percent of the students at MC2STEM are minority students, and they’re receiving a rigorous STEM education.”

Berkman’s approach to all of these has been proactive, and often pragmatic. “You have to look at it not as a short-term proposition, but as something that will require attention and nurturing,” he says. “It’s easy to initiate partnerships; it’s much more difficult to sustain them. So, you go into it with a mindset of sustenance.

“Second, you need to recognize both parties will get a positive yield from the partnership, but the yield doesn’t necessarily have to be equal for it to be a good partnership. And third, all the partnerships have really put the students out front. They’re structured in a way to clear a greater runway for our students.”

Berkman credits a strong CSU Board of Trustees as a key to many of these initiatives’ effectiveness.

“I’ve really been blessed in the years I’ve been here,” he says. “I didn’t have to do much to encourage them to be engaged in the mission of the university. That’s something very special about this whole community [and the board]. They feel a sense of investment in the purpose of the university.”

Plot a way forward
This same commitment goes for Berkman’s soon-to-be successor, whomever is named.

“You want people who are committed to the mission of the university,” Berkman says. “We serve many first-generation students (34 percent of the student body) and have the largest percentage of students in the lower income quartile of any university in Ohio (nearly 11 percent of its total enrollment). Our mission is to find ways to make up for some of the gaps, and find a way forward to these students to be successful. In (identifying the next) leadership, you need to be able to select people who share those values.”

This means ensuring an affordable education. With annual tuition and fees for in-state students at less than $10,000 per year, under Berkman’s watchful eye the cost of an undergraduate degree has decreased by more than $3,350 annually through a combination of more scholarships, grants and incentives to graduate in four years.

It hasn’t been easy — leading CSU’s first capital campaign to its $100 million goal (two years ahead of schedule), and doubling the university’s endowment — but Berkman is confident that whomever succeeds him will continue the progress.

That includes improving graduation rates, which have increased 60 percent during Berkman’s tenure, and recruitment, which last year saw the largest freshman class in CSU’s history, with 1,900 first-year students and increases across-the-board in GPA and ACT scores.

“It’s been an evolution and transformation,” Berkman says. “Ten years ago, the university was not on the radar screen for many families for possibilities for their children. I think that’s changed dramatically. The question for many families who are contemplating where their kids might go and where they’ll get the best return on their investment, has become not “Why Cleveland State?” but “Why not Cleveland State?”

These successes, and many others, have not gone unnoticed. Earlier this year, the Brookings Institution ranked CSU 18th in the nation among public universities that provide social mobility for their students and conduct vital research that benefits society.

CSU was the only Ohio university ranked in the “Best of the Best” category, which included only 20 percent of the 342 universities studied. That research also earned CSU praise from The Chronicle of Higher Education, which ranked it No. 1 in the nation for increase in research expenditures. And, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching classified CSU as a Doctoral University with Higher Research Activity.

This comes on the heels of a $500 million campus-wide physical transformation, which included new buildings, a tennis pavilion and more student housing, bringing the number of students living on campus to more than 1,000.

“There’s been a reinvention of the campus,” Berkman says. “The improvements and the building that has gone on over the past 15 years have changed the look and feel. It’s become almost unrecognizable. People have really noticed. The old CSU was a dismal looking institution. It is now a very handsome, very architecturally distinguished urban community with great learning spaces. It’s woven right into the fabric (of the neighborhood).”

Berkman also credits the team he’s assembled, adding they provide a strong foundation for the future. “We’ve built a very good, deep, diverse and committed management team,” he says. “That’s one of the anchors.”

That, too, has attracted attention. Over the past three years, CSU has been recognized by the Greater Cleveland Partnership’s Commission on Economic Inclusion for its diversity in upper management.

“That’s important in a city like Cleveland and for a student body that’s incredibly diverse,” Berkman says.

Help people find their voice
Berkman says his tenure at CSU has been a satisfying capstone for his leadership journey, filled with lessons learned. Chief among them has been the lesson of having the right people on the leadership team.

“It’s all about the people,” he says. “It really is. Some of the most important decisions you make as a leader are who you put on your leadership team, how you develop them and how you create a team. Teams are not created by assemblages of people around a table; they’re created by the creation of bonds by those people.”

He says it’s critical to lead by example, and to recognize that people pay just as much attention to what you say as what you do.

“It’s important for you, as a leader, to stay faithful to strong values and principles,” he says. “Good leaders find and select people who have voices. It’s not helpful to a CEO to have people who do two things: always agree with the point of view of the CEO and believe that their task is to identify for the CEO all the problems they found in the organization. You want numerous and different voices around the table, and people focused on solutions… not just the identification of problems.”

As Berkman looks ahead, he acknowledges he’s leaving CSU in a good position.

“Although it’s extremely difficult in an austere budget environment, we’ve been able to have a balanced budget for the past nine years —including this year,” he says. “We’ve used virtually none of our reserves. My successor will come in on good financial footing and with good, solid stewardship.

“We have very, very good bond ratings with Standard and Poor’s and Moody’s. We’ve gotten a stable outlook, which has not been the case for many other higher education institutions. It’s been one of the great honors of my career to lead CSU during an amazing period of progress.”

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