Photo Courtesy of Cleveland State Marketing

 

March 29, 2016

Talking with CSU's President Berkman

In an exclusive interview with The Cleveland Stater on March 7, Ronald M. Berkman discussed his role and responsibilities as president of Cleveland State University.

In a wide-ranging discussion, Berkman touched on a variety of topics, including the definition of his job and his responsibilities to the Board of Trustees, the university’s current ratings, some goals for this year and outcomes of the past fiscal year and his performance bonuses.

He also commented on his visibility on campus, actions taken he wishes he had done differently and his personal views regarding perceptions about the search now underway for his new housing.

We’ve structured a detailed explanation from the categories above to help make the Cleveland State community more aware of Berkman’s role and the layers that come along with it.

 

Understanding a college presidency

Berkman says there are three major prongs in defining his role as president of Cleveland State University.
One, it is clearly and fundamentally a leadership position, according to Berkman.

“A president has the responsibility of developing a vision for the university — a place where you’d like to see the university go and evolve,” he said, “and then has the responsibility — which is the less romantic part — of making certain that the vision you have can be implemented well, take root, stay and persist.”

Two, he said it requires him to find ways to try and fill the delta and maintain the quality, creativity and ingenuity, as well as provide all of the opportunities he can for students.

“We went from a formula in which the state provided 55 to 60 percent of the operating budget, to a situation today where the state provides about 26 percent of the operating budget,” Berkman said. “We have a lot of constituencies in the university and increasingly, a president’s role has a much bigger external component to it.”

And three, Berkman believes he has been a voice for the students in paying close attention to their concerns and requests.

“I’ve been a voice about holding down costs, student success, trying to change a paradigm that made it very, very difficult for students to navigate their way through the university,” he said.

“My goal is to create a student-centric environment on campus and this is sometimes not typical university-vernacular, but the students are our clients, our customers — they’re paying to come to the university and we want to make this experience as easy as possible for them.”

 

Responding to trustees

Berkman reports to a nine-member board of trustees, which is appointed by the governor in staggered terms, he explained. The board meets strategically six times during the academic year and consists of three committees — academic affairs, student affairs and fiscal affairs.

“Each year, I provide a set of goals to the board [members] that the board approves as goals that they feel are consonant with where they want to see the university go,” Berkman said, mentioning the process of discussion and prioritization. “Once we finish that, it then gets presented to the entire board and the board approves those goals — those goals generally have metrics attached to them.”

Berkman said every May he prepares a report that he gives to the board that shows, to a degree, how far he and the university have reached in achieving these particular goals. Berkman and the board then review the progress on fulfillment in the past year, along with the plan moving ahead with them.

The board also gives Berkman directives, which he is held solely responsible for. He says he is “responsible for everything in the university,” and that “the buck does stop here.”

“Student success, retention, enrollment, revenue — we have to balance a budget — which we’ve balanced every single year since I’ve been here,” he said.

“We fortunately haven’t had the travails of some of our sister universities because I think we’ve been very, very prudent with the dollars and the expenditures here.”

 

CSU’s ratings by Moody’s and S&P

According to Stephanie McHenry, vice president for business affairs and finance at Cleveland State, Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s (S&P), are agencies whose role is to inform investors of how likely an institution is to pay back all of its debt. The more likely an institution will pay back its debt, the lower the interest rate investors will require to lend the institution their money.

Cleveland State is rated by these two agencies, and Berkman said this is probably the best indicator of your financial responsibility and financial stewardship. Every time the university completes a project, the agencies grade it. Cleveland State is considered a good investment based on the grades from the agencies, which now are an A1 from Moody’s and an A+ from S&P for Cleveland State’s credit strengths and credit challenges.

“Over the last four years, we’ve been reviewed three times by S&P and Moody’s and our grade has held constant,” Berkman said.

“As important as the letter grade is the outlook,” he continued. “We were among a select group of universities that got a stable outlook.”

Berkman said it’s hard to get a stable outlook in this environment because these rating agencies — which have specialized individuals who rate higher education institutions, corporations, non-profits, etc. — are aware that funding in Ohio has dramatically decreased and there are still significant pressures on the Ohio economy.

“It’s not us saying we do a great job stewarding the money, it’s these two professional rating agencies who look at hundreds of pages of data that say it,” Berkman added.

 

Discussing the housing controversy

“Truthfully, I feel sad about it — I feel hurt in some ways,” Berkman said. “I think there’s a lot of misinformation, as there always is,” he added.

“I signed a contract six years ago and that contract stipulated that the university needed to supply housing for the president — so it’s not something they pulled out of the blue to do, they have a contractual obligation to it.”

He commented on why a university provides housing for the president as well.

“The university provides housing for a president because they regard a presidential house as an instrument that should be used for fundraising and friend raising,” Berkman said. “Whatever the reason, people enjoy being invited to the president’s house — they enjoy events at a president’s house — they enjoy dinner at a president’s house,” and “the university wants the housing to be an extension of, and a foundation for, the university.”

He also added that he wished it would have worked living downtown at The 9, but it really hasn’t.

“No president who’s going to come here after me is going to move into a 1,500-square-foot apartment in the Knox — what if they have two kids?” he commented.

“So, they need a house that will have longevity like most universities have had. The idea is to get a house that will endure as a university house.”

 

Explaining performance bonuses

If Berkman does not meet the goals the Board of Trustees requires of him, it impacts his performance bonus, which the board votes on each year to add 15 to 25 percent to his annual base salary, which is $450,000.

“My performance bonus is predicated on my ability to meet the goals that we’ve mutually agreed upon,” Berkman said. “This is across sectors, whether public or private — this is standard operating procedure for how a CEO or a president deals with his board.”

Berkman must meet the criteria once each year to receive the bonus, and he said he has dozens of goals he works on during a year.

“What you try to do for a board is try to give it the five, or six or seven most strategic goals that you’re working on,” he said.

“I don’t, for example, put in a goal that I’m trying to get a $500,000 AirMark from Columbus for a particular project, or I’m trying to cultivate a particular donor.”

Berkman explained that fundraising is in goals every year because it has a tremendous impact on student success, in terms of what the university has been able to do with the scholarship dollars they’ve been able to put out.

“In five years, we’ve raised $89 million dollars since I’ve been here, I believe, and that’s more than the university raised in its first 45 years,” he said. “So in five years, we’ve raised more than the previous 45 years.”

 

Discussing his visibility on campus

“I think I can improve the visibility on campus,” Berkman said. “Getting around more informally, walking the halls and talking to the students, yeah, I think there’s room for improvement there,” he continued. “But I get so intensely focused on really trying to protect the university in Columbus, and there’s been some significant changes.”

Berkman said he feels the things he is doing are clearly focused on helping the students here, but being out on campus and more available is something he can do.

“One of the challenges of this job is how you portion your time,” he said. “How much do you devote to internal stuff, the academic pieces, the faculty we’re hiring, where we’re making academic investments.”

 

Re-doing something he’s done at CSU

“I think we were absolutely correct in [taking] the school from a four-credit to a three-credit school and aligning with the rest of the universities, but could it have done in a somewhat different way?  Yeah,” he said.

“If I could go back, maybe I would roll the schedule out a little more, but I felt there was a moment that we needed to do it and perhaps it could’ve been extended out,” he continued. “But in academia when you extend processes out, they tend to have an inverse curve — they get harder and harder to do the more time goes on.”

He also thinks he made a mistake in the selection of the best provost.

“It’s a very gigantic position, the hiring pieces are very, very hard because you just don’t know until someone’s been in a positon for a year or so,” Berkman said

“Fortunately, I had spent a lot of time cultivating the dean of the graduate school [Dr. Jianping Zhu] who has now become the [provost], so we had someone who was able to step in and really seamlessly take over as provost,” he continued. “Otherwise I would’ve still made the change, but it would have been a major disruption to the university.”

 

Current goals and past outcomes

According to Berkman, one of the goals this year is to finish the development of the funding and the beginning of the conceptual design for the annex to the School of Engineering. He also explained the 2020 plan and reducing the amount of administrative expenditure in the university, doing it through a dialogue by identifying — through the units themselves — where efficiencies can be made.

“Parking had 40 ideas about how dollars can be saved,” Berkman chuckled. “I’m not sure all of them produced more parking spaces, but it is a very complicated parking environment over there.”

One of the goals in the last fiscal year was to complete and present the master planning process to the Board of Trustees, approved Nov. 19, 2014, which then initiated the development of a performance management plan to provide guidance on maximizing efficiency and planning through 2020. Another goal was a student success fundraising campaign initiative. The initial goal was $64 million, later revised to $100 million.

“Our projections for achievement in the ‘silent phase’ coupled with the projections for gifts for the 2015 inaugural campaign are in the neighborhood of $70 million,” Rob Spademan, associate vice president for University Marketing, said. “The university raised a record $22 million in this [2015] fiscal year.”

 

What he would like folks to know

Berkman would like to think at the end of the day, the things he’s done have been done for the greater good of the students, faculty and staff.

“I’d like them to know that I have really given everything I have, on a lot of different fronts, to lay or further lay a foundation that will allow the university to continue to prosper,” Berkman said. “It’s not just doing things while I’m here — I have to do things while I’m here that will have longevity. They sometimes require some sacrifices on some people’s part because it’s still going to be a difficult budgetary environment. We’ve done extremely well, but we’re not through, believe me, we’re not done with budgetary challenges.”


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