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October 10, 2013

Pres. focuses on forward momentum

By Jordan Gonzalez

Cleveland State University president Ronald Berkman remembers the old days when he first became president in 2009, when there were only two places to eat on Euclid Ave. between his office across from Julka Hall and Playhouse Square: Subway and Café Ah-Roma. There was no Jimmy Johns, no Burgers 2 Beer and no sense of community, he said.

There is no doubt the atmosphere and the landscape have changed significantly in the past few years at Cleveland State, and Berkman loves it. He gets a generous view of the progress from his corner office in the third floor of the Administration Center, featuring a wrap-around window.

"It’s just come alive as a neighborhood,” Berkman said. “It’s just a shame that the weather has to change. There are so many students walking around – the energy feels really good.”

Tackling biggest challenges

But Berkman said there is still a lot of work to be done, and a lot of it goes beyond freshening up Euclid and Chester avenues.

“I still think we have a long way to go as far as having a university that is student-centric, in which the needs and the interests of the university are the guiding principle for what we do at the university,” Berkman said. “I think we’ve made tremendous progress and I think the faculty have done an awful lot of work on behalf of that, but I still think we have a way to go.”

The biggest concerns in the way of becoming more student-centric are raising retention rates and graduation rates – which are also two of the biggest problems Cleveland State faces, Berkman said. These are especially serious problems, since half of Cleveland State’s state-based funding is based on graduation rates. The other half of funding comes from course completion (how many credit hours that students take and complete).

“It really is a pretty rigorous performance-based formula,” said Berkman.

To address those concerns, Cleveland State started numerous initiatives and policy changes, he said. Some, such as the conversion of most four-credit classes to three credits and the 120-credit degree cap, aim to make the curriculum and educational experience better. Others offer incentives, such as the recently implemented performance-based tuition rebate and multi-term registration seek to make Cleveland State more convenient and affordable. Berkman said about 65 percent of newly registered students registered for a block program that covers multiple semesters.

Also on the horizon for Cleveland State officials is an investigation into alternative learning, such as prior learning, competency-based learning and more emphasis on internships. Berkman said the trick is to make sure it’d be a legitimate and authentic process. At present, the College of Urban Affairs is assessing a prior learning mechanism for military students, who often have several different types of training that can be transferred into the academic realm.

Moving forward

The fall 2013 semester so far has been less chaotic than some of the more recent semesters for President Berkman. Last year around this time, the first sparks of the controversial curriculum shake-up appeared. Once the measures – a standardized 120-credit cap on most undergraduate degrees and a conversion of four-credit classes to three credits – were approved by the Board of Trustees (BOT), tensions arose. By the winter 2013 season, those tensions climaxed during an animated town hall session and a vote of no confidence against the administration by the Cleveland State faculty senate.

The BOT had criticized the measure by the faculty senate in an open letter, calling it “unfortunate” and “misguided,” and restated their support and confidence in Berkman. In a recent interview with faculty senate president Joanne Goodell, she explained the no confidence vote was more symbolic than it was literal.

“It was a kind of a last resort, and the biggest component of that was the timeline,” Goodell said. “The only way to express our extreme unhappiness with the timeline was to do that vote.”

Unbeknownst to a lot of faculty, she said, the BOT had a lot to do with setting that timeline, not necessarily the administration.

“[The administration] was acting on their orders,” she said. “Board of Trustees were actually driving a lot of that timeline, and the president works for the board – that’s the way the university is set up.”

Lingering Controversy

Meanwhile, during the summer and the current fall semester, the faculty have been converting their respective curriculum. Reports on the progress are mixed, but both the faculty senate and the administration seem to agree the biggest challenge will be creating the new curriculum guides and training the advisors.

“Tremendous progress has been done,” Berkman said. “The biggest challenge to that is how do we communicate all these changes to students, how do we help them navigate through the system.”

Berkman and Teresa LaGrange, vice provost for academic planning, have expressed confidence in the faculty’s ability to get the advising guides and advisors training done by the fall 2014 deadline. University Curriculum Committee (UCC) chairman Billy Kosteas and Goodell have expressed considerable concern, however.

For Goodell, the timeline is the most pressing concern.

“We kind of have the expertise to do it, but we don’t necessarily have the time to do it quickly,” Goodell said. “But in terms of the advising, I don’t think we have anywhere near the number of advisors or the time to advise all the students who need advising.”

Furthermore, Kosteas recently said he and other faculty are concerned about the quality of the curriculum since there is such a rush to make the fall 2014 deadline. Berkman said, however, that since the courses have to be approved by one of the six national accrediting bodies, that will play as a safety net to alert Cleveland State officials if there is anything unacceptable in the newly created curriculum.

In the end, however, Berkman did say the conversion is “not an easy logistics issue.”

A Promise of no harm

Berkman has repeatedly stated that no students will suffer any negative consequences, and most recently at his convocation speech on Oct. 3 he mentioned that students caught in the middle of the transition will be given the choice to move forward with the new course plans or finish with their original course.

“I have said, and I’ll repeat, that if in the process of making the conversion I feel that it is going to have negative consequences on students, then I would support an extension of time,” Berkman said. “Institutions are tough to make changes in, so once you get the change process going you want to keep the energy of the change process going.”