Remarks by President Ronald M. Berkman at AJC / Richard H. Adler Community Leadership Award Ceremony



Thank you for that warm introduction, Michael Cantor.

Many thanks, too, to Bernie Moreno and Tom Adler of the Cleveland State University Board of Trustees for your very kind remarks.

Now more than ever, the work of AJC is vital to our city, our country and our world.

I applaud your ongoing efforts to sow the seeds of tolerance, particularly by building bridges among those in our community.

This is the legacy of Richard Adler, and it’s truly a great honor to accept the Community Leadership Award that bears his name.

I know many of the previous honorees, and it is humbling to be in their distinguished company.

I want to thank the Adler family for all you have done to enrich the civic and philanthropic fabric of our community.

Tonight’s event is one example of their generosity of spirit and their quest to promote opportunity and unity.

I’m especially grateful to Tom Adler.

Tom is a great friend of Cleveland State University.

He has served on the CSU Board of Trustees since 2004.

His leadership has been essential to strengthening the ties between our campus and the community.

Thank you, Tom.

I also wish to thank the Reverend Dr. Otis Moss Jr., who received an honorary doctorate from CSU in 1997, for this evening’s invocation, and Lee C. [note “Lee C.,” not “Lee”] for her work in coordinating this event.


I’d like to take this opportunity to speak to you about the state of higher education.

As president of Cleveland State University, this obviously is a subject I think about daily.

I hope it’s a subject that is also of great interest to everyone in this room.

As higher education goes, so goes the nation.

Indeed, both the vitality of our democracy and the strength of our economy depend on it.

Our democracy – all democracies – depend on citizens equipped to make informed decisions – decisions that not only promote individual or collective self-interest, but the greatest good for the greatest number.

Such decisions can only be made when there are opportunities to understand what constitutes a “fact” and when we have the skills to reason, debate, disagree and grow through the consideration of other points of view.

These are the skills that we seek to promote and refine in our classrooms.

Never in my lifetime have these skills been more important for the future of the nation and the globe.


At the very time that support for economic and civic development is most needed, many Americans have lost faith in higher education.

Unfortunately, more than 80 percent of working-class Americans – four out of five people – believe a college degree is no longer any guarantee of success in America, according to a report in Inside Higher Ed.

We find ourselves faced with a formidable challenge: workforce training for a knowledge-driven economy amid an anti-college climate.

On the economic front, there will continue to be jobs for students without college degrees.

The overall growth of knowledge economies will increasingly require a workforce with postsecondary education.

According to the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, 65 percent of all new jobs will necessitate such preparation.


All told, as of today, less than 40 percent of Ohio’s workforce has a postsecondary degree or credential:

  • 9 percent have an associate’s degree;
  • 18 percent have a bachelor’s degree;
  •  and 10 percent have an advanced or professional degree.

While this attainment gap looms, concerns about college affordability persist, amid declining financial aid.

At the federal level, the purchasing power of the Pell Grant – which provides critical financial support for low-income undergraduate students – has decreased dramatically as the cost of tuition continues to outpace inflation.

Ohio ranks 45 out of 50 states for college affordability, based on the percentage of family income needed to pay for college.

Ohio also falls well below the national average for state funding per student.

Just last month, The Plain Dealer reported that Ohio’s support for public higher education has decreased 15 percent since the 2008 recession.


Amid this disinvestment, higher education is on trial in the court of public opinion, too.

Time and again, we hear the same question: Is a college degree really WORTH it anymore?

Skepticism about higher education is nothing new – it is rooted in the American experience and resultant culture.

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, historian Richard Hofstadter traces the ongoing battle between intellectualism and other forces, such as religion and business, waged throughout our history, from the days of the Founding Fathers through the McCarthyism of the 1950s.

In examining the latter era, Hofstadter quotes a particularly ruthless critic who declared: “Our universities are the training grounds for the barbarians of the future, those who, in the guise of learning, shall come forth loaded with pitchforks of ignorance and cynicism, and stab and destroy the remnants of human civilization.”

Anti-Intellectualism in American Life was published in 1963 – but many passages feel so relevant today, as various political interests portray universities as bastions of liberal thought and enemies of free expression.

In my 40 years in the academy, I truly have found universities to be homes of pluralist thought and safe spaces for the expression of diverse ideas.

It is vital to protect this legacy.

Hofstadter draws a distinction between intelligence and intellectualism, which he defines as a habit of mind that “accepts conflict as a central and enduring reality and understands human society as a form of equipoise based upon the continuing process of compromise.”

An entire section of the book is devoted to education, a vital counterbalance to anti-intellectualism.


In an excellent new book titled Lesson Plan, two leading authorities on higher-education policy – William Bowen and Michael McPherson – describe higher education as a means of investing in human capital – or, more specifically, human improvement.

Citing data from the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, the authors note that over the first 15 years of the 21st century, postsecondary educational attainment among 25- to 34-year-olds increased 15 percent on average worldwide.

In the U.S., attainment increased by roughly half that rate for the same demographic over the same period.

Bowen and McPherson warn: “The United States has clearly lost the major advantage it once enjoyed in providing postsecondary education to a large share of its population – an ominous finding in an increasingly knowledge-driven world.”

While much of the dialogue about higher education today revolves around access and affordability, the authors of Lesson Plan make a compelling case for shifting our focus to attainment – that is, actually completing a college degree in a timely manner.

Most students at public universities nationwide take six years to graduate, not four.

On average, this costs another $46,000 in tuition and $90,000 in lost wages.

Bowen and McPherson state: “We know that degree completion per se (as compared with simply completing an equivalent number of years of college) is strongly associated with distinctly above-average employment outcomes.”


Bowen and McPherson also make a case for improving teaching through technology.

Now more than ever, the possibilities for delivering instruction are seemingly endless.

Massive Open Online Courses -- MOOCs for short -- have struck a chord with a new open-access model for higher education.

In a similar vein, distance-learning courses reached more than 6 million students at last count.

Competency-based learning, which makes heavy use of technology to allow students to progress at their own pace, is a methodology rooted in many of the online, private educational providers like the University of Phoenix.

Higher education in the U.S. must evolve and provide multiple pathways for students to develop civic and workforce skills.


Yet for now, educational technology can only take us so far.

A few weeks ago, I came across a fascinating article in The New York Times.

It described a study in which young schoolchildren listened to a story read by a robot teacher.

The robot utilized simulated emotional expressions to interact with some of the students.

For others, the robot stuck to a “flat” delivery, minus any social cues.

The study determined that the more animated approach resulted in better learning outcomes and engagement among the students.

The authors wrote: “If we want to use technology to help people learn, we have to provide information in the way the human mind evolved to receive it. . . . Yes, the human brain is an amazing information processor, but it evolved to take in, analyze and store information in a specific way: through social interaction.”

In other words: While Domino’s is testing driverless cars to deliver pizzas as we speak, the driverless classroom is still a long way off.


So there you have it: a quick overview of higher education from 35,000 feet.

In closing, let me bring the discussion back down here to Cleveland.

At Cleveland State University, we agree that attainment is critical.

We’ve received national recognition for a suite of student-success initiatives designed to help students save time and save money while completing their degrees – and graduate fully prepared to thrive in their chosen careers.

Like AJC, CSU also believes in the power of partnerships and building bridges between ourselves and our community.

Our emphasis on Engaged Learning means the city itself is a learning laboratory for our students, with more than 3,000 co-ops and internships across every industry in Northeast Ohio available to provide them with invaluable hands-on experience.

In partnership with the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, CSU has opened two schools on our campus – Campus International School and MC2STEM High School – to raise the bar for academic achievement among young students and to create a clear pathway to college for them.

In partnership with NEOMED, CSU is training a more diverse health-care workforce to meet the unique health-care needs of urban neighborhoods.

And we have another great example of partnership right here: This beautiful theatre within the Allen Theatre complex is part of the CSU Arts Campus, a partnership among CSU, Playhouse Square and Cleveland Playhouse.

The Arts Campus, which soon also will be home to our new film school, provides unparalleled opportunities for our students who are studying theatre, dance and the arts to hone their skills amid the second-largest performing-arts center in the nation.


Put it all together at CSU and you have a winning combination.

According to a new report from the highly respected Brookings Institution, CSU ranks No. 18 in the entire nation among public universities that provide social mobility AND conduct vital research.

CSU is the only Ohio public university on this list.

We offer equal access to higher education to more low-income students – nearly 11 percent of our total enrollment – than any other Ohio public university, according to Brookings.

At the same time, our cutting-edge research enterprise encompasses a broad range of fields, from gene regulation to human motion and control to population dynamics.

When it comes to improving lives and expanding knowledge, Cleveland State University is proud to be a national leader among public universities.

We couldn’t do it without the support of our community.

We couldn’t do it without all of you.

Thank you.