As an urban sociologist, Ronald Berkman ’73 has spent his career focused on the important issues of urban centers, from education to poverty to economic development. Now, as the president of Cleveland State University, he is working to support the city’s renewal during a time of great economic challenge.
Berkman, who assumed the presidency in 2009, views education as critical to the city’s revitalization. “The greatest challenge for higher education is making the case that it is integral to the success of the country,” he says. “The United States is the only country where the number of bachelor’s degrees earned is declining. We need to re-engineer our institutions—we have a lot of work to do in reinventing, realigning, and redesigning. It is critical for cities that need new economic pathways.”
He is well prepared for the challenges. Berkman grew up in Linden, and admits he was not a focused student in high school. A friend who was attending William Paterson encouraged him to give college a try, so he enrolled in two night classes, including a course in urban sociology. He decided to enroll full-time, and worked his way through college by driving a beer truck, working in a liquor store in Paterson (over which he lived in the attic apartment), and in a gypsum factory.
When he graduated in 1973 with a degree in political science, Princeton University offered him a full scholarship for graduate school. After earning his doctorate at Princeton, where he studied urban and economic development issues at the Woodrow Wilson School, he headed to Brooklyn College, where he taught for fifteen years. He later moved into administration, joining the City University of New York as university dean for urban affairs. His role there focused on developing research and technical partnerships at the city, state, and federal levels. In 1990, at the request of then Mayor David Dinkins, he directed the Urban Summit, a historic meeting of urban mayors from across the country.
In 1997, he was named dean of the College of Urban and Public Affairs at Florida International University in Miami, where he became provost, executive vice president and chief operating office in 2005.
Now, Berkman has turned his attention to Cleveland. And, as a passionate believer in public higher education, he says he is thankful for the education he received at William Paterson, which set him on the path he has followed. “My years on campus were really sensational,” he says. “The things I’ve been able to do have been because of that education.”
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