By Mollee Ryan
As new President Harlan Sands takes office here at Cleveland State University, opinions are circulating about the apparently, reputable man.
Although, the road before President Sands’ presidency was anything but easy.
Former President Ronald Berkman was a quiet man. You never heard his name very much, and if you did, it probably meant something was wrong. The same goes for his appearance around campus. Yet, despite his private and reserved manner, he accomplished a lot for the university, improving its national stature.
A 2017 study by the Brookings Institution found that Cleveland State was nationally ranked No. 18 for universities that accomplish the necessary dual mission: providing upward mobility and conducting vital research. In fact, Cleveland State is the only Ohio university in the top rankings of the Brookings list.
Along with the improvement in national rankings, other benchmarks in President Berkman’s presidency include record-setting freshman classes, the expansion of a brand-new research center and a $500 million campus renovation.
Berkman seemed to be dedicated to student success and the betterment of students as a whole, increasing the statistics of students who graduate on time, and with less debt. Because of those efforts, Cleveland State University was awarded the Excellence and Innovation Award from the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.
Berkman announced his retirement in June 2017. To award him for his great accomplishments and worthwhile contributions to the university, it was announced that the building formerly known as Main Classroom would be renamed Ronald Berkman Hall.
However, as Berkman seemed to be a highly respectable and influential individual at the university, a huge controversy in Berkman’s last year of presidency at Cleveland State could have ruined everything he accomplished.
In October 2017, an offensive poster with a silhouette of a person hanging from a noose, surrounded by suicide statistics appeared on a bulletin board around campus. The poster urged gays, bisexuals and transgender individuals to kill themselves. As the poster made its way around social media and eventually made national news, students, faculty and even the general public were appalled at how this display of “hate speech” was allowed to be posted around campus.
When these concerns were mentioned to Berkman however, he took a different approach. While Berkman never said the poster was appropriate or moral, he argued that whoever posted it was practicing their First Amendment right to freedom of speech. This created dissention across the university and protests broke out around campus, along with challenges against faculty.
Was this freedom of speech or hate speech? Was Berkman homophobic for taking this issue so incredibly lightly and nonchalant, or did he actually not find it offensive?
It may not have been right, but is anything ever actually right?
With the past behind us now, a fresh, new face appeared around campus.
Harlan Sands, former Vice Dean of Finance and Administration, Chief Financial Officer and Chief Administration Officer at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, was named Cleveland State’s seventh president, starting June 1, 2018. Students seemed to be excited, campus buzzing with expectation and anticipation about what the new president could offer to the university, especially with his highly respectable status.
Obviously, with the incident that happened in Berkman’s final months as president, students were elated with the change in faculty. Maybe he could be the one to bring the change — change was what they wanted after all — of justice and impartiality.
“One thing that really impressed me was the other day on a Sunday afternoon, I saw him playing one-on-one basketball with a student in the Recreation Center,” Thomas Khristenko, a senior economics major. “There weren’t even any camera crews or anything. It didn’t look like he was doing it for the publicity. He looked like he was actually enjoying himself.”
From move-in day to this point, halfway through the semester, President Sands seems to have been in at least one place on campus everyday so far. Many students are absorbing the confident and involved president, which feels quite odd to most upperclassman, because Berkman was so private and closed-off.
Unlike Berkman’s mannerisms, Sands has proven himself to be a great deal different, making sure his students and faculty know who he is and why he is there because he cares about the success and betterment of students at the university. An exciting time on campus it has been for most; however, although the majority of students seemed pleased with the results of a new president, there are some with an opinion on the latter.
“I don’t know, he seems kind of flashy. It seems like a front to me.” freshman exercise science major Lily Horn said.
Despite Sands’ efforts to be open and honest with students on campus and the community, there does seem to be some kind of discrepancy between what he speaks and what he does.
It can be rather simple to build and grow relationships on campus with students and faculty, but you must expand those skills outside of the college campus, occasionally. This is a skill that Berkman struggled with, and it seems that Sands may be going through the same thing.
Of course, what Sands has been doing around campus has been pretty great, and a wonderful experience for first year students especially, but is it all a front? A front to ignore the great responsibilities of being the president of a university with such great accomplishments and high standards?
We’ve all heard the talk, and we’ve all heard the goals that Sands has set for himself to accomplish before his time as president is up, but what is he actually doing right now? Building a relationship with your students is wonderful, but shouldn’t that be winding down now since we are already done with the first few weeks of college?
Being about halfway through the semester now, I know I want to see some action. I want to know what else is going on and what issues he is going to change. There is a separate time and a place for socialization and work, but in this case, the two could even be combined. For example, holding an ice cream social event, fundraising for a student organization on campus, preferably of a minority group. So far, I don’t believe we have seen any of those types of things. It is “cool” and “fun” to play basketball and take selfies with students around campus, but that can’t be the only thing happening here. As a student, we cannot be a friend. We need leadership, and that’s what a president is in charge of.
Despite Berkman’s mistakes and grievances, he left the university with a lot of resources and a good reputation statewide and even nationally. Even as a freshman here, I want to keep that.
President Sands, we appreciate your efforts. We like getting to know you. But it’s time to start taking action, taking action against the obvious issues that have been happening around campus.