Joke to Jewel

Cleveland State wants to be something more than a glorified community college.

Other urban universities have already abandoned the - decrepit-mansion-on-the-hill model. - Walter  Novak
Other urban universities have already abandoned the decrepit-mansion-on-the-hill model.

When Councilman Joe Cimperman drives down Euclid Avenue, his eyes fix on the benches in front of Cleveland State's University Center. The seats face the building, a concrete slab among concrete slabs, so that their backs are turned to the street.

For Cimperman, the benches have always symbolized prevailing attitudes at CSU. "It was like they felt they had to apologize for being downtown," he says.

Indeed, for a university that supposedly contributes $250 million to the local economy, Cleveland State leaves few impressions on the city. In other places, centrally located universities serve as host organisms for lively housing, entertainment, and shopping. CSU has enriched Cleveland with a couple of pizza joints and architecture befitting the Soviet Bloc.

Cleveland State is so uninviting, even students keep their distance. Only 2 percent live on campus. The lone dorm is a converted Holiday Inn. Many full-time students prefer to live in Cleveland Heights and Lakewood. "Campus life is sort of weak on this campus," says an understated Lyzz Alexy, president of the student government.

Compounding the physical gloom, CSU's academic reputation is such that the university's own seem embarrassed to claim it. The law school refers to itself as the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, as if not wanting to be associated with the surrounding riffraff. Mayor Jane Campbell's bio on the city's website mentions her studies at the University of Michigan, but not the master's degree she earned from CSU's Levin College of Urban Affairs. "There is this never-ending feeling of Cleveland State being second-rate," says Patrick Salem, editor-in-chief of The Cauldron, the campus newspaper.

But if President Michael Schwartz has his way, CSU will halt its relentless pursuit of mediocrity. A former president of Kent State, Schwartz says that, by his second day on campus, he knew something needed to be done. "This was a drive-by degree place." So Schwartz is now working on a plan to "create a residential climate that's going to get people excited about Cleveland State and what's going on here."

Today, nothing about the place begs anyone to linger a moment longer than necessary. The bookstore looks like an auto-body shop. University Center, the de facto student union, is nicknamed the Cage for its dingy walls of glass and steel. "We kind of regarded this place as a bunch of buildings surrounded by parking lots," admits Jack Boyle, the school's vice president for business affairs.

The new plan calls for a fitness center, a bookstore, a wellness center, a student union, and the conversion of Fenn Tower into dorm space. Kick in a new College of Education and a renovated Howe Mansion, and CSU is looking at $150 million in construction costs, which are to be paid by a mix of bonds, state money, and private investment. "That's all doable in the next five years," Boyle says.

And how radical is this: When parking decks replace surface lots, the number of campus acres consumed by cars will fall from 25 to 0.5.

The plan also considers the neighborhood. The idea is for the city to reach in to the campus and for the campus to reach out to the city. This may sound like new-age hooey, but the implications are substantive. The university, for instance, is considering ways to realign its streets with the city's, allowing traffic, as well as the eye, to run through campus. Also, blocks north and south of campus would be primed for commercial development. As Boyle puts it, "People may not want to live over a bar, but they would like one to be near."

If it does nothing, CSU risks falling prey to its own banality. The current enrollment is 16,000, down from 19,000 in 1990.

A problem for CSU is that it serves two masters. Its population is split in half between traditional students -- those aged 18-24, who are looking for more of the "college experience" -- and nontraditional students, who care most about parking and class availability. The university, it seems fair to say, has been biased toward the latter. "Previous administrations were comfortable with creating an isolated commuter college," says Joe Marinucci, executive vice president of the Downtown Cleveland Partnership.

But competition for the convenience-minded student is fierce. In Independence, the for-profit University of Phoenix has opened a franchise. Indiana Wesleyan University is also constructing a $6 million building there. Such higher-education spoon-feeders can tout the fact they're not located in big, bad Cleveland. Salem, for one, wonders if the neighborhoods around CSU aren't too far gone. He faults the city and the county for placing so many welfare agencies near the school. "They're using it as a dumping ground," he says.

Still, signs of progress appear. Last September, a loft-apartment building opened across from the campus. With units ranging in price from $675 to $1,450 a month, 1900 Euclid Avenue Lofts hopes to attract faculty, staff, and high-level graduate students. Heritage Suites, which restored the old downtown YMCA, offers affordable efficiency apartments.

Two years ago, the university acquired the Doan Electric Building at East 22nd and Chester. Cimperman says the old CSU would have hurried to demolish the building in order to pave a parking lot. The new CSU will see whether the structure has use. "Now," the councilman says, "we're turning the benches around."

And none too soon. Other urban universities in the region have already abandoned the decrepit-mansion-on-the-hill model. The University of Akron, for example, began transforming its campus about five years ago. A $200 million project will nearly double the amount of open space and construct a 300,000-square-foot rec center. "We're like Burger King trying to catch up to McDonald's," Boyle says.

The fast-food metaphor is apt. With state help shrinking, the full-time student is a prized customer. "They're not going to come unless we've got something for them," Boyle says.