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What Cleveland’s new mayor could mean for higher ed

Case Western Reserve University president Eric Kaler, Cleveland State University president Harlan Sands, Mayor Justin Bibb, and Cuyahoga Community College president Alex Johnson met in late 2021. Photo: Cleveland State University

The city of Cleveland is many things, including home to three different types of higher education institutions. There’s the two-year public Cuyahoga Community College, four-year public Cleveland State University and private Case Western Reserve University.

All have their own goals and serve their own constituents. Yet a commonality is how the institutions’ successes are closely intertwined with the city in which they sit. Each are the rising tides and the boats concurrently.

So having a new mayor for the first time in 16 years, of course, is a big deal. Justin Bibb ran and won on a platform of bringing new ideas to his hometown.

The mayoral transition comes at a pivotal point in Northeast Ohio’s higher education landscape. The COVID-19 pandemic amplified already existing enrollment struggles at many schools. Many college students are dealing with issues outside the classroom that can impact what happens inside it. And the state of Ohio has an ambitious goal of having 65% of its residents earn a certificate, credential or degree by 2025.

As the city begins a fresh chapter with Bibb at the helm, leaders at the three colleges are feeling optimistic about the impact collaboration can have on their institutions, as well as the region.

“Higher education is the path to good paying jobs, and we have top-notch options and partners in Cleveland,” Bibb said in a statement to Crain’s Cleveland Business. “During the meeting with the three college presidents, we discussed our commitment to work together to build a lasting partnership that moves our entire region forward.”

Bibb is an alumnus of Case Western Reserve University. The University Circle institution is under relatively new leadership, too, as Kaler took over CWRU’s top spot in July 2021. He arrived at Case from the University of Minnesota. His eight-year stint as president there resulted in a reported research boom, and he said he plans to do the same at Case.

“For Cleveland to be a great city, we have the obligation at Case Western to be a great American research university,” Kaler said. “And we are, and we’re going to get bigger and better. But that’s critical to the success of the city.”

Successful town-gown partnerships, he said, hinge on two things: a shared vision and open communication. Having a city leader who is interested in economic development and developing an entrepreneurial culture is key to growth.

One of the biggest comparisons on this front is the city of Pittsburgh. Higher education institutions have played a big part in that city’s renaissance. A 2021 report from Cleveland State compared the economic growth of the two cities, including how Pittsburgh built a “more robust tradeable higher ed economy.”

In Ohio, there’s been a recent uptick of various types of collaborations involving higher ed.

The list includes plans for the Cleveland Innovation District. It’s a $565 million public-private partnership intended to spark economic growth and innovation. Both Cleveland State and CWRU are participating, along with the region’s hospital systems.

The initiative comes with real metrics institutions need to hit to succeed, according to Harlan Sands, president of Cleveland State. It won’t be the type of model, Sands said, “where we pray for it to happen.”

“That’s the large scale, big idea, big benefit, big ROI kind of thing that we really need to do if we’re going to move the needle, if we want to have a story to tell like other cities, “ he said of the project.

Faculty and students at CSU’s Levin College of Urban Affairs were tapped to volunteer to help with the Bibb administration’s transition. Only one of the presidents, Tri-C’s Johnson, was appointed to a transition committee focusing on education. The education section of then-candidate Bibb’s website focused more on ideas related to K-12 students.

In an interview with Crain’s, Johnson was careful to note his work with that committee was separate. He didn’t want to get ahead of any agenda that the committee may release.

Bibb will be the fourth mayor Johnson has worked with in Cleveland, as well as the last in his current role. Johnson plans to retire in June.

At the November meeting, Johnson said the presidents stressed how there should be a seamless K-16 transition between the city’s public school system and higher education. And as Cleveland looks to the future, he said there needs to be more engagement at a meaningful level, particularly with the city’s core communities.

“Introducing them to the power and the value of a post-secondary experience and what it can mean, ultimately, to their economic and personal growth,” he said.

The pandemic and its myriad effects on the city and its residents continue. A third of Cleveland’s residents don’t have access to the internet. The city is one of America’s poorest.

When it comes to higher education, it remains to be seen how platitudes could turn into policies or programs. It’s just days into the administration. Several of Bibb’s recently announced hires, though, do have ties to the sector.

Chief communications officer Sarah Johnson spent several years working in marketing at CWRU. New planning commission chair Lillian Kuri consulted on plans to develop the Greater University Circle Initiative while at the Cleveland Foundation. And Paul Patton, Bibb’s chief human resources officer, was a senior adviser to Ohio State University’s president.

Amy Morona covers higher education for Crain’s Cleveland Business, in partnership with Open Campus.

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