Laura Bloomberg joined Cleveland State University as provost in 2021 and then took  the university’s top spot the next April after the abrupt ousting of former president Harlan Sands. 

She’s seemingly charting her own course, though. November alone saw an introduction of a proposed $650 million master plan to transform the institution as well as the news that the university would strip the name of former U.S. Chief Justice and slaveholder John Marshall from its law school. 

But it’s not a semester without challenges. The university continues to experience declining enrollments as well as a reported $17.4 million budget deficit. 

She spoke to Signal Cleveland earlier this month in a wide-ranging conversation. It has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

Congratulations on your recent inauguration. What made you select the ceremony’s theme of “Living well together, on our campus, in our city?”

First of all, I have long thought that the pursuit of education, the pursuit of new knowledge and new learning for us as humans is about living well. We want to know things because we are intrinsically curious. The second part of this is that as we emerge from a global pandemic, we really need to honestly face the challenges of that. Grieving the sense of loss, whether it’s the loss of loved ones or the loss of learning opportunities, all the things, and understand that we have kind of a tsunami of mental-health challenges, all of us as people. The more we talk about our collective well-being, I think, the better we are as learners and as educators. 

And then I am just in love with urban campuses, so I really wanted to signal that it’s not only living well on our campus, but it is also living well in our city, with all of its strengths and all of its weaknesses.

What role does Cleveland State currently play for Clevelanders who don’t live in or visit downtown?

We certainly have students who come to us from not only all parts of Cleveland but all parts of the region, so our alumni base extends far beyond downtown for sure. [Eighty percent of CSU’s 140,000 graduates live within the region.] Our 1,500 employees live all over the region. We are in many places. 

When we think about where our students are interning or completing co-ops or having applied learning experiences, that too is far beyond downtown. 

Have you spent time in other parts of the city, neighborhoods such as Hough or Glenville or Slavic Village? 

Yes. We’re in conversations. We do a lot of work with University Hospitals, the Cleveland Clinic and MetroHealth. We talk with Sisters of Charity about their work. We’ll be talking again soon with the folks at the Cleveland Foundation and what that development [in Midtown] looks like, what the potential of that is for the Hough neighborhood, and what our role in that should be. 

I’m not ready to say what our role in that should be, because I don’t want to just have a place without thinking carefully about what it means to use and activate space in a neighborhood. I think we need to be very thoughtful and strategic about that.

Let’s talk about enrollment. The declines at CSU are continuing. I read about a roughly $17 million deficit, in part due to those lower-than-expected rates. Are you worried about enrollment?

I’m worried about higher ed broadly and how we adapt to a shifting set of expectations for what we do. But I do think we have to think very carefully about what society needs right now and the extent to which we will adapt to address that. 

I think about it more like that than I specifically worry about declining enrollment. Yes, of course, I worry about declining enrollment. I think about our budget every day. 

Mostly, I think about how it is that we in higher ed, and specifically we at CSU, are relevant to society today. I believe a huge part of that is the extent to which we engage with the communities that we serve. We have plans in place to address both enrollment and that budget gap, and we’ve presented them to the board. 

But one of the things that we have been crystal clear about, that we are focused like a laser on, is the experience of students who are already with us. It doesn’t matter if we enroll thousands more students if we are not confident that once they’re there we have the kind of partnership that will help them to be successful and persist towards graduation. We must first focus on that. 

The other thing we’re focused like a laser on is how do we differentiate the ways in which we are recruiting, admitting, and enrolling students, including with the online programs, including with a broader area from which we recruit. We are largely a regional institution, but regional could include western Pennsylvania and New York and parts of Michigan. I think we can do a better job of that as well.

Students who graduate and have a successful experience become happy alums, so it’s kind of a virtuous cycle. 

I was recently talking with students at a coffee shop near campus. When I asked about their concerns, all of them said tuition. They seemed worried, honestly. When you hear those types of anecdotes, what do you think, and what types of resources exist to help? 

I am so grateful to the generosity and the philanthropy of our community partners and our alums, who really do understand this challenge. Just about every day, I spend a significant part of my day thinking about how I can grow the amount of funding we have available to support students through scholarships, through last-mile emergency funds, through the kinds of supports that we provide. I think that philanthropy really does need to be a big part of this. 

At the same time, as a society, I think we really need to acknowledge that higher education is, in many ways, a public good. We are changing the economic circumstances, the social mobility of families for generations to come. 

I was in Columbus all day yesterday with other public university presidents from the state. We spent the vast majority of our time talking about the state share of instruction and the instructional costs and the Ohio College Opportunity Grants, our collective efforts to really try to focus on those and say, when times are good for the state, when the resources are there, how can higher ed be a huge part of the conversation about what we need to fund. 

Now, at the same time, I believe that our institutions have to be prudent, we have to think carefully about costs. But we also cannot ignore that it is imperative that we support the wellbeing of our students. It is imperative that we provide the kind of mental-health support that students need if they’re going to be successful. It is imperative that we recruit the best faculty we can to provide the kind of educational environment that we believe our students deserve. 

A huge part of it is understanding what is the “public-ness” of public universities, which has shrunk over time. We need to address that. And then we also need to be able to really support students with the greatest need with philanthropic support, so that they can actually graduate as close to debt-free as possible.

Where do you think CSU will be a year from now? What are your metrics for success as you work to get there?

I believe our metrics of success should be students’ persistence towards graduation, so graduation rates, but also year-over-year persistence. We want that to improve. 

Right now, we’re gathering a lot of post-pandemic data. I’m not quite ready to say what that percent change should be. I want to have a clearer sense of where we are right now. So we’re working a lot on just getting our data analysis correct. 

I would like to see our enrollment grow. We’re not going to close that budget gap in a year. That would require draconian change and we’re not going to do that, but we have a multi-year plan for closing that, so we will be looking at whether we’re meeting our metrics in that area. 

And then I want us to be thinking about some of the things that we’ve done to really be relevant to the region. I want to be able to look at those and say, yes, we’re getting there, like our college realignment and how that positively impacts our ability to partner with the community, like our substantial focus on engaged learning and student internships. I want to see metrics around those growing as well.

Amy Morona covers higher education for Signal Cleveland, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for Signal Cleveland in partnership with Open Campus.