By KATE STONE LOMBARDI
Published: February 12, 2009
RICHARD BERMAN never planned on a career in higher education. But 14 years ago, when he headed the search committee to find a new president for Manhattanville College, he faced a problem. No one wanted the job.
Prospective candidates looked at an institution that had dwindling enrollment, deteriorating buildings, a small operating budget and an endowment of less than $1 million and was in default on its loans. Some predicted that the college would have to close its doors in 18 months.
To the surprise of many, including himself, Mr. Berman left his position as president and chief executive of an executive search and management consulting firm and stepped into the job at Manhattanville. Now, as he gets ready to step down from the presidency at the end of the school year, he is widely credited with turning the college around.
Its finances are stable, and the endowment has grown to $21.3 million. Enrollment has nearly tripled, to 1,700 undergraduates and 1,200 graduate students, and the college’s profile has been raised locally and nationally. Manhattanville has climbed into the Princeton Review’s 2009 rankings of best colleges and is known for its global reach — it attracts students from all over the world.
Still, Mr. Berman’s tenure has not been without controversy. There has been faculty resistance on issues ranging from abolishing assigned parking spaces to introducing new athletic teams. Last year, the faculty delivered a “no confidence” vote after he fired a popular administrator who worked in student affairs. The trustees backed Mr. Berman, but the incident, he said, influenced his decision to move on.
“It’s obviously more fun to come to work when everyone is pleased with what you’re doing,” he said. “But if everybody is pleased with you, you’re probably not pushing the envelope hard enough.”
As he sat in his office, which is decorated with hockey jerseys, plaques and trophies, Mr. Berman, 64, said he was proud of his tenure and believed his vision of a college that creates self-confident students with a global vision and a sense of community purpose had been largely realized.
One of his missions was to transform the college from an isolated suburban campus into a vibrant part of the wider community. Mr. Berman noted that 500 students performed more than 30,000 hours of community service last year.
Manhattanville is now home to the Westchester Holocaust and Human Rights Education Center. Every year, the campus hosts Westchester’s breast cancer walk and autism walk. My Soldier, a pen pal program that seeks to lift soldiers’ spirits with letters and packages, was started at Manhattanville by a student who had been deployed to Iraq during his sophomore year; it now has more than 400,000 volunteers.
The college sometimes feels a bit like the United Nations; a trip to the cafeteria reveals a babble of languages. Thirteen percent of the students are international, and 14 percent identify themselves as Hispanic. Currently, 15 students from the Seeds of Peace program, which focuses on educating children from war-torn areas, are studying on campus. They represent, among other places, the West Bank, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
In addition to attracting a more diverse student body, Mr. Berman had hoped to build the representation of another group on campus — men — in part by reinvigorating Manhattanville’s sports program. That included starting a hockey program.
Though that goal was less successful — 33 percent of the students at the former women’s college, which became coeducational in 1969, are male — Mr. Berman said he is pleased with the overall outcome. On average, he said, athletes have higher grade point averages, higher retention rates and greater community service participation than students who do not participate in sports.
As for the hockey program, both the men’s and the women’s teams have been consistently ranked in the top 10 of Division III.
Mr. Berman has also taken a special interest in Manhattanville’s Graduate School of Education, which developed a “jump start” program to help people interested in second careers become certified to teach more quickly than traditional programs do. The college has also established formal relationships with public schools around Westchester, providing faculty development, helping to prepare teacher candidates and working to improve classroom instruction. There is a special focus on districts with large Latino populations.
“Our relationship with Manhattanville has really evolved over the years,” said Eileen Santiago, principal of the Edison School in Port Chester, where 84 percent of students are Hispanic and 10 percent are African-American. “The college has taken a significant leadership role, and it’s because President Berman really understands the value of partnership and community.”
Mr. Berman, who lives on campus and eats his meals in the cafeteria (“I don’t cook,” he said), says he has no specific plans for what he will do next. Before his job at Manhattanville, he worked in the business world and in government. He says he hopes his next position will have a global focus and involve “fixing something.”
“I don’t have a house, I don’t have a wife and I don’t have a dog,” he said. “I’m free to go anywhere and do anything, and I’m trying to explore all the options.”