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Harlan Sands

Growing up in a working-class family on Long Island, N.Y., Harlan M. Sands didn’t dream of being an astronaut, doctor or university president. But becoming the seventh president of Cleveland State University is his latest achievement in a career filled with unique experiences.

“I lived in a blue-collar neighborhood, attended public schools and was lucky to be part of a small group of studious kids who stayed together throughout junior high and high school. I was a good student, liked school, worked hard and the great opportunities always came. When chips fell into place I’ve gotten to do many things in my career,” he says.

“Being president of Cleveland State is the opportunity of a lifetime. I am honored and humbled to lead this prestigious university and am excited to work with students, faculty, staff and community leaders to continue and enhance CSU’s important educational mission,” he adds.

Sands’ experience with higher education began as a student at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned the first of his three college degrees — a bachelor of science in economics. He lived on campus and attended school full time for four years on a ROTC scholarship. When not involved with academics or ROTC activities, he played video games — and was paid to do so.

“I worked for Mattel Electronics, playing and selling video games,” he recalls. “I would set up a table at malls or stores like Sears and Kmart and demonstrate video games, trying to sell them to parents and kids.”

After graduating from Wharton, Sands served 11 years of active duty in the United States Navy, including four years as an officer on the warship USS Guam and several tours as an intelligence officer, where his duties included tracking the location of the Russian fleet. He received two Naval Commendation Medals during Operation Desert Storm.

One of his most vivid Naval memories is retrieving pieces of the space shuttle that exploded in 1986. “A horrific day,” he remembers. Happier memories include being appointed a White House military aide. “I worked for Presidents Bush #41 and Clinton for general receptions in the East Wing, receiving lines at state dinners, Christmas White House tours and more,” he says.

During his time in the Navy, Sands earned two graduate degrees — an M.B.A. from George Washington University and a J.D. from George Mason University. He attended school part-time at night for six years — an experience he shares with many CSU students. “I identify with them because I was one of them,” he notes.

In the mid-1990s, Sands left the Navy and began his second career — practicing law.

“I was visiting friends from college who were practicing law in Miami,” he recalls. “They talked me into giving it a try.” Before long, he had passed the Florida bar exam and began a four-year stint as a public defender in Miami. It was quite a departure from his former life.

“Wearing a military uniform and representing our country, I felt well respected,” he says. “Representing indigent clients is not as valued in our society. It was a humbling experience that helped me develop a keen sense of the social issues and challenges in urban areas — an experience that is part of who I am today.” 

In Florida, Sands began his journey through academia and taught several law classes as a visiting lecturer in the Department of Criminal Justice at Florida International University. One day, a university dean asked if he might like to try his hand in administration. That dean was CSU President Emeritus Ronald M. Berkman.

“What a small world this is,” marvels Sands. “Ron Berkman gave me my first experience in higher education administration, and some two decades later, I succeed him as CSU president.”

Sands brings to CSU a proven track record of advancing academic excellence, elevating faculty-led initiatives, championing research, and aligning strategies and operations to meet the emerging needs of higher education in the 21st century. He believes that his diverse career in higher education has prepared him well to be CSU’s president.

“I have worked on both the financial and academic administration components of university operations positions, including assistant dean, associate dean, vice president of research, vice provost and faculty instructor. I have learned about universities from the ground up,” he says.

At FIU, he was an assistant dean and associate dean of the College of Health and Urban Affairs, associate vice president for research and executive director of the FIU Applied Research Center. From there, he spent seven-plus years at the University of Alabama at Birmingham where he was vice provost for administration and quality improvement and chief operating officer for the provost. Sands served as senior vice president of finance and administration and chief operating officer at the University of Louisville. His final stop before CSU was his alma mater, Wharton, where he was vice dean of finance and administration, chief financial officer and chief administrative officer.

“The sum total of all my experiences helps me see challenges and opportunities from a number of perspectives. And that benefits all constituencies,”
he says.

Sands says he was attracted to CSU, in part, because of his passion for urban education, having spent his entire academic career at urban universities. “I truly believe in the mission of urban universities and in the unique impact they have. I understand the importance of urban universities to first-generation students, as well as the challenges these students face in pursuing higher education. I am committed to helping them succeed and graduate.

“Through Cleveland State’s commitment to higher education access for all, student success, Engaged Learning, research and connectivity with the community, the University is uniquely positioned to transform lives in a way that very few institutions can match,” he adds.

Sands strongly believes that universities like CSU are anchor institutions, contributing to the growth, economic vitality and quality of life in their communities. But they also should be beacons, he says, attracting talented people to come, stay, learn, live and work.

“CSU’s mission as an anchor institution directly impacts economic growth by graduating workforce-ready students who provide fuel to power local industry and attract 21st-century businesses to Northeast Ohio,” he notes. “CSU produces the talent that drives this region forward.

“Four out of five CSU alumni live and work in Northeast Ohio — more than 100,000 strong — with more to come. Urban universities like CSU have a special role to play in filling the talent gap and are equipped to do so because of student demographics, academic programs and proximity to industry.”

And while high-tech careers and STEM education may be all the buzz, Sands believes the full curricular components of a broad-based university education are equally, if not more, important.

“Employers need graduates who can read and write well and are critical thinkers,” he notes.

Sands says he has been “blown away” by the commitment of Cleveland’s business and community leaders, as well as the general public, to CSU’s continuing success.

“People see CSU’s value and potential,” he says. “Working together to define CSU’s future, we will strengthen our existing partnerships and cultivate new ones that will pay dividends throughout our region.

“Our commitment to the Cleveland community and to the CSU team is to develop a coordinated strategy that will build upon core strengths and invest in the right mix of programs and learning pathways that create a robust talent pipeline to meet our collective needs and connect students with the emerging workforce needs of Northeast Ohio.”

While Sands is accustomed to city living and urban universities, he has found Cleveland and CSU to be among the best.

“At CSU, the city is the campus. We are downtown. Students’ proximity to countless employers, business sectors, community nonprofits, cultural institutions and innovation centers provides a gateway to many careers. When students attend and graduate from CSU, the multiplier effect is measurable: a transformative intellectual experience for students, and a source of talent for nearby business and industry,” he says.

“My impressions of CSU and Cleveland are of a growing, vibrant community where people stay once they get here. One of the reasons I accepted this position was because of the campus-city connection and the excitement I have seen from all constituencies. From day one, every conversation has been incredibly positive. Faculty, staff, students and the community feel very excited about where we are and where we are going as institution.

“Given the incredible energy and passion from CSU trustees, business and community leaders, friends and supporters, and our students, faculty and staff, I am confident that we will meet the challenges ahead.”

Sands’ leadership style is something he honed in the military — management by walking around.

“I strive to be very accessible. You never know where I might pop up,” he says. That includes helping students unload their cars and move into residence halls at the start of fall semester.

“It was fun to interact with them and their parents, see their excitement and learn their expectations,” he says.

Sands has found CSU students to be “gritty, hard-working, motivated and understanding of the opportunities available here.” During his first months on the job, he has focused on making students — and all constituents — feel engaged with the University. “I have been meeting with everyone, talking with them, hearing their thoughts and ideas, and building relationships,” he says.

“We have a collective opportunity to define what CSU will be in five or 10 years. Our goals — to build upon academic strengths, continue to work on operating more efficiently, and show our investors (students and taxpayers) that we are good financial stewards — will make a great university even greater.”

Getting to Know Harlan Sands

Sands credits his strong work ethic to his family.

His father was a substitute high school teacher by day, a forecaster for the National Weather Service at night, and later spent 20-plus years with an engineering construction firm. His stay-at-home mother raised four children and started a children’s clothing consignment business which expanded to include women’s clothes. He has two sisters — the oldest a high school teacher of learning disabled students on Long Island and the youngest an advertising executive in Manhattan. His younger brother passed away at age 30. The entire family was in town for President Sands’ investiture.

Sands met his wife of nearly 18 years, Lynn, when both were public defenders in Miami. Both are foodies who are enjoying this area’s many restaurants.

Sands tries to keep fit by running several miles three or four times weekly.

Two university presidents have asked to borrow Sands’ “One Thing” campaign asking faculty, staff and students to submit one suggestion for making CSU better. More than 300 ideas — from pulling weeds to changing policies — have been submitted.

Growing up, Sands had a newspaper route. “That’s where I learned about hard work, perseverance, resilience, different breeds of dogs that bite, forgiveness, humor and gratitude,” he says.

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