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Remembering former CSU president Dr. Claire Van Ummersen

The first woman to hold the position of President at Cleveland State University, Dr. Claire A. Van Ummersen, passed away on September 29 after sustaining injuries in an automobile accident in Needham, Massachusetts. She was 86. 

A groundbreaking educator both literally and figuratively, Dr. Van Ummersen took office at Cleveland State University on April 20, 1993, succeeding President John Flower who retired in June 1992. 

She had her work cut out for her from the moment she arrived – tackling such issues as declining enrollment and the grip of a nationwide recession that was only beginning to loosen. Speaking to the City Club a few short months after taking office, Dr. Van Ummersen talked about challenges that institutions of higher learning faced in the late 20th century. 

“Public higher education institutions are caught between the proverbial rock and hard place,” she said. “Most students today need help financially and academically in order to enroll and successfully complete a higher education degree.” 

In many ways, the trajectory CSU currently finds itself on today began with Dr. Van Ummersen’s leadership. 

A declining pool of college-age students became a signpost to focus on improving student services and retention – including the conversion to a semester system in 1998 – and to begin a greater integration of the university community with that of the surrounding city, which still informs CSU’s approach today. 

The “17th-18th Street Block Project” arrived during her tenure, including ambitious new buildings for the James Nance College of Business Administration (Monte Ahuja Hall, 1998) and the Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs (Glickman-Miller Hall, 2001), as well as an expanded library for CSU Cleveland-Marshall College of Law and a new parking garage. 

“The project emphasizes the urban nature of the university,” Dr. Van Ummersen said at the time. “Further, it develops another entire block of the city, making a contribution to the renaissance of downtown Cleveland.” 

Five years later, she would preside over another sign of things to come: the ribbon cutting for the Health Sciences Building, a two-story underground structure south of the Physical Education building and west of Mather Mansion. 

During her tenure at CSU, Dr. Van Ummersen established major partnerships with the Cleveland Clinic, University Hospitals and with Case Western Reserve University – leading to a research collaborative on structural biology called Biomedical Research Cleveland. Partnering with Kent State University, University of Akron, Northeast Ohio Medical University (then NEOUCOM) and Youngstown State University, joint master’s programs were developed in social work and public health. 

What’s more, university endowment grew fourfold during Dr. Van Ummersen’s tenure, and the seeds for CSU becoming a smoke-free campus in 2013 were planted on her watch, with the CSU Board of Trustees voting to restrict smoking in campus buildings. 

A Massachusetts native and a scientist by training, Dr. Van Ummersen got her start in developmental biology researching the effects of microwave radiation and how radar effects the eye. 

“She was tenacious, visionary and knew the pulse of academic institution,” said Monte Ahuja, who served on CSU’s Board of Trustees for nine years and as its chairman for six years. “She brought stability and calmness to a turbulent time.” 

Dr. Van Ummersen’s tenure at Cleveland State University ended in 2001, but her impact at CSU and in higher education carries on.

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Cleveland State University Alumni Association
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