Richard Berman fixed Manhattanville College, but can he repair its faith in his leadership?
By Ann J. Loftin
Richard A. Berman took a once-powerful Catholic women’s college, a liberal arts lamb lost in the fiscal forest, and made it a born-again business. Now Manhattanville runs in the black, has full enrollment, selective admissions, nationally ranked men’s and women’s ice hockey teams, and offers 20 graduate programs, including master’s degrees in teaching, organizational management, and leadership and strategic management. Manhattanville’s first capital campaign is more than halfway complete, and a new arts center is slated to open next year.
For all of the above, Manhattanville College owes Berman a debt of gratitude, and everyone says as much. But now faculty members say they’re tired of hearing what they call “the story of the resurrection.” They want some assurances that this small but historically significant college will not be sacrificed to the profit engine of a graduate business school. They want a say in what gets built on the campus—and they weren’t happy to learn, recently, about plans to repurpose a house on the edge of campus. They’re questioning President Berman’s constant presence, wondering aloud whether more time on the capital-campaign trail wouldn’t serve the college far better than hanging around the cafeteria. They’re upset over Berman’s decision to fire Mary Corrarino, his vice president—a former alumna who, by some accounts, had become a voice for faculty concerns—at the start of the school year. Berman job-hopped every few years before coming to the college 12 years ago, so why, his critics ask, doesn’t he hop along now? Isn’t it time for Richard Berman to go?
A fair question. And Berman, who greets all visitors with a high-wattage smile and a warm hug when applicable, is ready for it. The Cincinnati native still radiates Midwestern bonhomie. He’s a tall man, strong-looking and athletic, with only the modest paunch one might get from late nights eating microwave popcorn alone in the kitchen (a vice to which he freely admits). Twice divorced, he lives alone in the president’s house just behind his office. “I believe in the strategic plan, and I believe in the capital campaign,” Berman says, obliquely addressing the question of his departure, while citing previous experience with firestorms at Manhattanville. “I took a lot of flack for firing the head of the school of education. But now people are fine with it.” He notes he has changed CFOs multiple times and that, when he opposed their move to unionize, the faculty practically burned him at the stake. So he predicts that the most recent conflagration will also die down.
“Sure, it hurts to make enemies,” he says. “But you have to decide: either you want to be the most liked person or you want to leave a legacy other than â€˜He was the most liked person who ever took the ship down.’”
Meanwhile, here’s another visitor to charm—and this man could sell sand to the Saudis. He shows off his office, a veritable magician’s road show, every flat surface festooned with autographs, encomia, souvenirs, presents from friends, family, and admirers. Alongside the usual photos of donors posing at gala dinners, there’s a signed drawing of Fred Flintstone, a trio of Happy Feet penguins, a tiny sombrero made by the college’s security guard (who greets all comers with the phrase, “Welcome to Paradise!”), and a Wayne Gretsky hockey shirt. Every object comes with a story.
Berman offers a chair at the long refectory table across from his desk, at which he habitually transacts business, wearing his college tie and blazer. Help yourself to that big bowl of unshelled peanuts—a nice, Jimmy Carter, man-of-the-people touch. “I’m a spreader and a piler,” Berman declares genially, surveying the archeological dig of his office. “My house is also full of stuff. And full of Manhattanville. Everyone teases me that if it weren’t for Manhattanville, I wouldn’t have any clothes.”
It wouldn’t be for lack of funds. Though Berman’s salary ($275,000, plus 10 percent TIAA-CREFF) doesn’t put him in the millionaire’s club, his paid service on any number of medical boards and civic organizations (e.g., Chairman of the Board for Westchester Medical Center) must add up to a pretty substantial income. But Berman says he’s “famous for taking pay cuts”—Manhattanville’s presidency being a case in point.
Asked whether he would approach any job with the zeal he brings to Manhattanville, Berman replies: “I only know how to throw myself in one-hundred percent. But I do think this is a great match for me. This job has a lot of complex moving parts. A lot of both internal and external management skills are required, and there’s a lot of political stuff, which I like.
“This is a job,” he continues, “in which I know I’m making a significant difference. Some people feel they’re making a significant difference if their company is making a lot of money, but that wasn’t satisfying for me. I’m making the world a better place.”
Asked how world improvement translates into Manhattanville dollars, Berman gamely pulls out his playbook. “My trick is I have donors come and meet my students. And then they see that not only are we a college that is making the difference in these students’ lives, these students also are committed to making the world a better place. My sixteen-hundred students did twenty-three thousand hours of community service last year, yet two-thirds of them come from family incomes below forty-thousand dollars. I give away twenty-million dollars a year in grant aid, with less than a ten-million-dollar endowment, because I want to make sure college is affordable for this group of kids, most of whom are the first generation in their families to go to college. I want to make sure that these B students can get a quality education. They’re the ones who are going to change the world. So if you care about having your one-million dollars make a difference to this generation and the future generation, this is the place to put it.
“Now, would you like to donate your money?” Berman concludes, with a twinkle and a flourish. Consider the check signed.
Berman’s desire to help the world improve itself evidently began in childhood, when he toyed with such professional ambitions as rabbi, astronaut, and hospital administrator. The latter ambition stuck, as it came spoon-fed from family. His father, who owed a men’s clothing business in Cincinnati, was active in the community, serving on lots of boards, including the board of the local hospital. “I spent many a summer working at the hospital.” So why didn’t he dream of becoming a doctor? “I felt doctors made a difference one at a time. I wanted to make a difference for a larger number of people.” Accordingly, after finishing his undergraduate work at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, he completed a dual MBA and a master’s in hospital administration.
He went straight to a Washington job in the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, then to medical school in Salt Lake City, where he started a health center. But then, in a move he would replicate many times, he created another job for himself with a group he’d been advising, the newly created Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Part of his assignment: to be a troubleshooter and problem solver for grantees with financial issues. This job brought him to New York Hospital/Cornell Medical Center in New York City, where the Ohio boy definitely didn’t want to raise a child. So he and his wife and young son settled in Larchmont. Son Josh went through the Larchmont public school system until ninth grade, then attended St. Paul’s in New Hampshire.
Berman’s fix-it mentality also led to his next job: a cabinet position in the administration of Governor Hugh Carey. He’d been writing op-eds critical of the governor’s approach to healthcare and generally making noise, so much so that Carey’s advisors began saying that “I ought to stop chirping about the problems and do something about them,” he recalls. “So, I spent some time helping to reorganize the offices of health, health management, and mental heath, and finally Carey persuaded me to take a pay cut to work in his cabinet.” Then, as now, Berman made some unpopular moves, such as closing hospitals in the city. “My view was you had to focus your resources where they could be successful.”
Seemingly intractable problems on the housing front lured him into becoming Carey’s commissioner of housing and community renewal. Berman says he would have stayed in that job longer, but when Carey decided not to run again, Berman threw his support behind Ed Koch—and didn’t get invited to serve in the Cuomo administration.
So Berman returned to healthcare administration, this time as an executive vice president at New York University, with some teaching and research duties thrown into the bargain. In 1986, he left NYU to run for U.S. Congress. He was doing fine until fellow Democrat Bella Abzug entered the race. “Some of my advisors said, â€˜Get out; you can’t beat her.’ But I couldn’t quit. I still believed I could do the impossible—which is not unusual.”
His campaign exhausted his finances and strained his marriage to the breaking point. He took up residence along with the other divorcees at the Arbors in Rye Brook. “It was many single people,” he says. “You’d meet in the driveway and say, â€˜What are you doing for dinner?’ and go out. Nobody cooked.”
He soon remarried but failed to learn his lesson. A 2003 New York Times article quoted Berman as saying his second wife, Jean, often attended events at Manhattanville in order to spend more time with him. Asked about this, Berman, again divorced, jokes, “I guess she didn’t come to enough events.”
After losing the Democratic primary, Berman says “I was broke.” He found a management consulting job in Manhattan and then left to enter the head-hunting business. In 1995, hired to find a new president for Manhattanville, Berman made his classic messianic move: he, along with the board, became convinced that the best candidate for the job was Richard Berman. “We couldn’t find an academic who would want to deal with firing people and all the financials,” he explains.
Another pay cut. And eventually another political fight.
Berman says his recent differences with Corrarino were over the future of the college. By all accounts, Berman had not been happy with the strategic plan developed by a committee chaired by Corrarino, composed of faculty, students, and administrators.
According to Berman, the group delayed sending its final recommendations. When Berman finally saw the draft of their three-year effort, he hit the roof, according to faculty. “The report didn’t answer questions about graduate programs,” he says. “It didn’t deal with staff and administration growth needs, nor did it deal with the allocations for graduate programs or facility needs.”
Nancy Harris, a professor of sociology and women’s studies, was among those who served on the 40-member committee. She rejects Berman’s opinion of the original report, but concedes that her committee produced a very different kind of report from the one Berman hastily produced in its stead, working with the provost and the CFO.
“There’s a very different underlying philosophy,” she says. “Our group wants Manhattanville to remain a small, liberal arts college. We want to know our students by name, interact in and out of the classroom. Richard wants to expand the graduate programs and create an MBA program. He wants a full-time graduate faculty, something that has never, ever been discussed. He’s never presented his ideas for any kind of discussion or due process. Sure, the process is overdone, sure it gets belabored, but that’s academia.”
Berman says his vision for Manhattanville is based on economic realities that didn’t apply when the college first opened. Founded in 1841 by the Society of the Sacred Heart, the women’s college laid claim to a beautiful campus in Purchase, a history of social progressivism, and a reputation for serious scholarship. Prominent Catholics (alumnae Rose, Eunice, Ethel, Jean, and Joan Kennedy gave the college its gym) sent their daughters to be educated by nuns who’d earned doctorates in history and philosophy, among other subjects. Originally housed in Manhattan, in 1952, the college had bought the former estate of Whitelaw Reid, publisher of the New York Herald Tribune and ambassador to England. A pamphlet put out by the college dwells lovingly on the architecture of Reid’s castle building, which today houses Berman’s office.
Lawson Bowling, who teaches history and is a faculty athletics representative at Manhattanville, remembers the college, pre-Berman, as a place that was “quieter and more old-fashioned,” he says. “A very fine thing was continuing to happen here academically, but certainly the financial situation had become dire by the mid-1990s.
Richard Berman brought MBA management skills, and that was a welcome change.”
Bowling seems bewildered by the firing of VP Mary Corrarino. “It was all news to me, and then some. We always thought of Richard and Mary as a team, so it’s very strange.”
Sociology professor John Murray, a member of the faculty since 1975, says the firing forced many on the faculty to downgrade Berman’s stock. “When Richard brought a tough management style, that put a lot of people off. But I thought it was necessary, and I gave him a lot of latitude.” Murray says the faculty had been made increasingly anxious by the turnover in administrators—by his estimate, six provosts in the last 12 years, five CFOs, no VP for development lasting longer than six to nine months, and seven people fired in PR—and Mary Corrarino’s mysterious dismissal had exhausted everyone’s patience.
“Richard is a man who stayed too long,” Murray says. “He should have left after five years, as he originally planned
Manhattanville Board Chairman Scott Pierce disagrees vehemently. “He’ll leave in due course, under his own powers.”
Deputy County Executive Larry Schwartz has observed Berman’s political skills at close hand for about 10 years, starting with Berman’s turn as a board member (he later became chairman) of the Westchester Medical Center. Berman played a key role in keeping the center alive during its financial crisis of 2003-’04.
“Richard wasn’t always the most popular guy on the board back then,” Schwartz confides. “He was outspoken about the need to take a much more aggressive stance against management, and some board members resented his attitude. They were more interested in covering their behinds. Richard wanted to address the problems and fix them. That’s what I’ve always admired about him.”
As the leaves turned and the days cooled, a sense of normalcy crept back into life at Manhattanville. Berman could still be seen on campus, cheering at all the sports events, going to the plays, calling out to the students by name—in short, hard at work. He says he has no regrets about letting his vice president go. “It was the type of decision you need to make to move forward,” he says.
As Berman sees it, his most important job is to keep Manhattanville functioning not just as a college but as a business: renting out the campus to corporate events, running all summer long, and subsidizing the undergraduate program through the graduate programs he believes will increasingly be the ticket to Manhattanville’s success. Berman says his job is “twenty-four/seven.” Last year Scott Pierce demanded that Berman take a six-month sabbatical “to just relax.” Of course, “Richard didn’t really take it,” Pierce reports. “He went over to Africa and immediately tried to help start a school there.”
“I’ve never figured out how to balance my life,” Berman admits. He plays tennis at Manursing Island Club and New Rochelle Tennis Club whenever he can. (His second wife kept the membership at Winged Foot—the only big-ticket item in their pre-nup.) He has a few close friends and recently began dating a woman who lives in Greenwich, but he says most of his socializing remains work-related. “The truth is I don’t have four or five really good local friends to hang out with. I don’t have a steady foursome for golf or tennis.” He laughs. “â€˜Maybe we can put something in the article—â€˜Richard Berman needs friends!’”
The time, or lack thereof, he spent with his son, now 36 and an Ironman competitor, is big on his list of regrets. “I wish I’d spent more time with him. My son is doing really well now, but that regret is there, big. At some point there won’t be work and, other than tennis and golf, I don’t have hobbies. I keep working so I don’t have to deal with it. Let’s just hope I die working.”
It’s a disarmingly honest self-appraisal—the kind you don’t typically hear from workaholics. But the moment passes quickly, and Berman returns to more worldly salvation. “My other regret is that I didn’t spend more time outside the U.S. when I was young,” he says, describing his involvement with Seeds of Peace, a nonprofit, non-political organization that teaches peace-making skills to teenagers from regions of conflict, especially the Middle East. “About ten percent of those kids come to colleges here in the U.S., and the largest percentage comes to Manhattanville. If you get to see different cultures early on, learn different languages, get involved in the larger world, it would make such a difference.”
Berman then changes the subject, asking about the reporter’s own background. Upon learning there’s a young son in the picture, he wonders about the boy’s educational future. “Think about Manhattanville for your son,” he pitches enthusiastically, while delivering that mega-watt, light-bulb smile. And just to close the deal, he adds emphatically, “Seriously.”
Ann Loftin is a freelance writer who resides in Lakeville, Connecticut.