Setting the stage

Despite a successful career before applying to be president at Portland State, Daniel Bernstine, 59, said he didn’t think he would get the job.

The series:

In his 10 years at Portland State, President Daniel O. Bernstine has seen highs and lows, controversies and successes. He has increased enrollment, raised hundreds of millions of dollars and lead PSU through numerous budget crises. He has also been the subject of criticism for a seemingly distant nature, risk taking and time spent away from campus.

He is a salesman, an entrepreneur and an advocate. Like Portland State itself, Bernstine is many things to many people.

And in two months he will be gone.

After almost leaving PSU to be president at West Virginia University a month ago, Bernstine surprised many by dropping from that race and accepting the position of CEO and president of the Law School Admissions Council in Newtown, Pa.

The Vanguard will recount the role Bernstine has played at Portland State over the last 10 years during the next two days.


During his first five years at Portland State, Bernstine helped increase enrollment and diversity at PSU, while raising millions and planting seeds that would turn Portland State into the university that it is today.

Despite a successful career before applying to be president at Portland State, Daniel Bernstine, 59, said he didn’t think he would get the job.

Current PSU Vice President of Finance and Administration Lindsay Desrochers was the front-runner for the presidential spot, but the Oregon State Board of Higher Education decided Bernstine would be a better fit.

Before coming to PSU in 1997, Bernstine had spent nine years in administrative positions at the University of Wisconsin and Howard University law schools. He spent the other 16 years of his professional career as both a professor of law and general counsel to each of those universities.

Even with his experience, some felt Bernstine wasn’t the right choice for the PSU job.

Bill Greenfield, currently a professor emeritus and one-time professor in the School of Education, called Bernstine “a joke” in the Vanguard. During the meeting at which Bernstine was selected as president, some faculty members booed him.

Bernstine said that he was unaware there was such distaste for him at the time.

“Number one, I never knew it happened,” Bernstine said. “People were very warm and welcoming.”

At first, it took a while for faculty and students to accept him as a replacement for the former President Judith Ramalay, a well respected member of the PSU community from 1990-97, because of her engaging public persona. Bernstine’s desire to remain out of the spotlight and work behind the scenes initially jarred many on campus.

“Wherever I’ve been, I’ve just tried to be who I was. I knew I wasn’t Judith. I didn’t try to be Judith,” Bernstine said. “I tried to make adjustments to the institution and hopefully the institution would make adjustments to me and that’s just kind of the way it worked out.”

Not long after being hired, Bernstine was flooded with meetings, some scheduled for an hour or more. With his busy schedule and on-the-go work ethic, Bernstine tried to be accommodating, but didn’t have time for all of them.

“I don’t meet with anybody for an hour. If you can’t tell me what you need to tell me in 15 minutes then you know…” Bernstine said. “People had to get used to that. It was just me getting used to the institution and the institution getting used to me.”

Bernstine has an “eye toward the future” according to Chancellor of the Oregon University System (OUS) George Pernsteiner. Many projects Bernstine began in his first few years didn’t come into fruition until years later.

His “Building Our Future” fundraising campaign, the first of its kind at PSU, ended after seven years in 2006. The campaign earned PSU $114 million, $39 million more than anticipated.

Bernstine raised close to $11 million in his first year alone–about as much as the previous three years worth of donations. He said he did one thing different in fundraising than most other PSU presidents.

“We were asking,” he said.

Bernstine said he takes risks even if they won’t pay off for years to come.

One of the most noticeable impacts Bernstine brought to PSU was a drastic increase in enrollment. After OUS adopted a new budgeting formula in 1998, which gave money to institutions based on enrollment, both enrollment and funding skyrocketed at Portland State.

OUS states that fall term enrollment increased from 15,230 in 1998 to 21,841 in 2002. It currently sits at close to 24,000 students.

This momentum of increased funding continued until 2002 when the economy took a turn for the worse, Pernsteiner said. Bernstine played a key role in implementing the new budget model, which Pernsteiner said was novel among universities in the nation.

At the same time that Bernstine was working to increase enrollment, he led a diversity initiative that helped increase undergraduate and graduate minority students. Minority students rose from 15.9 percent in 1998 to 16.7 percent in 2002, according to OUS.

“It’s something that’s really critical to getting a quality educational experience,” Bernstine said about diversity.

Many who served under Bernstine have moved on to prestigious positions, including Pernsteiner, who was a vice president at PSU under Bernstine until 2002. Bernstine’s modesty and humbleness are at odds at times with the common perception of what a university president should be, Pernsteiner said.

“People have criticized him for not being as flamboyant and visible as they wish presidents to be,” Pernsteiner said, “and yet if you look at what has happened he has helped transform an institution.”

Bernstine said that he remains out of the spotlight at times, preferring to delegate to the many deans and administrators under him. If something needs to be done or he feels his presence should be seen, he said he will step up.

The president hit a bump in the road during his first five years, when he and PSU faculty went through a grueling series of wage disputes only a year after he had started his job. At the time, Bernstine was scheduled to receive a pay increase from $137,925 to $146,000, but he declined the increase until faculty finished their 300-day negotiations.

When the community recreation field was being built in 1998, many students protested its installation because they did not want athletics to take priority. After the students had been outside for hours, Bernstine hand-delivered pizzas to the hungry students.

Bernstine said it has been a challenge to lead the university without always being present. He said it has been difficult to teach the community that the role of the president is not to grandstand and glad-hand, but to fight internally and externally for the future of the school.

“You really are supposed to be present and make your presence felt, and so you try to be at as many functions as you can, but on the other hand you’ve got to be gone too. That’s the hard part of the job,” Bernstine said. “As a president you can help set the tone for the institution.”

Don McClave, assistant to the president, came to the university five years ago and said he has seen the effects of Bernstine’s investments firsthand.

“Dan’s real contribution has been that he took a long view of the university’s future and starting making strategic investments that have taken years to pay off,” McClave said. “And I think you’re seeing that now.”

With all he saw in his first five years–his high points and low points–Bernstine says he has spent his time here in Portland the best he could. He said the situations he might have handled differently were good decisions based on information he had at the time.

“I haven’t regretted a single day that I’ve been here,” Bernstine said.