Sonali Wilson

As Cleveland State undergoes a multimillion-dollar revitalization, Wilson stands guard by protecting it from risk


General Counsel Cleveland State University Cleveland, OH
General Counsel
Cleveland State University
Cleveland, OH

When alumni from decades past come back to Cleveland State, they don’t even recognize the place. Seventeen years ago, when I started working here, campus was just a row of buildings. They were difficult to get inside. They just seemed closed and dark—uninviting.

The university just completed a $500 million capital plan that has transformed the university inside and out. With the largest footprint on the downtown area—85 acres—Cleveland State’s revitalization has impacted the city in a measured way.

Public-private ventures between the university and local partners are a manifestation of that impact. In a major project involving Cleveland State, PlayhouseSquare, and the Cleveland Play House, the parties jointly raised $30 million to renovate the Allen Theater, which is part of PlayhouseSquare, the largest theater district west of Broadway in New York. The parties entered into joint-use agreements so that, in exchange for capital to renovate, the theater agreed to give Cleveland State’s performing arts students’ educational use of the theater for a period of up to 20 years. Cleveland State also leases space in the Middough Building, which houses its theater, dance, and arts departments, to develop its new arts campus at PlayhouseSquare. The legal department was very involved in structuring that arrangement to reflect what both sides wanted in a legally permissible way. Another influential project is the Center for Innovations in Health Professions, a state-of-the-art facility that will place us at the center of the conversation on unique approaches to health-care delivery in urban areas.

These projects and others are enhancing the learning environment at Cleveland State. Having taught here, I know our professors are at the front line of educating our students and changing their lives. They satisfy the “what” of what’s going on here. I also know that we have not always done a great job of educating them of the policies and procedures (the “how” and “why” of what goes on) that allow them to be effective—but we’re getting better.

A big word on campus is FERPA—the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which faculty may not know they are breaching with something as innocuous as a letter of recommendation without first getting the student’s written permission to release his or her education record information. Being in administration, I get the 1,000-foot view of education, so I can see how all the small operations affect the university on a broader level. We’re working now to share that perspective in a standardized way so that everyone can benefit from it.

The legal revitalization at Cleveland State is taking shape through a compliance overhaul and the development of an independent, centralized compliance office. The National Association of College and University Attorneys did a survey recently, and compliance was one of the top three issues that kept general counsel up at night. All these good things are happening. We want to make sure the university is not only beautiful on the outside, but safe and properly functioning on the inside. Quote