As part of his listening tour, Matt vandenBerg, the new president of Ohio Wesleyan University, created a YouTube and TikTok video of himself not listening to a legendary superstition that stepping on a seal outside of University Hall would bring bad luck. In the hilarious parody, vandenBerg cautiously steps, then stomps, dances, and jump-jacks on the seal before he is beset by a series of calamities that have him appearing at a university function sporting tattered clothes and a black eye. 


POV: your university president decides to test fate and steps on the seal – bad luck level: Presidential Edition!

♬ original sound - Ohio Wesleyan University

There is much to unpack here. First, it takes a certain level of confidence for a new president to humble (vandenBerg might say “humiliate”) himself in front of his students, and on their own medium at that. It is also refreshing to see a college president bringing some levity to a position that, certainly of late, is not perceived as being much fun. His inauguration on April 19 was another opportunity to depart from the implied rules. In referring to Paul Revere’s famous ride on the same date, vandenBerg evoked a rebellious spirit in laying out nine new initiatives the school would be taking on, including partnerships with the community and other institutions that would increase access and affordability. In his speech, vandenBerg rejected a number of “unhelpful” conventions in higher education – the idea that faculty and administrators are naturally at odds, that host communities are either competitive with or overly-reliant on their university partners, and, perhaps most importantly, that the liberal arts are for the fortunate few and will not bring the kind of return on investment Americans are looking for in a college degree. 

In our interview, President vandenBerg talks about that speech, as well as what drew him to Delaware, Ohio, how he plans to distinguish OWU’s mission from “what everyone else promises,” and what new college presidents might learn from the public’s current frustration with higher education. 

LearningWell: You were most recently at Presbyterian College in South Carolina. What made you leave there and come to OWU? 

MV: My family and I were committed to staying at Presbyterian College for a good number of years, but serendipity hits in your life at times, and for us, serendipity hit in the form of an old friend calling me to say, “I know you're not looking for a new job opportunity. I just need you to pick up the phone and listen.” This friend happened to be leading the search for the presidency of Ohio Wesleyan University, and I realized that from that short conversation with her, I didn't just want to know more about Ohio Wesleyan; I needed to know more.

So much of the spirit of the institution, its situation in the higher education landscape, and its aspirations resonated with me. But I also thought it might bring some important enhancements to the life of my family. After a consultation with my wife, I decided to throw my hat in the ring, and the rest is history. 

We had some trepidation, but in the end, moving my family to Delaware, Ohio, was a no-brainer, primarily for three reasons. Number one, the people. The students, faculty, staff, trustees, alumni, and the community members that we met were really special. They wanted to do big things. Together, we were going to be able to do transformative work to elevate and amplify a tremendous institution. 

Number two, the community. The city of Delaware, in Delaware County, loves its university. It was evident to us at first blush. There's been a bedrock of trust built over decades between the institution and the community. That stands in stark contrast to where a lot of small, private, residential liberal arts institutions are situated. They are often in struggling communities and are the sole anchor that is relied upon to drive the local economy, to bring all of the artistic and humanistic enhancement to the community. That's simply not the case with Ohio Wesleyan University and the city of Delaware and Delaware County. This is a healthy place looking to go from great to phenomenal, and that is always a charge that I get excited about. 

The third thing that got me so excited to come here was the transformative impact that OWU has on the lives of young people. I believe that in higher education we often focus on the transaction: How much does it cost? What degree do you graduate with? What is your first-year salary? Are you seeing that immediate return on investment? To me, if done well, higher education is not a transaction. It is a transition into adulthood, and it is supposed to be transformative. Ohio Wesleyan University intrinsically understands that. It's baked into the ethos of this place. They've got 40,000 success stories to showcase that impact. So, that's how I went from not looking for another position to realizing the calling of my life was to come to this spot in Ohio. 

LW: You recently had your inauguration. Tell me a little bit about what you said that day. What was most important for you to lay out in terms of your vision for the school?

MV: We wanted to be rebellious in terms of what an inauguration actually is. They are often kind of boring, stuffy — too focused on the new person getting the job. I believe that an inauguration should be an inflection point in an institution's trajectory. It should be an opportunity to celebrate the past and everything that brought us to where we are. It should be a chance to grapple earnestly and honestly with the challenges and opportunities that we have today. And then it should also be a way to galvanize ourselves around an exciting future. 

If you're a college president and you're not leveraging the concerns and criticisms for self-reflection and self-improvement, you're missing a big opportunity. 

That day, we made the case that we need to seek and secure distinction in this overcrowded higher education landscape. We were pretty direct in tackling that head-on. Not only will we not thrive in the future if we don't figure out what it is that makes us distinctive, but we're also doing a tremendous disservice to students and families by not pointing out the meaningful differences between institutions. We all tend to sell ourselves the same way using the same tired cliches: “Come here because we have small class sizes, faculty who really care about you and who know your name. We have tight-knit communities. We have beautiful campuses. We have successful alumni. We'll give you a job or an internship. You'll learn how to apply what you're learning in the classroom to an external context.” Those are things that every institution is saying right now, and it can contribute to this sense of white noise that students and their families have when they go on different campus tours.

I want Ohio Wesleyan University to be able to answer the question of what makes us truly unique. The title of my inaugural address is “What's in the Water?” — What is it about Ohio Wesleyan that we offer to students that they can't or don’t or won’t get anywhere else? And how do we channel our energy, our resources, and our focus in the same direction so that our unique, meaningful, defensible value proposition truly shines? 

We invoked the spirit of 1842, our founding year, and we connected that to the historic spirit of the day on which the inauguration actually occurred. It was April 19th — the day of Paul Revere's ride and the day of the Battles of Lexington and Concord.  That day sparked the American Revolution. So, we invoked the spirit of rebellion of that day to discuss how OWU began and to proclaim with confidence and joy where we were going. 

In 1842, a local Methodist minister went door-to- door, just like Paul Revere did, to rally the countryside in a call to do something important and in service to a greater purpose. That was a fun message to deliver, but it had a serious undertone. The idea was to apply a sense of rebellion to the way we move forward, and that means categorically rejecting all of the things in higher education that are broken, all the things that we think are supposed to be truisms but that are absolutely not. For example, the understanding that faculty and administrators are supposed to be at odds with each other — we categorically reject that notion. The idea that the liberal arts are not inherently valuable as an educational model, that they don't lead to good careers, that they are a poor choice if you're looking for return on investment. We categorically reject those notions. And lastly, we wanted to showcase that at OWU, we don't just talk about things; we do them. Our love language is action. We made nine significant announcements that day, and they all boil down to three different things. One is investing in people, especially our students, faculty and staff; two is building community, especially through investments in our infrastructure; and three is changing lives through innovative partnerships. 

LW: Can we talk a little more about that third goal? 

MV: Establishing partnerships is a big part of what we want to do. We want to radically expand affordability and accessibility and build equitable pathways that help students get to where they want to go in their lives. We want to deliver on the student’s timetable, not necessarily just higher education's timetable. So, we announced a few new ways of doing just that. 

Columbus State Community College is the major two-year institution in central Ohio. Together, we launched a powerful three-part partnership to help community college students realize that there is a viable pathway for them to a four-year degree at a liberal arts institution. The first component of our partnership is called “Preferred Pathway.” It's fairly common for community college students to want to pursue a bachelor’s degree once they graduate. The problem is that, at many institutions, their credits don’t always fully transfer and they don’t maintain their hardfought status in their major.  They are promised this two-year pathway to a bachelor’s degree, and then they discover that it's going to take them longer and cost them more to graduate than they were told. It can feel to them like a bait-and-switch. Moreover, for a lot of students, including those transferring in from a community college, just the idea of going to a private liberal arts college can sound expensive – perhaps even out of reach, financially. We knew we could improve that experience for students. In partnership with about 25 different professors, we hand-built transparent, hassle-free two-year pathways for students across 20 different majors. It’s the most comprehensive pathway program that Columbus State has among national liberal arts universities.

The second part of the partnership attacks the real and perceived cost issue, head-on. For up to 25 students with at least a 3.5 GPA at Columbus State, we have a tuition match program, so they actually pay the Columbus State tuition rate to attend and complete their Ohio Wesleyan University degree. The tuition match program means that students now not only have the logistical means to succeed, but they now have extraordinary financial support as well. No other university, public or private, can match that commitment.

We want to democratize access to the transformative benefits of a liberal arts education.

The third part of our partnership addresses a vexing national issue – and certainly one that affects our region as well. It’s the looming teacher shortage and the dearth of people entering the teaching profession. We don’t think that we can solve that problem on our own, but one of the things that we can do is begin to reduce the barriers to entry for people who do have an interest in the teaching profession. How do we encourage those students who feel a calling toward this work to get their credentials and degrees without saddling them with crippling debt?

In partnership with our local Delaware County school systems and Columbus State, we found a new way to deliver extraordinary value and encourage more teachers to enter the system. Using the College Credit Plus program in Ohio, students in their junior year of high school are able to earn credit toward their associate degree from Columbus State. By the time they graduate from high school, they get not only a high school diploma, but also an associate degree, and then they can jump seamlessly into Ohio Wesleyan University and complete their bachelor’s and teaching certificate in just two years. This program cuts the time to completion in half and reduces their costs dramatically. 

Another partnership, the Delaware County Promise, is a great example of our vision for the future. Delaware County is considered the healthiest, wealthiest, and fastest-growing county in the state of Ohio, and the unfortunate truth is that not everyone participates equally in that prosperity. We can prove over and over again that higher education is the great social mobility agent, but a lot of people who are from disadvantaged backgrounds, even in Delaware County, don't think about going to their local liberal arts college, because they dismiss it as being out of reach. This was one of the earliest problems I remember thinking about when I came here. I started talking with city and county leaders, and we came up with an exciting program to tackle that problem, which we announced at the inauguration. “If you are from Delaware County or go to school in Delaware County, and you earn a 3.5 GPA in high school and your family makes $100,000 a year or less, you can now go to Ohio Wesleyan University absolutely tuition-free.” We worked out a way, through our own investments in financial aid, to make that possible and then partnered with the community and the Delaware County Foundation to make it happen. 

Ultimately, what we really want to do is to democratize access to the transformative benefits of a liberal arts education. We want to be able to reach anyone for whom the liberal arts can be a life-changer. We want a student’s personal choice to determine where they attend college, rather than financial barriers, social constraints, self-confidence constraints, or other challenges. We want personal choice and fit, as decided by the individual, to be the ultimate determinant. 

LW: Major change, as opposed to tradition, is not something we often associate with higher education. What are your thoughts on that?

MV: Higher education certainly features some significant strengths. For example, shared governance, academic freedom, and free speech strengthen what we do and how we do it. But we can improve in some areas.  Among our relative weaknesses is our sense of toxic egalitarianism — the idea that we have to do everything with the same amount of effort, that we can't give anything we do more attention unless we give an equal measure of attention and investment to everything else. Most people who start a business, or run a business, understand that that is no way to succeed. We need to know our distinctive value proposition and make disciplined and strategic decisions accordingly.

Moreover, higher education has tended to have an incremental approach to mustering its way through challenges by adding a few programs here or there, adding a few more students, and reducing operating expenses a little bit. My abiding notion is that this moment in our history is not a time for incremental strategies alone. We should be thinking about continuous improvement — how we can be better and better at what we do — but if we don't start breaking some of the implied rules about what higher education is and what it is supposed to be, we are going to miss the mark as our society – and students’ needs – continue to change at unprecedented levels.

LW: Do people ask you why you wanted to become a college president at a time when higher education, and presidents in particular, are under such scrutiny? 

MV: The presidency of a college can be a hard job, no doubt, as I said to a group of aspiring vice presidents and presidents in Washington, D.C., last week. I told them, “If you're thinking about a presidency simply because it gives you a fancier title, because the pay is better, because you think people will respect you more, or because you receive more visibility, this job will eat you alive.” 

One underrated quality of liberal arts institutions is that we’re fundamentally good for democracy.

You have to want to do this work because it’s a calling. I've known I wanted to do this job since I was 20 years old. I know that is an oddly specific sense of vocation for a 20-year-old to have, but I have always believed in the value of higher education and particularly in the power of liberal arts colleges to transform lives. I don't think liberal arts colleges are for everyone, but I do think they are for a lot more students than who currently realize it. That is what gets me out of bed in the morning. Religious connotations aside, I see myself as a liberal arts evangelist, helping to bring the word of what we do to more people who would benefit enormously from this important educational philosophy and delivery model.

One underrated quality of liberal arts institutions is that we’re fundamentally good for democracy. We promote and engender in our students an appreciation for civic participation, free speech, intellectual inquiry, and service to others. And in these fractious times, we think it’s critical for our institutions to serve as an antidote for the deficits we see in our society’s discourse. Our educational approach is uniquely effective at training students to engage in constructive dialogue, especially amidst disagreement and difference. We believe that more people need to learn how to be productively engaged citizens who understand how their government works and who can work to address problems in ways that bring others together, rather than in ways that exacerbate divides. In the coming months, OWU will seek to amplify its role in that vital work. We think it’s essential to our democratic republic. And that work is just one more example of the vital role of higher education.