John Berg, Associate Vice Chancellor for Admissions

Calling All Talented Students

John Berg leads the undergraduate recruitment effort with vision, hard work, and a little bit of worry.

By Steve Givens

John Berg is a warrior. And a worrier.

For the past 12 years, the associate vice chancellor for undergraduate admissions has presided over a team effort that has led to an extraordinary rise in the number of students who want to attend Washington University. This past year, there were more than 22,000 applicants for the approximately 1,350 openings for the next freshman class.

But Berg, who recently received the Dean's Medal from Arts & Sciences for the exceptional leadership and inspiration he has given to the University over the years, is characteristically quick to deflect the credit for any success from himself to the members of his team.

"The people I work with really care about what they do," says Berg, who came to Washington University as assistant to then-Chancellor William H. Danforth in 1987. "I often say that we are 'worriers and warriors.' We worry that we are never quite good enough and that there is always something else we could be doing to help students and their families learn more about Washington University. But we are warriors in the sense that we always go for the victory. We think that any talented student out there ought to be looking at Washington U."

Perhaps equally characteristic, the members of his staff point to Berg as an effective and inspirational leader and colleague.

"John is a talented visionary," says Nanette H. Tarbouni, director and associate dean of undergraduate admissions. "He sets high expectations and has a clear sense of how to move forward in accomplishing goals. Because he expects more of himself than others, all in the University community are eager to follow his lead."

Berg grew up in St. Louis, the son of two Washington University alumni, Gerry Berg, A.B. '47, and Leonard Berg, A.B. '45 and M.D. '49, who is professor emeritus of neurology in the School of Medicine. He was musically inclined, played piano, and studied music history and composition as an undergraduate at Tufts University in Boston. But he never aspired to a life as a musician and began his professional career on the business side of the world of music. After serving as the director of a community arts council in upstate New York, he earned an M.B.A. from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. Soon after, he became general manager of the Savannah Symphony Orchestra in Georgia and several years later was named finance director of the Kennedy Center's National Symphony Orchestra.

Berg's trademark preciseness and attention to detail can perhaps be traced to his love of one particular composer—Beethoven.

"I think he's the most brilliant composer who ever lived," says Berg, who recalls one of Leonard Bernstein's famed Norton lectures at Harvard University. "Bernstein talks about Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and how the way it was written was the only way it could have been written. It's simple elegance for Beethoven, although he worked at it."

According to several colleagues, Beethoven's "simple elegance" seems an apt description of Berg's own approach to leadership.

"John's passion and enthusiasm for admissions draws many others into the effort," says James E. McLeod, vice chancellor for students and dean of the College of Arts & Sciences. "Much like the disparate elements of a beautiful symphony, the diverse talents of many are included; everyone can play a role. John's extraordinary organizational ability knits all together in an operation marked by elegant simplicity and extraordinary effectiveness."

A high school counselor told us that the best thing about Washington U. is that what you see in front of the curtain—in viewbooks and when you take a tour—is the same thing you get when you're actually here as a student."  

  "John Berg is an inspiration," says Chancellor Emeritus William H. Danforth. "He and his colleagues in the Office of Undergraduate Admissions have served Washington University magnificently. With style, imagination, and honesty, they have guided thousands of wonderful young people and their parents through the never easy admissions process into the University family."

It was then-Chancellor Danforth who lured Berg and his unique set of talents back to St. Louis in 1987. His career here has been diverse and progressively complex. During his stint as assistant to the chancellor, he worked with then-Senior Vice Chancellor Herbert F. Hitzeman, Jr. to set up National Councils for all of the schools and colleges of the University. Two years later, he was named associate vice chancellor for finance, overseeing accounting, internal audit, and budget planning.

Eventually, he was asked to lead an effort that was organized to expand the University's undergraduate student recruitment program. It was here that Berg learned the business of admissions and, surprisingly for him, found it to be tremendously rewarding. After another year, Berg found himself in charge of admissions. Twelve years later, he still thinks he has the best job at the University.

"It's an honor to work for a place like Washington U. and with a group of people that's responsible for bringing in a new freshman class every year," says Berg, whose wife, Christine, Ph.D. '99, is on the faculty of the University's Program in Occupational Therapy and whose daughter, Katie, is a junior in Arts & Sciences. (Katie was born on Beethoven's birthday on December 16 and is also musically talented.)

"John is an innovative and creative leader, and we have become a better university because of his efforts, his ideas, and his team," says Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton. "Our recruitment efforts have thrived in recent years because John never stops thinking and caring about the next class of Washington University students."

While recruiting the next talented class of freshmen is always hard work, Berg says that it is the University itself and its students that "sell" the campus to visiting students and their parents.

"It's easy to recruit for Washington U. because you know the experience the students are going to have here will be great," says Berg, who more recently led an effort to revamp the services offered by the University's Career Center. "Washington University is so genuine. A high school counselor told us that the best thing about Washington U. is that what you see in front of the curtain—in viewbooks and when you take a tour—is the same thing you get when you're actually here as a student. For us that's wonderful. That's the University. That's our faculty, staff, and our students. The students and their families tell the stories."

Steve Givens is assistant vice chancellor and special assistant to Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton.