Vermont State University Interim President David Bergh sat down with Spartan Copy Editor Camille Jackson to talk about goals, his past and the future of VTSU.
Q. What does your history within the Vermont State College Systems and executive role at Cazenovia College bring to this position?
A. I think my prior experience in Vermont brings an appreciation for the transformative power of this university, this collection of campuses, on the lives of students; but also, how important they are to the communities and regions they are in.
Q. Did you always want to go into education? Your B.A. in Political Science and MPA (master’s in public administration) suggest a different career path.
A. No, I didn’t always want to go into education, in fact, when I did my master’s in public administration, I thought it was just as likely that I would work in government or in a non-profit. One of the appeals, to me, of that degree was that it was broad enough to be transferable to go into different directions. Now, my first job at then Johnson State College was working at Student Activities and advising student government, which stemmed from my own experience as an undergrad when I was a political science major and was very involved in student government as a student. So, it just kind of built from there, but in some ways, it was a combination of having the right background and credentials and skillset, but also the happenstance of falling into the right profession.
Q. Since beginning this role in late 2023, what has surprised you the most?
A. I think how much support there is for VTSU throughout the state. You know everywhere I go people are really, genuinely rooting for us, wanting this to be successful, acknowledging all the challenges that there have been and will be, but feeling it’s very important for this to work. And I guess it shouldn’t have been surprising, but I’ve just been surprised that even people who are expressing concerns are doing so in this constructive way where they want things to be better.
Q. While you are formally an interim president, do you have any goals for your time here at VTSU?
A. I keep saying that my immediate goal in the weeks and months ahead is for people to kind of take a deep breath and refocus on what they’re here to do, and that’s for students and for our faculty and staff alike because there’s been so much change so fast, that that can be disorientating almost. So, I think what I’d like to do in my time in this position over the course of the 18 months is to have the university in a much more solid place, comfortable with its campus identities and with a plan for the future. And not, in so much reaction and response mode.
Q. Vermont State Colleges have experienced periods of instability over the past few years, how do you plan on addressing this now that it is VTSU while balancing the needs of each distinct campus?
A. Well, I think that one thing that’s important to me is that each distinct campus finds ways to remain distinctive, right, to have their own identity and culture. And so, to have what’s greatest or what’s best about that campus, but also be able to take advantage of being part of a larger university, so just seeing the benefits in that. I think that the best way to do that is to make sure there’s broad input moving forward at the campus levels in terms of the best way to realize that mix. To make sure that what makes each campus special, that we find a way to retain that as part of our larger planning efforts.
Q. What do you find to be the most pressing issue within tertiary education today?
A. One, is there’s a demographic challenge in terms of simply fewer traditionally aged students, right. Bigger than that, there’s just a whole cultural question around questioning the value and benefit of education and how it can help prepare you for your life, right. And I firmly believe that a liberal arts-based education is the best preparation for life. I mean none of us – using my case as an example, right, I wouldn’t have predicted I would be doing this work 20 years ago or 30 years ago. Most people now go through several phases of their life, different careers, their interests will change.
So, I always say there’s a danger in focusing on too much too soon on a specific track. If you develop the broad skills that are inherent in the kind of education we deliver here, you have options in life, to follow your passions, and so I think that one of the greatest challenges right now is speaking to that narrative in a way that the people grasp and resonates with people because they hear a lot about “oh well, I should just train for this because I can get this immediate job” and I think that’s a real national conversation that needs to happen.
Q.Are there any athletic teams you are particularly excited to spectate?
A. I’d like to get to them all! I’ve heard great things about the wrestling program here at Castleton, of course, so I hope to have the opportunity to see that team in action. I’ve already seen the women’s hockey team last week, because I went to the Pink the Rink event and I’m hoping to see the men’s team this weekend. I’m really looking forward to opportunities when the campuses are competing with each other, because it’s sort of a two-for-one, so for example, in a week or two I’m really looking forward to seeing Johnson and Lyndon playing each other in basketball. So, I was a student-athlete in college, I was a runner, I ran cross country and track in college and it was a really important part of my experience so I’m a real supporter of athletics and how they integrate with the larger experience. And as my colleagues confirm, I want to get to every athletic contest I can, which is not always easy with multiple campuses and all the different schedules, but I look forward in the fall to seeing football here. But whether it’s field hockey or soccer, you know, or I want to see some of our track and field athletes to compete, that’s something I’m excited about as well.
Q. What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
A. In my spare time, what is that again? (Laughs) I enjoy reading, just for pleasure, being outdoors and active whenever and wherever possible. I’m a sports fan so I enjoy when I have time following just about any sport. One funny thing that I picked up during COVID, and a lot of people started doing during COVID, was that I really got hooked on jigsaw puzzles. And I’m still going with that, so I always have one going.
Q. What TV show was so good you binged it?
A. Twin Peaks, which is from like 35 years ago, but you can stream it now so I’m actually watching it again.
Q. What is your favorite season in Vermont?
A. Probably fall, the colors can’t be beat.
Q. Tell me a fun fact about yourself that may surprise readers.
A. Well, I spent a year of my life living in rural Georgia growing up, which was a very different cultural experience. America’s Georgia, which is Southwest Georgia. My parents were volunteers for Habitat for Humanity before that was a very well-known organization, that was where the headquarters were. So I went to school there in the south, and schools hadn’t even been integrated for all that long at that point in the south. So, living in the south at that time, I call it my year of “living abroad.”