Matt vandenBerg joined Ohio Wesleyan in July as the university's 17th president, and he seems to have been on the move ever since, immersing himself in the OWU culture, hosting popup events on campus, confronting a crisis with Beeghly Library, and even launching T-shirts into the crowd at events. OWU Magazine convinced him to pause for a few moments to answer some questions as a way to introduce him to the OWU community of 20,000-plus alumni.
You attended a liberal arts college. How has that shaped you?
I attended Alma College in Michigan. It was a family thing, and I know many OWU alumni can relate. My experience there fundamentally transformed my life, shaped my worldview, and catalyzed my career.
I came to Alma with great certainty that I would be a biology major, head to medical school, and become a doctor. Needless to say, that wasn't my calling. Being at a nurturing liberal arts college gave me the space and the grace to test my assumptions, to learn what I like and don't like, to make mistakes in a safe environment, and to discover my true passions.
I can't imagine that my nonlinear self-discovery process would have been nearly as smooth if not for the liberal arts model. My undergraduate pathway enabled and equipped me to discover and chase my real dreams.
Today's society places far too much pressure on 17- and 18-year-olds to know their major and career path as a prerequisite for selecting a college. What about students who don't yet know? What about students with multiple, complex interests? What about those of us who think we know but get it wrong?
College isn't a transaction. It's not just about your first job. It's an often complex process of self-discovery and growth. The life-changing experience we offer in the liberal arts—and especially at Ohio Wesleyan University—is more valuable and sorely needed than ever. My passion is helping more people to understand what OWU can do for them.
What college class most profoundly changed your life or your view of the world?
Organic chemistry. Those little structures aren't supposed to fit together, are they? Or if they are, there are many other people who can solve those problems better than I. That's OK, and now I know that. And now I know that I can contribute different gifts to society. Today, I lead an institution that's exceptionally good at helping young people to learn vital lessons like those.
What extracurricular activity?
I was the kind of student that some might call "over-involved." My love for people and meaningful work got me into a little bit of everything: drum major of the marching band, leader of the student service organization, fraternity member, resident assistant, recreational sports participant, and more.
But my most foundational extracurricular experience was participating in student government. When I was a first-year student, I took a risk, put myself out there, and ran for class president in a highly contested race. I prevailed, progressed through the ranks, and became president of the student body during my senior year. That journey taught me the importance of calculated risk-taking and the power of self-belief.
Tell us about your pathway to becoming a college president.
Serving as student body president introduced me to a role model who would ultimately become a lifelong mentor and friend: Alma's thenpresident Saundra Tracy. Saundra was the first person to tell me that she could see me becoming a president. She thoughtfully engaged me in the work of the college and generously offered me opportunities to shadow and learn from her.
Thanks to her, I graduated with a laser-like focus to become president of a small, private, residential liberal arts college. And every career move I've made since that point has been with that sense of mission at the fore. Now that I'm at OWU, my fire for the work has never burned more brightly.
What attracted you to Ohio Wesleyan University?
I was not looking for a new position when the presidency at OWU became available. I had been serving as the leader of a private liberal arts college in a different part of the country—an institution that had developed strong, positive momentum, especially in enrollment and fundraising.
I took a call to catch up with a longtime friend who happened to be the consultant leading OWU's presidential search. One conversation led to another, and I quickly discovered how uniquely special OWU is and how strong the match felt.
Within a single day of my family experiencing campus and the community, we knew this was the place for us. Ultimately, it was OWU's people, the thriving and supportive community of Delaware, and the transformative impact of our work that sealed the deal for us.
At OWU, we feel a strong sense of belonging. We revel in its culture of authenticity. I am grateful to thrive in my role knowing that my quirkily high-energy, penchant for innovation, and my student orientation are valued qualities.
What have you learned during the What Matters tour?
As you'll recall, this is a hands-on listening tour; it's like my own personal version of the OWU Connection.
Naturally, I've learned why many people chose OWU for college and why they work and live here, volunteer, and provide philanthropic support. I've heard countless stories of gratitude, family, community, and transformation. I've participated alongside students in our welcome and orientation activities and witnessed how effectively they build community, selfconfidence, and agency.
Students have walked me through their paths of self-discovery through the OWU Connection. I've worked (or interfered?) with students and faculty in the lab and felt their pride and excitement for what they do. I've danced at events alongside students on the JAYwalk and absorbed their joy and nervous energy. I've evaluated our campus buildings and infrastructure. I've heard concerns about the fraught state of higher education and how many pressures have not spared OWU.
I now have a long, growing list of questions, ideas, action items, and opportunities. I may not yet fully know what it all means, but I do know this: Our best days are ahead of us.
What matters to you about OWU? In other words, what do you value most about Ohio Wesleyan?
It's all about the people: our students, faculty, staff, alumni, community, and friends. They make OWU special. They make our transformative impact possible. And we'll all work together to ensure that our venerable institution thrives and changes lives forever.
What are your highest aspirations for Ohio Wesleyan?
I agree with past President Rock Jones in wanting OWU to be the place of choice for the best students, faculty, and staff. In fact, I think we have the ingredients to become one of America's great liberal arts colleges.
Just as we often advise young people to focus on being "enough" rather than constantly comparing themselves to others, I believe OWU's journey toward becoming a top-tier liberal arts college is about realizing that "enough" is not a limitation, but rather a celebration of our distinctive strengths and qualities.
By consistently excelling in our mission, nurturing a culture of innovation, and fostering an inclusive community, we will naturally become the college of choice, where students, faculty, and staff thrive—not because we measure up to others, but because we are Ohio Wesleyan University, and that's more than enough.
When considering the changing landscape of higher education, how can Ohio Wesleyan differentiate itself?
Through honest reflection, authenticity, bold innovation, calculated risk-taking, and focused discipline.
Finding ways to stand out and attract students in this tough climate is the existential question that all small, private, residential, tuition-driven institutions need to answer. Shockingly few have done so effectively. Too many of us sell ourselves using the same cliched talking points: small class sizes, faculty who care, experiential learning, job preparation, alumni success stories, and the like.
What makes us truly unique? What can we offer that other institutions can't? How do we align our resources and energies so that our distinctions truly shine?
I'm excited that I already see so much potential for OWU to pick a valuable, defensible position and win. I find myself forming some early hypotheses on what that might look like, but we need community input and will work with great urgency to secure it.
What has surprised you about Delaware?
Our town-gown relationship is already very strong. We have a chance to become truly elite in terms of how our community and university work together to transform lives.
You work out just about every day. What does physical activity and fitness mean to you?
Working out vigorously every morning centers me. I haven't missed a single day of working out or running in almost five years. I find that I'm sharper, more engaged, and more effective when I feel fit, healthy, and active. And it doesn't matter whether I'm working out with a group or solo. I enjoy both!
I also ride my bike around town and campus, so now I have yet another way to pack in the exercise.
You've mentioned your love for "dad jokes." How do you think humor can help you on the job?
Dad jokes are how eyeroll.
Actually, my modus operandi is far less about dad jokes and more about finding humor and levity in daily work and life. But seriously, don't get me started with puns. I've always had a work-hard-play-hard philosophy, and I find it grounding to avoid taking myself too seriously.
What advice does Melissa give you most often?
Melissa is a phenomenally supportive spouse and the caretaker and glue of our family. She frequently reminds me to recharge my batteries, to give myself patience and grace, and to trust my instincts (except when we're deciding where to eat dinner).
If someone were to ask your children about your strengths and weaknesses, what do you think they would say?
I think they would say that I know who I am and what I value. In that way, I have a strong sense of direction.
But get me behind a steering wheel, and I think they'd say I need a better sense of direction. I'm not exactly Magellan.
What is something on your bucket list that you'd like to do next?
Our family dreams of going on a safari to South Africa.
Favorite movie: Good Will Hunting
Most influential book: Good to Great by Jim Collins
Favorite vacation spot: West Michigan beaches
One lesson your kids taught you: It's not a problem if others don't think you can. You know you can.
Favorite board game: Monopoly
Favorite sports event: College football
Best concert you've attended: Pritchard House abuts FIJI, and we tend to get "free" backyard concerts from talented student groups like 35 Live. But don't tell them I said that.
No. 1 performer on your playlists: Tom Petty
Most fascinating animal: Dogs. They're unfailingly loyal and loving. Do we really deserve them?
Go-to meal: Power salad.
Your superpower: I can stay focused, alert, and energized for very long periods of time.
Superpower you wish you had: The ability to heal the sick.
Morning routine: I start every single day with an intense workout, either weightlifting or running.
Favorite spot on campus: Wherever the action is! But here's a fact that's not well known yet: When I'm on the phone, I often use ear buds and wander the lawn in front of University Hall. If you see me out there going in circles, it's probably not because I lost a contact lens. If you see me, honk or wave!