Berklee Today

All the Right Moves - Lee Eliot Berk

As his tenure as president at the college that bears his name reaches its finale, Lee Eliot Berk is pleased with the educational legacy his family is leaving.

Photo by Anthony Scarpetta

The writing of a new chapter in the history of Berklee College of Music is about to commence. In June 2004, Lee Eliot Berk, the college's second president will retire. Since opening its doors in 1945, Berklee has fulfilled the ambition of its founder and first president, Lawrence Berk (Lee's father), to offer an alternative to a conservatory-style music education. Time has vindicated Lawrence Berk's notion of basing a music-education curriculum on jazz and other forms of contemporary music and providing practical career training for musicians. Over the past six decades, ideas pioneered by Lawrence Berk and carried forward by Lee Eliot Berk have become a paradigm much admired and even adopted by music-education institutions throughout the world.

Lawrence Berk guided the school from its inception and early growth years until his retirement in 1979. The board of trustees then passed the baton to Lee Eliot Berk, who had been working at the college in various capacities (including a stint as the vice president) since 1966. During his own extremely fruitful 25-year term as Berklee's second president, Lee has continued to realize the vision of his father by expanding the size of Berklee's urban campus and widening the curricular offerings in the areas of music technology, music business, and music therapy. He also reorganized Berklee into four academic divisions to reflect a traditional college structure. The younger Berk has continued his father's efforts to promote the college abroad by establishing the Berklee International Network comprising 13 music schools in a dozen countries. Another important initiative that Lee Eliot Berk launched involves focusing the college on an outreach to Boston's talented inner-city teens through a mentoring program and generous scholarship awards.

In a life's work spanning 38 years of dedicated service to the college, Lee Eliot Berk has hosted towering figures in the music industry (bestowing honorary degrees upon many of them) and has accepted numerous awards from political dignitaries and luminaries from all quarters of music industry on behalf of the college and for his own personal achievements. Lee Berk's accolades began accruing early in his career after he penned the book Legal Protection for the Creative Musician, which won the prestigious Deems Taylor Award from ASCAP in 1971as best book in music. Most recently, he received awards from IAJE, NAMM, and the Recording Academy® [see story on page 4].

The chapters of Berklee's history that chronicle Lee Eliot Berk's distinguished career are many and highly detailed and have been noted worldwide. While very soon Lee, his wife, Susan, and their daughters Nancy and Lucy will no longer be part of the daily life of the college that bears the Berk name, the influence of a collective 59 years of leadership by two generations of the Berk family is certain to be celebrated as long as the college stands. Berklee has been fortunate to have executives with unique vision and uncanny instincts for making the right moves at the right time. Lawrence and Lee Berk and the college that they built have dramatically changed the world of music education. At this moment, as the college is poised to welcome a new leader, it is instructive to look back over the accomplishments of Lee Eliot Berk and the moves he made to position Berklee as one of the world's preeminent centers of music education.

After graduating from Boston University School of Law in 1966, you came to Berklee to work for your father. Can you describe what your first duties entailed?

I started at Berklee during my last year of law school and became a full-time employee after I graduated. Berklee was going through major changes at the time. We had just relocated from 284 Newbury Street to 1140 Boylston Street, and a few years earlier we changed from an entrepreneurial enterprise to a not-for-profit organization. We had obtained degree-granting authority and were applying for candidacy for accreditation and were admitting the first class of students who would earn a music degree from Berkee. This was an early growth period. Enrollment was mushrooming, and we were scrambling to keep up. My father offered me the opportunity to come in and help. He thought there was no better place to start than in the financial end of things. I was the bursar of the college; today we might call that position chief financial officer. I had to collect all student charges, handle payables, and work with an accounting firm on the preparation of the college's financial statements. I also helped out with other college matters.

I know that at that time you also taught some courses on legal issues for musicians.

When the faculty and students found out that I had a law degree, I was besieged with questions about copyright, performance royalties, manager relations, contracts, and other music-industry topics. In response to that, I offered a course on music law and taught that for several years in addition to my other work. The course was the first of its type that we presented and was well received. Later, Gary Burton and Rob Rose started offering other music-business courses. This ultimately led to us beginning a Music Business/Management Major in 1992.

Had you studied entertainment law?

Those subjects weren't offered at Boston University School of Law, but I took a special course on copyright at Harvard Law School. With that grounding, I did my own research and ultimately wrote a book we published called Legal Protection for the Creative Musician. It won the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for best book in music in 1971 and became a text for the course. It was sold internationally and did quite well.

 
  Duke Ellington (right) leaves the podium after addressing Berklee graduates at the 1971 commencement. Lee Eliot Berk and his father, Lawrence, are seated at the table. Lee regards the occasion as one of the high points of his time at Berklee.

When did you become Berklee's vice president and what did that job entail?

I was doing the financial work for a few years; and then in the early 1970s, I hired someone to do that and I oversaw that person's activities. I was devoting my time to other matters. Until 1974 or 1975, the entire college was located in the 1140 Boylston St. building. Back in 1965 when we bought the building, we had about 350 or 400 students. The building had formerly been a hotel, so we split it in half vertically, keeping some of the hotel rooms as dormitory space and used the rest for classrooms and offices. We felt that we'd be set for decades since this building was so much bigger than the Newbury Street building we moved from.

Nevertheless, the demand for the education we were offering was outstripping our resources. In 1975, I took on the project of acquiring the property at Massachusetts Avenue-the combined residence hall, educational facility, and Berklee Performance Center. A large part of my work at that period was involved with obtaining our first large, federal financing through a public bond issuance for about $7 million. It was a 25-year bond issuance, and we just finished paying that off a few years ago. This was an extension of my experience in the business areas of the college. So prior to my father's retirement in 1979, I was becoming more engaged in college business at a higher level.

What made you and other administrators confident that Berklee, whose major curricular focus was jazz and contemporary music education, could succeed in an era when other music schools and universities were forbidding jazz and rock ensembles the use of rehearsal spaces?

No one really knew whether we would be successful or not. The original impetus for the college came from the frustration of Berklee's founding fathers over the difficulty they experienced getting the information they wanted. Berklee was the leading school offering a different kind of music education.

My father always looked at what the conservatories and universities were doing and figured they were doing it very well. They were meeting the need for that, so there was no reason for people to come to us if we offered the same thing. We were always about identifying and creating educational opportunities for which there was a demand that wasn't being met elsewhere.

In 1945, your father founded what might be described as a music trade school. Berklee has taken on more characteristics of a traditional college under your leadership. Can you describe how this transformation took place?

My father had the vision of Berklee as a college in the early 1960s. The reason for that was that he felt this kind of education was important, and to ensure that it would endure, Berklee needed to become a nonprofit, degree-granting institution. I didn't assume the presidency until 1979, so we have to credit my father with bringing people like Robert Share onboard as provost, Richard Bobbit as dean, and the faculty and chairs of the various departments. There was so much rapid growth that we were running really fast to catch up. Over time, we organized the college into four divisions [Music Technology, Professional Education, Professional Performance, and Professional Writing Divisions] and put deans in charge of them. We created a hierarchy of people in leadership positions at the college. This helped the college to reflect a more traditional college organization.

Was there a learning curve for you when you became the college president in 1979?

I don't think so. I had worked closely with my father and the other leading figures of the college for more than a dozen years by that time. I had been a participant in all of the meetings where major issues were discussed. However, none of us had any previous administrative experience at other colleges, and that might have been helpful. Part of the accreditation process involved peer review by visiting teams drawn from the faculties and administrations of other colleges. Needless to say, they found some of the ways we did things to be peculiar, just as we often found their points of view to be unusual. It took us a number of years to reshape and moderate our approaches as a result of some of those interactions. This helped us move closer to the forms of organization, faculty and student support, and college governance that are typically found in colleges and universities.

 
  Susan G. and Lee Eliot Berk. As Lee says, "My wife has been at my side at countless Berklee functions contributing in her own way and has made innumerable friends for Berklee."

Farnsworth Blalock photos

Your father, an MIT-educated engineer, had an affinity for emerging technologies. Did you feel that you were moving his vision forward when you further committed Berklee to offering such technology-based courses and majors as film scoring, electronic music, and audio recording in 1980?

Once we began accepting electric guitar as a principal instrument in 1967, it opened the door to the whole electronic revolution. In looking back, that was the first incursion of technology. It came through rock music, in a way. We started a small audio recording program in the 1970s, and that later grew to become the Music Production and Engineering Major. Later we followed that up with a Music Synthesis Major. The Film Scoring Major also involved technology.

As technology became more pervasive in music and in life, I felt a strong sense of commitment to it; because the more Berklee became technologically sophisticated, the more it set us apart from the conservatories and other music schools. Thinking of my father's philosophy, the more distinctive the education we offered, the stronger our identity would be and demand for a Berklee education would increase. That is exactly what transpired.

The move into technology more than anything else has made Berklee become the college of the music industry. We developed strong relationships with many product manufacturers and received a lot of support from them along the way. The music industry recognized the importance of the education we were offering. For a decade, we have been the leading college working with the industry, turning out people who were technologically capable with all the new gear.

Were you aware at the beginning of the venture that becoming invested in music technology might require continuous, costly updates to remain state-of-the-art?

Well, technology moved slower in those days. Now we have a three-year replacement cycle in many areas to keep the equipment current. This is becoming a significant financial challenge. It wasn't readily apparent in the 1970s that this is how it would go. For example, I remember when I was in the bursar's office and computers first came on the scene. There was no vision that we would have the standardized software that we have today with continuous upgrades. The notion at that time was that companies buying computers would write their own software to meet their needs. Groups of us from Berklee went out to General Electric to take courses in writing software. The expectation was that companies would always create what they needed. You can see what a tremendous change has taken place in that area over the years.

It seems natural that you who first taught Berklee students about legal issues opened the way for a music business/management major. Why did it take until 1992 to establish a full-fledged MB/M Department?

We could have offered that major in the mid-1980s, and I wanted to do that. Whenever we offered a new major that wasn't directly involved with performing or composing music, there were reservations about the kinds of students that it would attract and how the character of the college might change as a result. For example, when we offered the MP&E and music synthesis majors, there were those who worried that we would attract students who didn't have solid music knowledge and just wanted to turn knobs. The feelings were similar regarding music business. It took a while to overcome the anxieties and reservations.

Every college sets the parameters for the kind of education it wants to offer in a particular area and the type of background it expects students to have. The Berklee administration has always felt that those who will be most successful in the music industry are those with a solid music background. We've always expected our students to have a strong fundamental knowledge and to deepen and broaden their musical understanding before they specialize in a technological area. This has proven a way for the college to maintain its character as an educational music city in which the entire community shares a common bond.

Describe your hopes when you developed the Berklee International Network of music schools.

We always did a lot internationally. My parents traveled extensively and would always bring LPs and musical scores with them. My father always got international mail in the early days of the school, and he was aware of the importance of making friends everywhere and trying to expand music-education opportunities wherever he could. Over time, we built a number of friendships with schools that were younger than we were but shared our mission. By the 1990s, we realized that it was time to formalize our commitment to these organizations and appoint a staff to process the requests and look into what Berklee should commit to with these schools.

The broader vision in creating the international network included cultivating important relationships and places that could become a home base for alumni gatherings and educational exchanges of students and faculty. All of the participants in the network could learn a lot from each other and be able to improve the education they offer as a result. Indeed, it has worked out exactly that way.

Many schools in the network made adjustments to their curriculum so that their students could readily transfer to Berklee, receive transfer credit, and complete their education here if they wished to. The friendships that have developed and the important educational benefits that have flowed between the schools have proven the value of the entire effort.

You also expanded Berklee's community service efforts locally by forming the Office of Community Affairs [now called the Office of Community and Governmental Affairs] in 1990. What was the motivation for that?

We have always had a strong connection to the city of Boston and felt we wanted to give back to talented teens here. One of the ways we have done this is through the Office of Community Affairs that runs the Berklee City Music Program. Every year we identify talented urban teens and raise the funds to give them scholarships to our summer programs. The students who benefit most and have the commitment to persist have matriculated into the college. It has been a very successful program.

As well, working with the Pro Arts Consortium, an organization of six colleges of visual and performing arts, we established the Boston Arts Academy, Boston's first public high school for the visual and performing arts. We now have an enrollment of 440 students in grades nine to 12. Berklee took a leading role in establishing that institution.

Another of your initiatives was the Music Therapy major at Berklee. What attracted you to that discipline?

Music therapy seems to be a wonderful way for our students to help in society with their music. It also seemed to be a way to broaden Berklee's reach to establish collaborations and relationships with those in the health industry. The research we did indicated that music therapy had been established as a discipline since World War II. Most of the music therapy programs across the country were in very traditional settings. Being a large music school in an urban center with a focus on contemporary music and students who improvise and use technology, it seemed that they could bring a dimension to music therapy that wasn't available elsewhere. We have been offering the major for about seven years now, and it has been heartwarming to see what the students involved in the program have been able to accomplish with cancer and Alzheimer's patients and young people with learning disabilities. It's been very gratifying.

Of the many achievements that occurred during your tenure as Berklee's president, is there one of which you are most proud?

Music education opportunities have grown immensely during the years I have been at Berklee. That was my father's modus operandi and mine as well. I have been very pleased to see the recent establishment and growth of the Berklee Media Department and its online learning programs even though I don't claim leadership responsibility for it. It expands opportunities to all parts of the globe where people have computers and Internet access.

I think one of the reasons that the trustees asked me to become president was because Berklee's mission was so unique in higher education. I had grown up with it and lived with it my entire life. They saw the opportunity for it to be carried on successfully and felt that my life experience to that point made me most qualified to achieve that. And I feel I have achieved it and carried the mission forward. I know Berklee has a very bright future ahead.

What was the hardest moment on the job for you as president?

There were very difficult times when Bob Share passed away in 1983 and again when both of my parents passed away in 1995. Bob Share was provost at the time and was an immense contributor to the college. He was one of the major architects of the curriculum of the college. The losses of those people as well as the passing of Bill Leavitt and Joe Viola would be among the most difficult times.

Could you single out one highlight occurring during your time at Berklee?

If I could mention only one, it would have to be when we gave Berklee's first honorary degree to Duke Ellington at the 1971 commencement and then having him decide to sit down at the piano during the reception to play for the graduates and their families. I don't think anything can top that.

You are not part of the process for selecting Berklee's next president. What are your thoughts on the transition of this institution, which has involved three generations of your family, to new leadership?

I am very proud of the educational legacy the Berk family is leaving. Both of my parents worked very closely together at the college. My wife has been at my side at countless Berklee functions contributing in her own way and has made innumerable friends for Berklee. Our daughters Nancy and Lucy have participated in the life of the college through their adolescence and are now pursuing careers in education. The entire family can be satisfied with the educational legacy we are leaving. We look forward to Berklee rising to even greater heights in the future.