Teaching, Moving Couches, and Leading
In 1985, I called Berklee’s office of the registrar requesting an official transcript for my application to graduate school. Larry Bethune took the call, his cheerful voice assured me that it would be sent right away. And it was. “It was important to me to get those [transcripts] out quickly,” Bethune told me recently, “because it meant that the alumni were trying to do something important.”
Surely thousands of other alumni and students could share similar stories of how Bethune or his staff in the Division of Student Affairs have served students and alumni well throughout the past four decades at the college. Bethune began a well-earned retirement in January.
After graduation from high school in Toms River, NJ, Bethune (a multi-instrumentalist but drum principal) set his sights on Berklee, aspiring to become a film composer. “I fell in love with the whole dream that Berklee represents,” Bethune recalls. “And I was not disappointed when I got here.” Interestingly, among his first Berklee roommates was the now-famous film composer Alan Silvestri ’70. Bethune majored in composition and started getting opportunities to write for documentaries while still a student.
After he graduated in 1971, Richard Bobbitt, then Berklee’s dean, asked if he wanted to teach. He was planning to pursue film composing in Los Angeles, and declined at first. In an about-face, he decided he’d give teaching a try and found that he loved it. “I’ve always been curious and a lover of learning,” Bethune says. “So becoming a teacher was natural to me—but I didn’t see it coming. And that’s how I never got to Hollywood! To this day, I love teaching and helping people learn the tools to draw something out of themselves.”
Bethune taught ear training, composition, counterpoint, arranging, ensembles, and more. From 1972 to 1975, he also served as director of tutoring and chaired the ear-training department from 1978 to 1982. In 1979, he was named the dean of students and vice president for student affairs.
“When I took this job, there was no Student Affairs Department,” he says. “After I was hired as the dean of students, president Lee Eliot Berk gave me a list of 10 things—like developing a system to make sure scholarships are distributed fairly and efficiently. We discussed everything he wanted me to accomplish. As I was leaving his office, I was thinking to myself, ‘Wow, I’m the dean of students!’ Then Lee called after me saying, ‘Hey, Larry, there’s one more thing. That couch that’s been in front of Joe Viola’s office; can you get it moved?’ I guess he asked me to take care of it because he thought I was someone who would get things done. So I’ve always tried to maintain humility in doing my job because it could be about moving couches.”
When Bethune left the faculty for the administration, he found that he had a transferable skill. “I realized that now I’d be teaching staff members,” he says. “We were not talking about a piece of music but a student with a problem. It’s always problems you are solving as a teacher. An improvising jazz musician is an instantaneous problem solver: ‘I am here, where do I go? Oops, I went there, now how do I get out of here?’ I saw that problem solving in administration had parallels in music.”
Bethune accomplished much during his Berklee career. He took the lead in developing and overseeing the college’s enrollment plan. Between 1993 and 2003, student population grew 70 percent from 2,232 to 3,800. With that increase came a doubling of the number of female students and a 77 percent increase in the number of African-American students enrolled. He also developed the first learning lab with computers to expand the tutoring program.
Bethune designed and created the student convocation and has overseen the planning and production of the commencement exercises. He also took the lead on the creation of the Counseling and Advising Center and student activities area. He worked on the Berklee High School Jazz Festival from its inception in 1969 and became its executive director in 1992.
He takes pride in the development of the peer-advising program. “It changed the culture here,” he says. “We wanted to treat the students as individuals and not have a one-size-fits-all policy. I wanted the offices I oversaw to think of themselves as being service-oriented in their interactions with students.”
Bethune’s retirement plans will keep him busy with volunteer work on several cultural endeavors with the mayor in Newton, MA, where he lives. He will also continue volunteering to teach guitar to U.S. military veterans. He plans to continue his work with the international advisory board of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in his ancestral homeland.
As well, he intends to resume his composing activities. “I have about 20 compositions that I want to finish,” he says. “I’ve been too busy to complete a march I’m writing for the U.S. Marine Corps Band. Now I’ll get to it.”
Looking back on his career, he says, “I dedicated myself to the job because I loved it, and now it’s time to pass the baton to the new vice president, Betsy Newman. She is young, energetic, and knows the business. I feel that she’s going to be great. Berklee is a better place than when I started. I’m not the one who did that, but I’ve been part of it, and I’m happy about that.”