When John Bernson, the College's new vice president for finance, got ready to leave his post at the American University of Beirut (AUB) this summer, the farewell path seemed pretty straightforward.
“We were sad to be moving on in some ways,” says Bernson, who was vice president and C.F.O. at AUB since 1999. But there were festivities, like a going-away dinner at the university president’s house in early July, to be followed by a few more weeks of handing off responsibilities. Or so they expected, he says.
“Then things happened a little differently from the way we had planned.”
The morning that his wife and son, Jake, were to leave Beirut, Israel bombed the airport as part of its military response to Hezbollah, beginning the first of several weeks of turmoil and uncertainty. His family left over land and flew home from Syria, but Bernson stayed to help the university react and adjust to the situation.
“Nearly one-quarter of the country’s population was displaced, many permanently. AUB developed outreach programs to help, but it still was a major setback for Lebanon and the university. And the dust hasn't settled yet.“
In late August, Bernson left Beirut by land, flew to the U.S. from Amman, Jordan, and started work at Sarah Lawrence after Labor Day. After spending 32 of the last 34 years abroad, he and his wife have enjoyed coming home-quite literally-to SLC, where a family tradition is well entrenched. Wife Sheila Miller Bernson ’71, brother-in-law Donald Miller ’75, sister-in-law Lauren Miller ’76 and late mother-in-law Claire Miller ’36 are all alums; a niece, Carolyn Miller, is currently an SLC junior studying in the Paris program.
Before AUB, Bernson was general manager of banks in Lebanon, Turkey, Korea and The Netherlands, mostly working for Citibank. He earned a B.A. in European history from Columbia College and an M.B.A. in finance from Columbia Business School.
In his first semester at the College, the new V.P. has begun looking for opportunities to strengthen financial controls and to improve service responsiveness, “and, long-term, to move towards sustainable financial equilibrium. But whatever we do in finance can’t be at the expense of our singular academic programs.”
As he settles in to campus, Bernson likes what he sees. “Sarah Lawrence is a great cause, nice bunch of people, and I think I can make a positive difference,” he says. —T.W.