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Our Rich History: Bob Berger and the Social Work program at Thomas More College

By Raymond G. Hebert, PhD
Thomas More University

Part 34 of our series, “Retrospect and Vista II”: Thomas More College/University, 1971-2021

Robert “Bob” Berger was a professor and practitioner in the world of Social Work/Sociology at Thomas More College for many years and was loved by all for his eclectic interests/tastes and his wonderful sense of humor.

For at least two decades he held court on the first floor (2100s) of the Classroom Building. For as long as Thomas More College was able to sustain a Social Work Program, Bob Berger was the heart and soul of it. He routinely attended professional meetings, regional and national, of the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) and of the National Association of Social Workers, just to be sure he was staying on top of developments in the field. He delivered papers when asked; reviewed manuscripts and books; led workshops, and addressed social work volunteers for organizations such as the Covington Community Center or St. Xavier Parish in Cincinnati.

Professor Robert “Bob” Berger, Sociology Department. (Thomas More University Archives)

Little known to most, he was also the co-author of a social work textbook entitled, Human Behavior: A Social Work Perspective, one of the leading national textbooks in his field (with Ron Federico and published by Longman Press in 1982). It was later published in multiple languages worldwide. He also served on a number of National Planning Committees for Annual Program Meetings of the CSWE, showing how respected he was in his field, even at the national level (Robert Berger files, TMU Archives).

Equally as important but less visible was the work that Bob Berger did in the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky community as a social work mentor/practitioner. He frequently gave talks on topics such as “Ethics and the Professions” or “Contemporary-Based Education” to other professionals. He was a Gerontological Social Work Consultant for multiple nursing homes and/or health care/convalescent centers. Further, he helped to conduct workshops on accreditation, and he worked with others to set up workshops on child protection. When Thomas More was investigating the possibility of a Gerontology Program in the early 1980s, he attended and completed a “Professional Studies in Aging” Certificate Program at the University of Michigan Institute for Gerontology (Certificate Awarded on June 22, 1984) so he could expand his expertise in a field he saw as crucial for the twenty-first century.

Appropriately, Berger’s greatest strength was in the classroom. When examining his excellent evaluations year after year, all of these successes are clearly recognized. His chair in 1984, for example, was Mary Jo Baumgartner. After praising Bob for his “strong leadership for social work as a field on the local, regional and national level,” she focused on his teaching skills, adding that “he serves as a strong male role model for social work with his knowledge of and enthusiasm for the field. I have never had a single student complain about Bob’s teaching or advising. I would rate his teaching as outstanding and this comes from personally observing him as a teacher” (Bob Berger, personnel file, TMU Archives).

In that same year, Sr. M. Laurence Budde SND, then Academic Dean, said of him, while rating him as “superior”:

Robert Berger is a dynamic teacher who holds himself and students to the learning of the principles in social work … His use of agencies and significant field experiences promote the seriousness of the responsibility one has in dealing with social issues in practice and instills into students the proper attitudes benefitting a worker in this field. He is actively concerned at all times about keeping abreast of developments in the field and imparts these in a meaningful way to his students (Bob Berger, personnel file, TMU Archives).

In evaluations by others, he was praised for his active involvement on college committees and for his work for multiple terms as the Chair for what became the combined Department of Criminal Justice, Sociology and Social Work.

Human Behavior: A Perspective for Helping Professions, written by Robert Berger. This is the second edition book cover.

Bob Berger was a fulltime faculty member at Thomas More College for close to three decades. There is no doubt that the national accreditation the college received for its Social Work Program in the 1980s was primarily due to his efforts. In addition to his knowledge, his teaching ability, and his admirable dedication to the social work profession, Bob’s personality enamored nearly everyone to him. The nuns at Thomas More were especially fond of him, often sitting at his table for lunch. Sr. Emerita McGann, CDP was one his favorites. He called her the “blue nun” for the color of her habit. In fact, Bob often stated that had he been born a female, he probably would have become a nun. For the sake of convents everywhere, some of us joked, it was probably best that he had not.

Sadly, however, Thomas More’s short-lived president, Dr. Thomas Coffey, was one of the few individuals to not share in the esteem for Bob. The situation climaxed in December 1982, when after the publication of his textbook (Human Behavior: A Perspective for Helping Professions), Berger applied for a promotion to the rank of Full Professor. On March 1, 1983, Sister M. Laurence Budde, SND, as the Academic Dean, sent a memo to President Thomas Coffey, stating that “the recommendation by the Academic Dean and the Faculty Relations Committee (FRC) was that Robert Berger be promoted to Full Professor” (Memo of March 1, 1983, to Dr. Thomas Coffey, TMU Archives).

Mary Jo Baumgartner, Sociology Department Chair. (Thomas More University Archives)

There were seven reasons given in support of the recommendation, including: 1. Mr. Berger’s “consistently receiving high student ratings” and 2. “he [Robert Berger] is one of the most concerned and dedicated faculty Thomas More has.” The only concern that had been expressed during the process involved some initial confusion over the requisite degree status for consideration as a terminal degree in the field of Social Work. A letter was then received several days later, on March 7, 1983, from Sydney Berengarten, the Director of Standards and Accreditation from the national Council on Social Work Education which seemed to clear up that issue. It described changes in credentialing that would go into effect on July 1, 1984. It stated that, as a minimum, following the earning of the Masters in Social Work (MSW), the “faculty who teach content on social work practice and coordinate field instruction shall hold a masters’ degree in social work and shall have two or more years of professional social work experience.” This would then be accepted in accreditation circles as the equivalent of a doctorate for Social Work faculty (Letter from Sydney Berengarten to Dr. John F. Chilton, Jr. of Trevecca Nazarene College, the Chair of Accreditation Committee, TMU Archives).

Despite this evidence, it was on March 22, 1983, just two weeks later that Sister M. Laurence was required to send a letter to Berger saying that “the recommendation for your promotion for the rank of Associate Professor to Full Professor was not concurred with by the President of Thomas More College” (Letter from Sr. M. Laurence Budde, SND as Academic Dean to Robert Berger, March 22, 1983; TMU Archives). Yet, President Coffey wrote to Berger a week later, on March 29, saying that he was “pleased to note that you have been evaluated with distinction,” adding that “your contributions to Thomas More College can only be categorized as outstanding” (Letter from President Thomas A. Coffey to Robert Berger, March 29, 1983, TMU Archives). Surprisingly, nothing was said about Coffey’s earlier decision not to recommend Berger’s promotion to the Board of Trustees.

Berger’s appeal followed less than two weeks later in a letter to the Academic Affairs Committee. It identified President Coffey’s primary reason being “his judgment that the M.S.W. degree is not a terminal degree” (Bob Berger’s letter to Academic Affairs Committee, April 11, 1983, TMU Archives). Berger, in his appeal letter, pointed out the Accreditation standards as noted above, plus a number of other reasons in support of his case, including a lengthy letter of support from the Chair of the University of Cincinnati Department of Social Work (Marilyn Rifkin) and his long-time former Thomas More Chairperson, Mary Harmeling, who mentioned her personal meeting with the Council on Social Work Education Visiting Team (See Bob Berger correspondence, TMU Archives). Harmeling, for example, quotes the faculty section of the standards for Accreditation which refers to the MSW as “the prevailing terminal professional degree” (Mary Harmeling quote in Bob Berger Appeal Letter of April 12, 1983, TMU Archives).

Bob Berger (far right side), served as Vice President of the Northern Kentucky Community Action Commission. (Courtesy of Kenton County Public Library)

Several meetings of the Academic Affairs Committee followed which led to their support of the Sister M. Laurence recommendation and a lengthy discussion at a late spring Board of Trustees meeting. Then, on June 2, 1983, Sister M. Laurence wrote to Berger saying: “Having received notice of the outcome of your appeal to the Board of Trustees regarding your promotion in rank, I am happy to inform you that your promotion has been decided upon in a positive outcome,” adding that she was indeed “very happy with this decision” (Sister M. Laurence SND letter to Robert Berger June 2, 1983, TMU Archives). It is worth noting that a valuable piece of evidence in this case had been the results of a survey conducted by Mary Baldwin College called: “Comments from Colleges and Universities Surveyed About Social Work Programs 6/80.” The Social Work profession had taken a stand on credentials and the arguments solidified Bob Berger’s case for promotion, which was well deserved.

Robert Berger remained as a revered faculty member for another decade or more. As an example of his knowledge of the field of Social Work Education and his commitment to what was best for the students in his program, when the numbers of majors declined precipitously in the early 1990’s it was Bob Berger himself who recommended that the major be dropped when it was no longer viable. It was Bob Berger — with the assistance of the other faculty in Criminal Justice, Sociology and Social Work — who kept the program going for as many years as it could and, when student interests and the marketplace shifted, it was Bob Berger who guided the department and college in different directions. Above all else, Bob Berger will always be remembered for putting the needs of students first. Today’s Department of Criminal Justice and Sociology remains strong, with a steady core of majors and ongoing support in the community. Much is owed to the work and dedication of Professor Robert Berger.

Dr. Raymond G.  Hebert is a Professor of History and Executive Director of the William T. Robinson III Institute for Religious Liberty at Thomas More University. He has just completed his 46th year at Thomas More and, with that background, will now serve as the General Editor of the official history of Thomas More College/University from 1971-2021. With a projected title of RETROSPECT AND VISTA II, it will serve as the sequel to Sr. Irmina Saelinger’s RETROSPECT AND VISTA, the history of the first 50 years of Thomas More College (formerly Villa Madonna College). He can be contacted at hebertr@thomasmore.edu .

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, and along the Ohio River). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History and Gender Studies at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the author of many books and articles.

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