In announcing Mark Burstein’s appointment as president of Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., the college mentioned his unconventional path to the position. That wasn’t a reference to the fact that he is the first Jewish president appointed in the liberal arts college’s 165-year history nor to his time working on a dairy farm in Israel.
It referred rather to the fact that Burstein worked for New York City’s sanitation department and as an investment banker.
As unlikely as those jobs sound as steps to a college presidency, Burstein, who grew up in Cedar Grove, points to them as integral to his professional development. They also fed the fascination with liberal arts education that made him want to take on the leadership of this institution with a student body of 1,500.
“It’s organizational life rather than leadership that interests me,” he said, “finding ways to help people realize their potential together.”
Prior to his Lawrence appointment in July, he put that interest into action as executive vice president at Princeton University, where he served for nine years. He was hired there after working for 10 years at Columbia University in New York in three different administrative roles.
At first, he said, he was “ambivalent about taking the Princeton position because I wanted to work with an institution that had unfulfilled capability, to be part of a group that can become better at what they do.”
“And then I saw that as excellent as Princeton was, there were opportunities for improvement.”
He acknowledged that his choice to move from the Ivy League to a smaller campus elicited some surprise. But, as he told NJJN, he — together with his partner of 24 years, David Calle — made a very deliberate choice to move to Appleton.
“We have a liking for an environment that is community-oriented and welcoming, and it is really beautiful,” he said. The college, the second co-ed one established in the United States, started out with a commitment to bring together Native American and settler youth. It still has a minority enrollment of 20 percent, and a large contingent of international students.
And while Appleton, which grew up around the college, has a population of around 75,000, it is part of the 11-municipality “Fox Cities,” with 250,000 residents. For Calle, who works with Unilever and is currently based in Holland, it’s a 50-minute flight to Detroit, where he can get direct flights to Rotterdam.
Burstein particularly welcomed Lawrence’s conservatory. “Music is present everywhere you go, and that, I believe, raises the quality of intellectual discussion,” he said. He also liked the fact that Lawrence has a “test-optional” admissions policy. “They consider the whole student,” he said, “with the interviews and the essays, not just test scores — and we feel that allows for a more transformational college experience for the students we admit.”
All of this jibes well with his background, as the son of an accountant-lawyer father who helped small businesses grow, and a mother who taught at Drew University in Madison. His first career dream, he admitted with a laugh, was to lead the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. “Yeah, that’s not what most kids dream of doing, but I saw it was knitting the region together and providing investment in the economy,” he said.
When he was a senior at Memorial High School in Cedar Grove, he was elected president of the NJ Region of Young Judaea, the Zionist youth organization affiliated with Hadassah. It led to his participation — during a gap year after school — to do the Youth Leaders from Abroad program in Israel.
He stayed on another year in Israel, attending Hebrew University and working on the dairy farm. The experience with cows sparked an interest “in the human impact on the environment” that led years later, back in the United States, to his joining the sanitation department in New York City, to help craft its massive recycling program.
He graduated from Vassar College, where he is now a member of the board of trustees and completed an MBA at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, before becoming an investment banker. Asked how that fitted with his ideals, Burstein said, “I worked in public finance — and that interest in institutional financing led me to get involved with the recycling program.”
That interest has continued, through his roles in finance, student life, and campus development at Columbia and Princeton. He recently served on the New York City Mayor’s Applied Sciences Advisory Board, and has been active with other groups. He has also been involved in gay rights groups, serving as chair of the board of directors of the Victory Fund, a national political action committee based in Washington, DC.
While he was completely open about both, Burstein said, neither his being Jewish or gay factored in his interviews with the Lawrence selection process, and won’t be factors in his presidency.
“My role,” he stated, “is strictly nonpolitical. The role of a president of a college, especially in this time when there is so little civil discussion, is to create an environment where there can be real disagreement combined with learning, where people feel free to express strong, differing opinions.”