September 16, 2011 | Salute to Scholars, The University
One of the first tasks Mitchell B. Wallerstein had to perform as Baruch College’s new president was to slash millions of dollars from the college’s budget. Wallerstein’s diverse job experience has prepared him to lead the college amid fiscal challenges and taught him how to generate alternative sources of funding. As vice president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in Chicago (1998-2003), one of the largest philanthropic organizations in the world, he directed the international grant-making program, which provides more than $85 million in grants each year in areas such as international peace and security, conservation and sustainable development, and human rights.
Before coming to Baruch on Aug. 2, 2010, Wallerstein was the dean of the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs of Syracuse University (2003-2010), where he also taught political science and public administration. In 1993, President Bill Clinton appointed Wallerstein Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Counterproliferation Policy and Senior Defense Representative for Trade Security Policy. Prior to his five-year government tenure, he was the deputy executive officer of the National Research Council of the National Academies of Sciences and Engineering, nonprofit organizations that advise the U.S. government on policy matters.
Born in New York, Wallerstein grew up in West Orange, N.J., and spent every summer at his grandfather’s house in Belle Harbor Queens. He holds a master’s and doctorate in political science from M.I.T. and a masters in public administration from the Maxwell School of Syracuse University.
You’ve said that Baruch College has the potential to be one of the best public colleges in the nation. What is it going to take to make that happen?
Money. Baruch has many things going for it. It’s got a wonderful faculty, it’s been attracting an increasingly strong student body, and we are being seen nationally and internationally as a place of high quality. And to continue to move in that direction we need to continue to invest in the college. This is an era of budget constraints so it’s going to be very difficult to do that, but I’m absolutely committed to making sure that Baruch, which has made such extraordinary advances over the last decade, doesn’t slide backward.
You’ve had a chance to assess the college’s strengths and compile a list of goals you’d like to accomplish. What are some of your short-term and long-term goals?
My most immediate goal is to maintain the college’s quality and to stabilize the budget. We very much need student scholarships, and we really have an urgent need for more physical space. We’re something like 100,000 square feet short given the size of our student body of 17,000. We’re actively trying to see what we can do about that.
Long-term goals are mostly programmatic. We’d like to start a master’s degree in international relations that would draw upon the capabilities of our schools of Arts and Sciences and our School of Public Affairs.
In the past few months you have attended several alumni gatherings. What have you learned in talking to former Baruch students?
The main thing I’ve learned is what I call the Baruch story: for people who came to the college — in many cases they were the first in their family to go to college — Baruch changed their lives because they were able to pursue jobs and careers that were not possible for their parents. Life has not been easy for many of these people because they were immigrants, they had to hold part- or full-time jobs all the while they were going to school, but they have moved up now into some extraordinarily impressive jobs.
You’ve had a successful career in higher education and beyond. How did it prepare you to lead one of the most diverse schools in the nation?
I’ve worked in many different sectors of the economy and it helps me to understand the kinds of careers that many of our students would be pursuing. I’ve worked in philanthropy so I understand how a college has to make proposals to philanthropic organizations to generate income. I think the combination of the various experiences I’ve had, including my time in the government, has helped me to be a little smarter about how to manage a large institution and how to advance it.
Your mom graduated from Brooklyn College where she studied elementary education. Did you have a particular interest in CUNY?
My mother always spoke very highly of her experience at Brooklyn College, but the thing that convinced me to take this job was meeting the students and being so impressed with their diversity. I described it to someone as walking into the United Nations… I was certainly very impressed with the leadership of Matthew Goldstein, and knowing that he’s a former president of Baruch and that he had a vision of what CUNY can become and that he has lifted the whole system up from where it was before he became chancellor.
You’re a native New Yorker and a Yankees fan and you’re back in the city full time. What are some of your favorite pastimes?
I experienced the city growing up, but you see it very differently when you’re a child or a teenager. I actually came of age during an era of a folk scene, so I used to go down to the Village back when Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and all the other old folk singers were very active. But the most fun part about being back is rediscovering parts of the city that I thought I knew. I’m an outdoors person, scuba diver and skier and backpacker. I like to get outdoors when I can, get out to the Rocky Mountains and other places like that. I haven’t been to the new Yankees Stadium yet so I look forward to that.