Beyond Vassar

5 Questions for Mark Burstein '84

Mark Burstein ’84
Mark Burstein ’84

When quintessential New Yorker Mark Burstein ’84 broke the news to family, friends, and colleagues that he would be pulling up stakes as executive vice president at Princeton University and heading to Appleton, Wisconsin, to become the 16th president of Lawrence University, he figured the jokes would soon follow. Jokes about Midwestern winters. About cheese. About football (Appleton is home base for visiting teams playing in nearby Green Bay). Friend and fellow alumnus Eric Marcus ’80 spoke with Burstein two days after he delivered his first convocation speech at the 1,500-student liberal arts college and music conservatory.

EM: How do you feel about cold weather?

MB: [Laughing] Cold weather has not been my preferred weather environment, but I’m looking forward to it. The idea of having a life that engages the outdoors more is very appealing to both David and me [David Calle is Mark’s spouse]. We’re looking forward to picking up cross-country skiing.

EM: Your route to college president has been an unusual one. You’re a Wharton MBA, left investment banking to work for the City of New York before moving on to Columbia University and then Princeton. Isn’t the typical college president an academic and a PhD?

MB: That’s absolutely true, but there are a growing number of college presidents who don’t have PhDs, yet have had extensive experience in higher education. The presidents of Bates, Grinnell, Drexel, and Oberlin are just four examples among many.

EM: What appealed to you about becoming the president of a liberal arts institution?

MB: In many ways, coming to Lawrence is returning to my roots. I not only had a wonderful Vassar experience but I also grew up on a college campus as a faculty member’s son. I believe a liberal arts education provides the essential ingredients for a person’s success through a rigorous academic environment, close personal contact with faculty, and a community that allows students to discover their leadership skills and also to connect across diversity.

EM: How did you and David decide whether Lawrence and Appleton were a good fit?

MB: Just as Lawrence University was interested to see whether I was a good fit for Lawrence, it was very important for David and me to determine whether Lawrence, Appleton, or Wisconsin were even possible for us. We decided that the best way to do our initial research was to make a surreptitious visit and take an admissions tour before I was interviewed.

What we discovered was a place that was far more diverse than we’d expected—over 30 percent of the campus is made up of students of color. Also, we were impressed by our tour guide, who was from Mexico and one of the first from his family to go to college. He was a self-described introvert, yet the way he was greeted by the campus community during the course of the tour indicated to me that the connectedness between students, faculty, and staff was very strong and highly personal. We found this aspect of Lawrence very appealing.

EM: You’ve often been the first out, gay person in each of the jobs you’ve held—even at Princeton. I just assumed that this would be the case with your new job, but I see there are about 25 out, gay college
presidents. First, how have you felt about being a pioneer in the past? And, second, is it just a little disappointing not being a pioneer this time around?

MB: I’m very thankful not to be a pioneer. I’ve been a path-breaker by necessity because my aspirations and interests have led me to places where I was in the minority or unique simply because of who I am.  It feels like the world has given me an incredible gift that I live in a time when I can be fully who I am and still do work that I’m excited about doing.

Eric Marcus ’80 is the author of several books, including Making Gay History and Why Suicide?