Q&A with President Mitchel Wallerstein
Dr. Mitchel B. Wallerstein became the seventh president of Baruch College on Aug. 2, 2010. President Wallerstein came to Baruch having served for seven years as dean of the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. His decades of U.S. and international experience in academic, administrative, and governmental roles make him an ideal leader for the College. He has held leadership positions at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the U.S. Department of Defense, and the National Academies of Sciences and Engineering. President Wallerstein is a native New Yorker. He is married, and one of his children also resides in the city.
What most attracted you to Baruch College?
Without question, what attracted me to the Baruch presidency was and is the students. I am amazed by their incredible diversity and hunger for education! I have also discovered that there is a “Baruch story” that is common both to current students and to our tens of thousands of alumni. It has to do with people who come to the College from extremely modest backgrounds and are often either first generation or the children of first generation Americans. They understand the importance of education and the opportunities that can be opened to them as a result of graduating from Baruch. They work hard, both at school and to help support their families. And in so many cases, they go on to have extraordinarily successful lives and careers that change the entire outlook for themselves and for their families. This epitomizes, in many respects, the American dream. I can think of few other institutions where my leadership could have such a direct impact in helping highly motivated people build a better life for themselves. This is why I’m here, and this is what excites me about Baruch.
What do you believe are the potential and promise of Baruch College?
Baruch, in my estimation, has the potential to be one of the best public colleges in the nation.
Baruch College combines academic excellence with extremely low cost. In today’s world, that’s an unbeatable formula. Many students and their families are increasingly unable or unwilling to pay upward of $40,000 annually in tuition alone for a college education. They are looking more closely at public colleges, and when they do, they find that Baruch offers a highly attractive alternative and an amazing value.
Baruch’s academic excellence is built on an outstanding faculty, on ambitious and hardworking students, and on a core group of extraordinarily dedicated alumni who are committed to helping Baruch maintain its upward trajectory. Because of our location in the heart of Manhattan, our students have unparalleled internship opportunities; and these days, internships are more important than ever in jumpstarting careers. For example, Baruch’s Wall Street Careers program, which was begun just a few years ago by our Starr Career Development Center, grooms students for front-office jobs at major Wall Street banks and brokerages. Students in this program have graduated to fast-track careers at Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, and other top financial firms.
Equally important, students who graduate from Baruch College complete their undergraduate education without the mountain of debt that encumbers many young people with degrees from private colleges and universities. This gives Baruch students a great deal of economic and psychological freedom. If they chose to attend graduate school, they can do so with a clean economic slate.
Let’s remember that public colleges were created to give everyone a chance at a college education. They embody our democratic ideals and our commitment to individual effort as the key to financial and professional success. (I should also note that my own mother is a CUNY alumna.)
You probably have a long list of things you’d like to accomplish at Baruch College. Can you share the top three with us?
I do most definitely have a list of ideas and dreams for the College. Certainly one of them is to sustain, and if possible improve, the quality and rankings of the Zicklin School of Business. At the same time, I would like to further strengthen the other two academic units of the College: the Weissman School of Arts and Sciences and the School of Public Affairs. While Baruch has been known historically as CUNY’s business school—and this remains the case today—we are also now a multifaceted, “full-service” educational institution. I’d like to think that, like Garrison Keillor’s mythical town of Lake Wobegon, where “all the children are above average,” all three of Baruch’s schools can excel.
In my longer-range vision, I have in mind several new undergraduate and graduate programs that would complement existing degree programs at the College and offer Baruch potential “niches of excellence” where it could compete on a national and international basis. I also have the germ of an idea for a possible fourth school within the College, though this and most other new academic initiatives may have to await the return of more prosperous times for CUNY and Baruch. I also have been struck by the quality of a number of ideas for the expansion of existing programs or development of new ones that come from Baruch’s deans and from Provost McCarthy. I am eager to help pursue these ideas as well.
Finally, there are a number of operational objectives that I hope very much to accomplish that may not be as grand in scale but that are highly important to the Baruch College community. Among these are closing 25th Street to traffic between the Newman Vertical Campus and the Newman Library to create a pedestrian plaza; the repair of the escalators in the Newman Vertical Campus; and initiating the refurbishing of the Field Building at 17 Lexington Avenue.
How have you and former Interim President Stan Altman been working together to create a smooth leadership transition?
I feel remarkably fortunate not only to have received a warm and supportive welcome from my senior colleagues at Baruch but also to have enjoyed a seamless and highly collegial transition with Interim President Stan Altman. Stan served most ably as interim president, and he has been an invaluable guide and advisor as I have transitioned into Baruch and CUNY. He has generously shared his extensive knowledge of Baruch, its relationship to CUNY, and, more broadly, the politics of New York City and State. I have come to Baruch from Syracuse University, a private institution, where we did not have to worry too much about the state budget or the political wrangling in Albany. Baruch presents a much more complicated and challenging administrative environment, and I will be relying on the veteran administrators and faculty members who make up the President’s Cabinet to help me navigate through these shoals.
In addition to Stan Altman, Provost Jim McCarthy, the College’s chief academic officer, shared his intimate knowledge of the Baruch faculty and its academic strengths and challenges. Having just led a highly successful self-study of the College for the Middle States Commission on Higher Education accrediting team, Provost McCarthy and his staff had facts and figures at their fingertips. He also shared his thoughtful and informed perspective on Baruch’s academic future and its most pressing current needs. Our backgrounds are complementary, and we have formed an effective leadership team.
In your estimation, what are we doing right? What are our strengths?
I am happy to say that there is a lot that the College is doing right. First and foremost, Baruch has a splendid faculty and an increasingly capable student body.
Our faculty are making contributions through their teaching, their scholarship, and their engagement with the community. They have won Guggenheim and Fulbright Fellowships as well as prestigious and competitive research grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), among others. A member of our Department of History was recently elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; one of our accounting professors has been chief auditor for the Public Companies Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB) and was recently elected to its Advisory Board.
Every year our students walk away with numerous academic honors and prizes. This year’s freshman class—the Class of 2014—is not only wonderfully diverse and enthusiastic but one of the highest-achieving classes to enter the College ever. Their mean combined SAT score was an impressive 1220.
In the national rankings conducted annually by U.S. News & World Report, Forbes, the Princeton Review, and other organizations, Baruch College has climbed steadily. For example, the 2011 edition of U.S. News & World Report ranked Baruch in the Top 25 among the colleges and universities in its region, up from #36 just a year earlier. Baruch is also regularly cited as a top “value” in higher education and one of the most diverse colleges in the nation. Rankings, of course, are not everything, but they are an important indicator of Baruch’s growing reputation among its peers and among academic opinion leaders.
How does Baruch College excel in the student services it provides?
Baruch College offers students extraordinary opportunities—to study, to travel, and to gain invaluable real-world experience. Because of our location in Manhattan, our students have been able to secure internships at each of the Big Four accounting firms, at the offices of city and state public officials, at the New York Times, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and with many other companies too numerous to mention. The Starr Career Development Center works tirelessly to match students with appropriate internships and the jobs they often lead to.
Dozens of students each year are mentored by Baruch alumni, many of them prominent business executives, sometimes even CEOs and CFOs. These mentors are part of our unique Executives On Campus program, and they provide our students with invaluable real-world perspectives.
Baruch’s Writing Center helps those who need assistance polishing their communication skills, and the Student Academic Consulting Center (SACC) provides one-on-one tutorials in a variety of subjects. Additionally, the Lawrence N. Field Center for Entrepreneurship offers both internship opportunities and hands-on guidance to students interested in starting their own businesses.
We take great pride in the William and Anita Newman Library, which a few years ago was named by the American Library Association as the outstanding college library in the country. Since then, the library has increased its technology and online resources. Computer labs for student use are located throughout the campus.
And it’s not all work and no play. Baruch also has highly competitive and dedicated Division III athletic teams in basketball, volleyball, swimming and diving, and several other sports. Lastly, for the first time in its history, Baruch College now has residential housing available for students who want the experience of living with their fellow students.
Let me emphasize that, in today’s highly competitive higher education environment, the student services that we provide are not a luxury. They are essential if we are to attract and retain high-caliber students. We need to ensure that Baruch remains an attractive option for students from all five boroughs of the City of New York, from the surrounding metropolitan area, and from abroad.
At this moment in time, Baruch College, like the rest of CUNY and public higher education institutions across the country, faces major fiscal challenges. New York State tax revenues have fallen precipitously, and the state has had to confront difficult choices. As a result, there has been a significant reduction in the state resources provided to CUNY—and hence to Baruch. While we hope that this is only a temporary situation, in the near term it means that will have to further tighten our belts and may have to defer some of the ideas and initiatives we had intended to pursue until the funding picture improves. Like most new leaders, I come to the College with a list of new initiatives that I would like to pursue. So I find the difficult fiscal situation to be somewhat frustrating. But I am convinced that we will overcome these temporary setbacks. In the meantime, I intend to position the College to emerge from this situation well poised to grow and to continue to expand its national and international reputation for excellence.
And what are our opportunities?
Baruch’s principal opportunity remains what it has always been—namely, to offer a quality higher education to motivated students from all over the City of New York whose financial situation does not permit them to attend private colleges and universities. Given that there is a widening gap between the tuition charged by CUNY versus that charged by private schools, the attractiveness of Baruch is even more compelling. But it is also the case that the quality of Baruch has also improved to the point where we are now ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 25 regional universities in its latest poll. For students interested in an urban educational experience, we are an outstanding choice not only on financial grounds but also on quality as well.
Baruch also has real opportunities afforded by its location in New York City, which is one of (if not the) financial and cultural capitals of the world. Certainly, the concentration of private companies in Manhattan offers natural advantages to our business students. But the cultural opportunities and intellectual environment also provide great learning and career advantages for our arts and sciences students as well. Finally, students in our School of Public Affairs can gain invaluable experience in studying urban policy and management and educational administration in one of the biggest public sector idea incubators in the United States.
How do you, as our new president, plan to be in contact with the alumni?
I will be reaching out in the coming months and years to alumni through a variety of events and social gatherings. The College’s busy Office of Alumni Relations engages more than 90,000 active alumni. It offers a full calendar of events, and I plan to attend many alumni gatherings, including some of the regional events in California, Florida, and Washington, D.C. We also have an alumni website, and every few weeks Baruch alumni receive an Alumni Brief updating them on their alma mater. Twice a year, we publish the Baruch College Alumni Magazine in print and now online. I plan to use all these resources to stay in touch.
Additionally, each semester, Baruch College organizes conferences, seminars, and open forums on topics ranging from real estate to the fine arts. The Baruch Performing Arts Center (BPAC) also has a full schedule of theater, music, comedy, and dance. I hope to attend many of these events, and I hope interested alumni will too.
How, in particular, do you plan to engage our youngest alumni?
Just as our older alumni have helped to sustain and build Baruch during its first five decades, so too a new generation of alumni will need to help carry the College forward over the next half century. Our young alumni are our future. It is imperative, therefore, that we involve them in the life and governance of the College. As their careers advance, we anticipate that they will become the next generation of Baruch College Fund Trustees and donors.
How does our environment, in the heart of New York City, affect our mission and our day-to-day activity?
New York City is a magnet for the best faculty and the best students. Faculty will often forego more lucrative opportunities and students more generous scholarships elsewhere in order to enjoy the many cultural advantages of this city. This fact alone gives us the opportunity to become one of the best public colleges in the country.
Our mission is preparing tomorrow’s leaders and practitioners in business, government, and the nonprofit sector. There are Baruch alumni on the City Council, in the state legislature, and throughout city and state agencies. Baruch was instrumental in the Bloomberg administration’s makeover of the public school system. Through our School of Public Affairs, we trained a new generation of dynamic principals. Similarly, through our MBA program in health care administration, we have produced dozens of hospital and nursing home administrators. Baruch alumni are employed as accountants and auditors in businesses large and small through New York City and State.
The College is fortunate to have strong leaders on the BCF Board of Trustees. How will you approach working with them?
The BCF Trustees have been instrumental in sustaining and improving Baruch’s financial condition and in helping the College to achieve its rising reputation. A cadre of dedicated and far-sighted alumni, who serve on the board of the BCF, have propelled Baruch College to new levels of excellence, and this largely accounts for the significant rise in our national rankings. As the percentage of the College’s budget provided by the State of New York has decreased—a situation that is likely to continue for a number of years—we must rely on private philanthropy to make up the difference. The role of the BCF will accordingly become ever more important. I look forward to working closely with the leadership of the BCF to increase its effectiveness and to bring the College’s current $150 million campaign to a successful conclusion.