Looking back on his decade as president of Baruch College, Mitchel B. Wallerstein, PhD, hopes to be remembered “as a builder who saw and pursued opportunities, especially to create badly needed new facilities; as a highly successful fundraiser; and as a developer of new academic programs. If I can be remembered for these three things, I feel I will have left a legacy at Baruch.”
For President Wallerstein, helping people has always been at the heart of his career motivations, even as his aspirations evolved. “It wasn’t until I got to college that I discovered politics, government, and issues of leadership,” he recalls, adding, “I started out with a biology major and thought I was headed for a career in medicine.”
After his undergraduate years at Dartmouth, he went on to earn a PhD at MIT and became an academic for five years. Then he was called to Washington, DC, spending a decade at the National Academy of Sciences before moving on to a five-year role in the Clinton administration as deputy assistant secretary of defense, and then to philanthropy at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, where he served five years as vice president for international grant-making programs. “I thought I would always get back to academia,” he says, “but it took a long time.” His doorway back was the deanship of the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, where he had earned a master’s degree in public administration, returning more than 30 years later as the dean. That’s where he started to think seriously about a college presidency as “the culminating activity of my career,” he says.
FROM FIRST IMPRESSIONS TO FIRST PLACE
His dream came true at Baruch. Recalling his initial reaction to the College, when he came to be interviewed for the presidency, he describes sitting in the lobby of the Newman Vertical Campus (NVC) with his wife, watching the students go by: “I remember commenting to her, ‘This is like being at the United Nations.’ That’s when I saw with my own eyes what I had already read: how extraordinarily diverse Baruch College is.”
From the start, President Wallerstein embraced Baruch’s legacy as an engine of social mobility, providing economically accessible, life-changing education. “The thing I am proudest of is the fact that Baruch has been ranked for the last five years as the #1 school in the country for social mobility,” he says. “This has always been our historical mission. The methodology for measuring social mobility in the higher education context did not exist in 2010. But since then, there has been a seismic—and long overdue—shift in the national dialogue regarding what defines prestige, relevance, and excellence in our domain.”
Other impressive rankings underscore the growth of Baruch’s visibility and prestige during President Wallerstein’s tenure, including a #1 ranking from Money magazine (Best Colleges in the Northeast for Value) and annual top-tier ratings by U.S News & World Report and Forbes. The accolades continue, too numerous to list.
ASSEMBLY REQUIRED: TRANSFORMING THE CAMPUS
Coming close second among his proudest achievements are the facilities upgrades President Wallerstein has brought about. Among the many projects, he highlights the development of Clivner=Field Plaza and the Allen G. and Mary E. Aaronson Student Center.
Calling Clivner=Field Plaza (which was created by closing 25th Street between Lexington and Third Avenues) “no small undertaking” but “ultimately the most important” of his presidency, he cites the long and complicated history of the project, which he introduced during his first year. Creating the plaza involved gaining the support of the local community board as well as multiple city agencies, elected officials, nearby businesses, and area residents. Next came a substantial amount of private and public fundraising (more than $7 million) and lengthy delays due to the city’s complex approval process. Slated to open at the end of 2020, the plaza—which is named for two generous alumni donors, the late Lawrence Field (’52) and Daniel Clivner (’85), whose gifts helped persuade others to contribute—will provide a central outdoor meeting place for the Baruch College community as well as for those who live and work in the neighborhood.
As for the Aaronson Student Center, the College’s first permanent student center, it stands ready to welcome students “as soon as Baruch is able to safely resume face-to-face operations,” says President Wallerstein. Located on the lower level of the historic Madison Square Post Office, diagonally across from the 24th Street entrance to the NVC,
and made possible by a gift from the late Allen G. Aaronson (’48) and his wife Mary, the beautifully appointed, modern space offers students a place to study, collaborate, or just hang out in between classes. “Given that almost all of our students are commuters, having a space to go between classes is extremely important and long needed.”
PRESIDENT AND FUNDRAISER
“In an era of shrinking public budgets and escalating costs, securing the financial health and future of Baruch College has been one of my highest priorities,” says President Wallerstein, who estimates that he has spent 40-45 percent of his time on fundraising. Fortunately for Baruch, his skillful and diligent efforts paid off: Since 2010, total College assets have grown by more than $104 million and before the recent economic decline caused by COVID-19, the total endowment stood at approximately $228 million.
President Wallerstein cites as his most celebrated fundraising accomplishment the $30 million gift provided by Austin W. Marxe (’65) to name and endow the Austin W. Marxe School of Public and International Affairs—the single largest gift in the history of Baruch College and the second-largest ever received in CUNY. During his tenure, the College also completed two highly successful fundraising campaigns, both of which exceeded their goals: the Baruch Means Business campaign, which concluded in 2013 having raised $157 million, and the first-ever dedicated scholarship campaign, Be in the Life-Changing Business, which raised $21 million at its 2017 completion and created 89 new scholarship funds.
On the academic front, President Wallerstein’s tenure has been marked by ambitious initiatives. “In the last
10 years, we have launched numerous new programs—both in New York and abroad—and reinvigorated the curriculum across all three schools,” he recounts. Among the forward-looking new additions are a master’s program in international affairs in the Marxe School, five graduate and undergraduate programs in the Weissman School, and master’s degree programs and executive programs in the Zicklin School, which has revamped its MBA curriculum and is currently revising its BBA program. Zicklin also launched an impressive eight dual-degree programs with partners in Israel, China, and Italy, among other countries, “increasing Baruch’s global reputation and visibility,” says President Wallerstein.
Baruch’s global footprint also extends to the College’s alumni networks, which have grown exponentially in the past decade. The number of engaged alumni has expanded by 40 percent, and there has been a 200 percent increase in the number of alumni attending events worldwide. “I have participated in alumni events in many places around the world, including Istanbul, Tel Aviv, and Shanghai—just to name a few,” says President Wallerstein.
Although not on the list of President Wallerstein’s aspirational goals, competence in crisis management will doubtless be an attribute with which he is indelibly linked. Of his final semester as president, he says, “Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that I would complete my 10 years of service as president in my apartment, hunkered down and trying to keep the wheels moving from a distance as the College shifted from mostly in-person teaching to 100 percent online.”
The COVID-19 crisis may be the worst President Wallerstein has faced, but it is not the first. Budget cuts have been a central and, unfortunately, a fairly regular condition of his presidency, which began shortly after the Great Recession. And Baruch endured ill winds of another sort when Hurricane Sandy struck the city in 2012, which plunged the College (and much of lower Manhattan) into darkness for nearly five days; in its wake, the Baruch community mobilized to serve as one of New York’s largest emergency shelters.
Preparedness is an essential part of crisis management, as has been shown in the current challenge. Was President Wallerstein prescient when he established the goal of 20 percent hybrid/online courses in his 2013–2018 Strategic
Plan? Without that goal and the work of the College’s Center for Teaching and Learning, which was established in 2013, the coronavirus-mandated pivot from in-person classes to distance learning, which was accomplished in five days, would have been far more chaotic.
Whether that transition is temporary or marks a fundamental shift in the way higher education is executed remains to be seen, although the outgoing president shares his takeaway: “We should be realistic and forward-looking about the potential for world events and natural disasters to impact us in unprecedented ways. I believe that online education will play an even more significant role going forward at Baruch.”
READY FOR THE FUTURE
Although he is passing the torch to Baruch’s incoming president, S. David Wu, PhD, President Wallerstein isn’t leaving Baruch. He has been appointed as a CUNY University Professor and will be teaching graduate courses in the Marxe School beginning in the fall.
The president also looks forward—pandemic permitting—to having the time to travel internationally. “Much of my career has been international, and I have found that it is very difficult to take long trips when you are a college president,” he laughs.
“I leave the presidency full of admiration,” he adds, emphasizing his appreciation for the faculty, staff, administrators, alumni, donors, and advisors who make up the whole of Baruch College. “Everybody has been there for the good times and the challenging times. I will be handing off to Dr. Wu a very strong and dedicated community. I know that he will build further from there.”
Thank you, President Wallerstein!