Face Time – Mark Burstein on the value of a liberal arts education

Posted on Sep 2, 2014 :: Face Time
Margaret LeBrun
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer
Photo by Michael Leschisin/Image Studios, for Insight

Photo by Michael Leschisin/Image Studios, for Insight

Mark Burstein began serving as the 16th president of Lawrence University in July 2013. He moved to Appleton after serving as executive vice president at Princeton University and before that, in several roles at Columbia University. He sat down with Insight Editor Margaret LeBrun to talk about what drew him to Wisconsin and his aspirations for the liberal arts college.

One of the primary reasons I’m in higher education is I’m passionate about social mobility and the opportunity that I hope all citizens of this country have to do better than their parents did. A college experience is one of the only ways that social mobility is working in society today.

For U.S. families in the lowest income quartile, if your child does not go to college he or she has only a 5 percent chance of breaking out of that quartile in their lifetime. If the child goes to college, the probability of breaking out of that quartile increases to 84 percent.

I never thought I would be a college president. I had worked in higher education for close to 20 years, first at Columbia University for 11 years and then at Princeton for nine. About three years ago the president at Princeton at the time, who was my boss, pulled me aside and she said, “OK Mark, it’s time to start thinking about the next step for you, and I think you’d be a great liberal arts college president.” She pointed out that I am on the board at my alma mater, Vassar College, that I care a lot about classroom education, I had taught for a number of years at Princeton and I enjoyed greatly connecting with students. I thought about it a couple months and then I started the interview process.

A search firm called me up and asked me to consider Lawrence. One of my mentors, Harold Shapiro, is a former president of the University of Michigan and also a former president of Princeton. I showed him all the places I was talking to and he said these are all great – but this one (Lawrence) is the best on your list.

I’ve spent almost all of my life living in the New York metropolitan area. My spouse and I were looking for a quality of life that is hard to sustain there. I had never heard of Lawrence and I had never been in Wisconsin. So I came out here with my spouse, David Calle, over Labor Day weekend 2012. He has worked for Unilever 22 years and was CFO of a global division; he is very interested in the entrepreneurial environment and is thinking about starting a business here.

We both fell in love with the area. I’m so enthusiastic that when companies are trying to recruit CEOs or senior members of their organizations they bring folks to campus and roll me out as the guy from the East Coast who is passionate about the Fox Cities and how wonderful it is here.

One of the surprises for me in the transition from the East Coast is that large employers in the New North and Wisconsin have less understanding of the value of a liberal arts degree. One of the strengths for us in Wisconsin is that we have such a robust set of industries here. But people are more used to hiring folks with degrees that are for specific skill sets.

A number of studies on the value of different degrees indicate if you have a technical degree you make more money when you graduate, but over the long career, a liberal arts-educated person makes more money. Liberal arts is not a fit for everyone, but for those students who it is a fit, the economic argument says they can do quite well.

Lawrence has a great collaboration with local companies. I’ve met over 20 CEOs in the area and one of the exciting parts about those conversations is how well businesses are doing in this area. I can’t say how happy it makes me to hear people being bullish about this part of Wisconsin and what we can do here.

Margaret LeBrun

About Margaret LeBrun

Co-Publisher, Executive Editor View all posts by Margaret LeBrun →