Reactions to Brian Rosenberg's seven-year review: Decisive leader may be more comfortable off campus

By Elizabeth Tannen

Brian Rosenberg’s first years at Macalester were my last.I interviewed him when he first arrived; I was editor-in-chief of The Mac Weekly during the debate over need-blind admissions; I probably had more interaction with him than most of my classmates-which, honestly, isn’t saying much. But I like the guy, and I think that overall he’s been a boon to Macalester. Frankly, though, I’m surprised he’s stayed this long.

Rosenberg’s reception at Mac had a lot to do with his predecessor: namely, how significantly the two differed. I never knew much about Mike McPherson, and I don’t think most people did. He was known as a standard-issue, innocuous and mildly effective college president: approachable in theory, but unlikely to act on whatever you might think to approach him about.

So there was some excitement in the mere fact that Brian Rosenberg came across as pretty much the opposite: though it seems he’s been aggressive about making himself a presence on campus, he doesn’t exactly emanate approachability. In fact, I wouldn’t think it a stretch to call him intimidating. And, as the Weekly’s recent coverage of his tenure has pointed out, Rosenberg might not be persuaded by students’ or faculty opinions-but he will listen. And then do what he wants.

That’s something I respect about him. While I disagree with some of the choices he’s made, I am confident that he’s taken each one seriously.

Rosenberg, after all, is nothing if not serious: he is a serious person and he takes his role seriously. He makes no effort to obscure how he perceives that role: first and foremost, as the person responsible for strengthening Macalester’s image. During my early interview with him, he acknowledged the difficulty of raising Macalester’s profile on a national level. He said that competing with schools on the coasts could sometimes seem like “chasing a goat:” “you could drive yourself crazy” trying to do that, he said.

I’d like to think he’s a man I can trust with a metaphor, but I’m not sure that one proved especially apt. Rosenberg has succeeded in boosting Macalester’s national reputation. The applicant pool demonstrates that. And he’s managed to keep the place on solid fiscal ground during the worst economic crisis in decades. Perhaps that kind of record would qualify as “chasing a goat” if he were some breed of shepherd.

The real challenge for him, though, is fitting in at Macalester. Seven years down the line, I’m not sure he’s any more comfortable in the community than he was five years ago.

Which is why it does surprise me that he’s stuck around. What drew me, and I think draws others to Macalester is its quirkiness, its personality, the feeling that people are there not because it has a brand but because they were similarly pulled by its unique spirit. Rosenberg has called himself a “walking, talking logo.” He has made it his goal to put a stamp on a place whose appeal was bound up in a somewhat elusive identity.

It’s no wonder he’s more in his element off-campus, fund-raising among alumni and donors, than he is on campus, engaging with students and faculty. He’s calculated that’s the more important place for him to be. I can’t say I like that decision, but on some level, I trust it.

Elizabeth Tannen ’05 can be reached at [email protected]