Special Report: 7 years later, a Rosenberg Retrospective

By Matt Day

Today, President Brian Rosenberg will receive his annual performance review from the Board of Trustees at their spring meetings, which began yesterday. This March marks his seventh review, equaling his predecessor, Michael McPherson, and offers an opportunity to reflect on Rosenberg’s time at the college.The Mac Weekly interviewed more than 30 current and former Macalester faculty, staff and students about the major themes of Rosenberg’s tenure and reviewed newspaper articles, college and national publications, and public records.

The interviews and documents reveal a portrait of a president who has proven himself willing and able to make important, and at times controversial choices on the way to realizing his vision for the college. His priority has been the maintenance of Macalester’s long-term financial viability. His tenure has been characterized by an aggressive fundraising and branding campaign that has some say has raised Macalester’s profile and academic standing.

A few notable exceptions aside, he has stayed out of campus politics as a matter of policy, allowing debate to continue uninterrupted unless he felt it important to add an institutional voice. All leaders who try to walk this line find critics on every side: some argue that Rosenberg has not gone far enough to provide vocal leadership in certain arenas, others say his role in branding Macalester has led the college to neglect or cut programs critical to the college mission.

He has made friends and enemies along the way, and the final history of the Rosenberg administration won’t be written until after his time here is complete. The power of any one person or president to effect change is frequently exaggerated, but seven years in, there can be no doubt that Rosenberg’s tenure came at an important moment in Macalester’s history, and he has left his mark on all facets of the college.

Need-Blind and Tough Decisions

Brian Rosenberg came to Macalester aware of the fact that he would have to make tough decisions almost immediately. Even before Michael McPherson’s unexpected resignation during the 2002-03 school year, the college was under financial strain from the “dot-com” stock market bust. Years of long-term planning on academics and infrastructure projects were transitioning into an action phase; the construction of replacements for the Macalester Fieldhouse and Janet Wallace Fine Arts Center were on the horizon.

The first serious challenge Rosenberg took on would foreshadow his overarching priority of securing the college’s long term-financial standing: making a decision on Macalester’s need-blind admissions policy, a debate years in the making.

The policy, which mandated that applicants’ ability to pay would not be factored into their admissions decision, was rare among preeminent colleges nationwide. It had helped make Macalester one of the most economically diverse schools in the country, with more than 70 percent of students receiving need-based financial aid.

But the policy was a point of concern for years for the Board of Trustees, who felt the college couldn’t afford to pay for the salaries and services necessary to remain a preeminent national college while maintaining such generous financial aid practices.

“It was impossible not to see it coming,” McPherson said in an interview. “It should have happened a year or two earlier than it did.”

“He clearly knew this was something that wasn’t going to go away,” David Ranheim ’64, a former trustee who chaired the search committee that selected Rosenberg, said in a 2007 interview for Macalester’s Oral History Project. “It had to be dealt with, one way or another.”

Rosenberg dealt with it. He called for a campus-wide debate on the issue his second fall at Macalester, and ultimately recommended that the Board of Trustees act on the findings of a Resources and Planning Commission report urging the college to switch to a need-aware system. The new policy took into account students’ ability to pay, but committed the college to meet “demonstrated need” of those admitted.

“He was always willing to be up front,” said Michael Barnes ’06, MCSG president during the year of the need-blind debate. “He wasn’t one to sugarcoat anything.”

Barnes, who helped present the student-produced alternatives to eliminating need-blind to the faculty and trustees, said he thought Rosenberg was surprised by how seriously Macalester students reacted to the invitation to debate the policy.

“He learned the real challenge: once you invite Macalester students to the table, they’re going to come prepared for war, with a 70-page alternative proposal,” Barnes said. “And they’re going to come with a lot of serious, reasoned thought.”

In January 2005, the board unanimously voted to end need-blind admissions over students’ objections. Rosenberg’s support of the decision was controversial, and he immediately became a target for the ire of students and faculty who felt that proposed alternatives were not seriously considered. Students marched on Weyerhaeuser that February, demanding that Rosenberg apologize for what they saw as a flawed process.

“That just goes with the territory, and I think Brian knows that,” Vice President for Student Affairs Laurie Hamre said. “Anyone who steps into those shoes knows that at times they’re not going to be popular.”

Rosenberg showed during the need-blind debate, and in the points of contention on campus since, that he is open to inviting the Macalester community to comment on an issue, but he offers no illusions: the final decision will be his.

“He doesn’t back down,” Hamre said. “McPherson used to back down in the face of criticism. It wasn’t worth it for him. [Rosenberg] doesn’t do that.”

Five years after the implementation of a need-aware policy, the decision’s precise impact on the student body is hard to gauge. Director of Financial Aid Brian Lindeman ’89 said there has been a noticeable impact on the economic diversity on campus, but not a dramatic one.

The choice to go need-aware has without question yielded its intended results financially: the annual college budget has continued to show surpluses, and administrators say the endowment’s performance has been among the best at liberal arts colleges nationwide in the last decade.

“Whether a president likes it or not, job one is keeping the college on as good a financial footing as possible,” Board of Trustees member Timothy Hart-Andersen said. “[Rosenberg] has proved himself to be very adept at that.”

Walking a Fine Line: Campus Politics

Aware of the fact that his position makes him the natural spokesperson for Macalester, since the need-blind debate Rosenberg has consistently chosen not to play an involved role in campus politics. He takes sides publicly only on issues he says are critical to Macalester’s institutional mission.

It was the subject of his convocation address in September 2009, in which Rosenberg said his job at times makes him a “walking, talking logo.” He says his role at Macalester, and the role of a liberal arts college is to create space for debate, not to limit it or make it seem that the institution shares his view.

Rosenberg has spoken out on environmental sustainability issues in particular, committing the college to reduce waste, creating the position of sustainability director, and helping to make Macalester a visible leader in the field. He has become a go-to source for national higher education reporters as an expert in financing a liberal arts education, where he has advocated for striking a balance between providing a quality education and providing access to students with limited financial means.

He has been quick to draw the line on other issues.

In May 2006 he rejected a unanimous recommendation by the college Social Responsibility Committee that Macalester ban Coca-Cola products from campus because of allegations of serious human rights and environmental abuses, arguing that given the contested issues,
students should decide for themselves whether to boycott the company.

When the faculty approved a student initiative that would have canceled college activities for a day of Iraq War protests in fall 2007, Rosenberg vetoed the proposal.

Rosenberg wrote in the letter to the campus community explaining his decision that a line “exists between those decisions that bear directly on our role as an educational entity and those that speak to contentious social or political questions that it is our business to explore but not decide.”

“There’s a certain Olympian dimension to a president of a university or a college,” said Ahmed Samatar, International Studies professor and dean of the Institute for Global Citizenship. “That as a leader he stands above the pressure of a particular time. That’s an important part of leadership. I think [Rosenberg] has been good at that.”

Other current and former faculty members say Rosenberg hasn’t gone far enough to promote issues central to the college mission, notably multiculturalism and increasing diversity among faculty and the student body.

“He doesn’t get his hands dirty enough,” Humanities, Media and Cultural Studies professor Clay Steinman said of Rosenberg. “At other schools, presidents go and talk to the faculty when they want to win support for something.

“The only controversial issue I ever saw him organize faculty around was to end need-blind admissions,” Steinman said.

The college’s first Department of Multicultural Life director, Joi Lewis, resigned in 2006, citing what she said was insufficient institutional support for her office.

“I do not want to be an icon for the institution that says that something is happening the way that it’s not,” Lewis said in announcing her decision, as reported by The Mac Weekly at the time.

She wrote in her resignation letter that the Multicultural Board Advisory Report, commissioned by Rosenberg and completed in 2005, “provides candid detail” of institutional failures to support the mission of her office. The report recommended dramatically increasing DML funding and revealed retention rates for faculty of color that were 20 percent lower than that of their white counterparts.

Macalester is a rarity among liberal arts colleges in that it includes multiculturalism in its mission statement. The report, and Lewis’ subsequent resignation, presented some evidence that the college was failing to live up to that mandate.

“We have an added responsibility,” Dean for the Study of Race and Ethnicity and American Studies professor Jane Rhodes said. “We articulate multiculturalism in virtually every [college] publication, every Web page. It’s become sort of a mantra here. And I don’t think that we’ve put anywhere close to the sort of equivalent resources into multiculturalism, despite the rhetoric.”

“Is that the fault of the president alone? No,” Rhodes said. “We all bear some responsibility.”

Tensions that Rosenberg says have always existed between the college’s commitments to multiculturalism and internationalism were heightened by the development of the Institute for Global Citizenship beginning in 2005, which critics accused of favoring the international side of the college at the expense of the quest for domestic diversity on campus.

The so-called “politically incorrect” party of January 2007, hosted by Macalester students and attended notably by a student dressed in blackface paired with another dressed as a Klu Klux Klan member, capped a difficult time for multiculturalism at the college. Rosenberg issued a statement condemning the party and affirming the college’s commitment to multiculturalism, but some faculty, staff and students said they thought he should have been more visibly supportive during times like these.

“There’s a yearning that some people have for a president who will get up and make bold, assertive statements about diversity,” Rhodes said.

“People read into silences,” she said. “[Rosenberg] might not have been aware or conscious of that fact that silence or lack of assertiveness gets read as lack of commitment.”

The IGC and Branding

The creation of the IGC will rank highly among the milestones in Rosenberg’s legacy. It is the first item on the “About President Rosenberg” page on the Macalester Web site, and it is featured prominently in college promotional materials.

In overseeing the formation of the institute – which among other things consolidated the international center, civic engagement center and internship office under one umbrella organization – Rosenberg said the goal was to take what the college already did well and make it better through increased interaction. While administrators say it is too soon to gauge the effectiveness of the institute’s programs – Samatar said that nine months into its new home the center was still “establishing a rhythm” – it is indicative of the ambition that has characterized Rosenberg’s successes.

“In my mind there’s some increased risk taking that I see with him,” said Dave Collins ’85, associate director for public services at the library. “Some of that might be what I sense is his personality. He often will say that he’s not a patient person, and I think that that may play out in the life of the college, may push us a little bit faster toward making decisions. I think decision-making in higher education is a slow process in general, maybe having that push is a good thing to keep us going forward.”

He has raised funds from alumni more effectively than any previous president, increasing Macalester’s historically anemic alumni giving rate to a figure comparable to many in the college’s peer group. The Step Forward capital campaign, the most ambitious in college history with a $150 million fundraising goal, topped $118 million this February and is expected to finish in 2011. Funds raised will supplement the operating budget, financial aid, construction projects, endowed professorships and a host of other programs.

Administrators say he has always been willing to go anywhere to meet alumni or raise support and funds for the college.

“His passion for Macalester comes through to potential donors,” Tommy Bonner, who oversees the college fundraising apparatus as director of advancement, wrote in an e-mail. “It’s not about his ego.”

In Rosenberg’s years, the college has built a new athletic facility and Markim Hall and resurfaced the athletic fields. The renovation of the Janet Wallace Fine Arts Center is scheduled to begin next year. A facilities master plan, completed in 2005, details a host of other planned improvements to the college physical plant.

With the fundraising success has come an attempt to brand the college. The IGC in particular has been part of what many faculty, staff and students see as an aggressive campaign to present Macalester as a particular kind of international institution.

Many longtime employees at Macalester have called the IGC the college’s flagship program in the arms race that has consumed higher education in the last couple decades.

College tuition skyrocketed nationwide in the late 1990s and the 2000s, and Macalester was not immune. On the heels of the highly publicized “U.S. News and & World Report” college rankings and a host of similar publications in the 90s, competition grew to draw the most gifted and diverse classes of high school students, to build the most impressive facilities, to hire the most experienced faculty and to offer the widest array of social and academic programming.

Hart-Andersen, the former board chair, said the institute had succeeded in enhancing the college’s international profile and helped to draw the resources necessary to support Macalester’s mission. “There’s no better way to get the visibility and rootedness that the Institute for Global Citizenship gives [the college],” Hart-Andersen said.

Critics say the practical changes stemming from the Institute’s creation amount to a fundraising tool and a new building: other schools in Macalester’s peer group may
have larger endowments or better academic reputations, but none can claim a global citizenship-promoting organization housed in a LEED Platinum-certified building.

“Given our ambitions we’ve always been historically underfunded,” James Stewart, James Wallace history professor emeritus said. “We haven’t had the alumni base that other schools have had, and the idea that [Rosenberg] can rectify that is an important part of securing the college’s value. It’s really, really important stuff to do.”

“In a lot of ways, [Rosenberg] has looked that problem in the eyes and done a very, very fine job with it,” Stewart said. “The difficult counter theme that goes with that is did that have to be done by draining the college of so much of its substance and turning so much of it instead into symbolism and commodification? To me that’s the paradox of [Rosenberg’s] presidency.”

Priorities: Budgeting and Message

Rosenberg has made the job his own. An academic and not a manager by training, he spent much of his first year listening. Commissioning reports on the state of the college. Talking with students during lunches at Cafe Mac. Trying to learn the names of the college’s more than 300 staff members.

Rosenberg says his years at the college have taught him how to be a more effective manager and leader. Faculty and staff agree he is more comfortable in the role now.

“There was a little more sharpness in him at the beginning,” a staff member who works in Weyerhaeuser said. “Maybe it was because he came and almost immediately was involved in that pretty emotional conversation about need-blind admissions. It seems like there was more of an edge to the conversation at that point. Now when I observe [Rosenberg] talking about topics that are controversial or opinions, he seems much more comfortable navigating those waters.”

“It may have taken a little while for Rosenberg to find his way,” Collins, the librarian, agreed. “I think he was brought in and he was expected to do a lot with fundraising and administrative things. Because those responsibilities took him away, it may have taken a little bit longer than people hoped to get that teddy bear thing going.”

Once he got comfortable, Rosenberg didn’t hesitate to leave his mark on the personnel makeup of the college, at times sending longtime staffers packing and reshaping programming.

Joel Clemmer, hired in the late 1980s to help develop the DeWitt Wallace Library in its first years of operation, left the college when a reorganization in 2005 split the library and Information and Technology Services into separate departments, in the process eliminating his position as vice president of library and information services. College Relations Director Doug Stone left in 2008 after a similarly long stay when his department was reorganized to provide what advancement officials called a more “focused” message, hiring an alumna with more of a marketing background to replace him. The department was renamed “Communications and Public Relations.”

Budgets drawn up by Rosenberg and his senior staff have consistently shared that focus, giving the college the flexibility to continue business as usual during hard economic times and have shown modest gain even during the financial crisis.

“We haven’t spent surpluses in ways that are not wise, we did not underspend when times were tough,” Hart-Andersen said. “[Rosenberg] has a very balanced approach.”

Rosenberg and longtime treasurer David Wheaton say cuts have always been made with an eye toward preserving the student experience. While many colleges took drastic measures in response to the financial crisis, Macalester did not lay off any staff or faculty. Budget cuts were widespread, but were less severe in departments that directly affect students on a day-to-day basis.

There is a pressure at Macalester that is absent at some other colleges to create balanced budgets every year. It was less than 30 years ago that the state of college finances was so bad that Trustees had to personally guarantee checks so Macalester could make payroll. Dewitt Wallace, whose donations are responsible for much of the college’s financial success, at one point made his annual gift contingent upon the college operating with a balanced budget.

In the name of preserving year-to-year financial viability, the college under Rosenberg has not hesitated to cut co-curricular and extracurricular programs that have run into financial or administrative difficulty, including a college prep program that brought high school-aged students of color to campus, a residency for international journalists on free speech reporting and a Minnesota Public Radio speakers series. Some staff and faculty say this represents a change in the last few years in the way the college defines its brand of civic engagement, a shift from bringing the community to campus to calling engagement something students go off-campus to do.

“Our problem has been that to become the kind of school that we’ve become, we’ve had to kind of unhinge ourselves from our environment in saying ‘we’re national,'” Stewart said.

“We say we want to be engaged with the community,” said a former Macalester staff member. “But what new thing are we doing now that replaces those programs? I’m sure there was a financial reason for each one individually, but what does it add up to?”

Michael McPherson, who has led the Spencer Foundation in Chicago since leaving Macalester, laughed when asked about criticisms of Rosenberg.

“One thing I can guarantee you. If you do that job, you’re going to get criticism,” he said.

“The nature of these jobs is you are asked to do more than a human being can do,” McPherson said. “[People] always want more than that.