Mark Burstein says that until about two years ago, a college presidency wasn't something he had ever considered. Now he's getting to know his way around Lawrence University, in Wisconsin, and will be inaugurated next month as president of the liberal-arts institution and music conservatory of 1,500 students.
His highest degree is an M.B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, so he doesn't have "the standard background to be a college president," says Mr. Burstein, who is 52. His early work experience included investment banking, consulting, and helping New York City's Department of Sanitation start its curbside recycling program.
Since then he's spent nearly 20 years in higher education. Until he joined Lawrence on July 1, he was executive vice president of Princeton University and before that a senior administrator at Columbia University. He's handled almost every aspect of university life, including student services, human resources, campus facilities, and strategic planning.
His route to Lawrence, Mr. Burstein says, began in discussions with his former boss, Shirley M. Tilghman, who stepped down this summer as president of Princeton. He was teaching a freshman seminar on the role of the modern university. It made him think a lot about issues and policies in higher education.
"Seeing my strong interest in the topic and my excitement at engaging with students, she suggested I should think about the presidency of a small liberal-arts college as my next career move," says Mr. Burstein. "So I started putting my hat in the ring."
Nancy Wall, an associate professor of biology at Lawrence who served on the presidential search committee, says Mr. Burstein stood out from a pool of more than a hundred applicants because of his unusual combination of skills. "He's someone who knows and understands the liberal-arts experience from every perspective and also has the tools to direct its continued success and growth in a modern economic environment," she says.
A native of New Jersey, Mr. Burstein grew up as the son of a faculty member. His mother, now retired, was an English professor at Drew University. He attended Vassar College as an undergraduate, majoring in history and independent studies, and has served on its Board of Trustees since 2009.
He chose Vassar, he says, because it "offered a strong academic system but with the support I needed to succeed." Diagnosed as dyslexic as a child, he says he acquired, through many years of specialized training, "excellent study and preparation skills that in the end made me a better learner."
His own experience instilled in him a deep appreciation for liberal-arts education. "It gives you the intellectual infrastructure needed to span different industries, careers, and working environments."
He believes the combination of rigorous academics, faculty contact, and strong community that Lawrence and other liberal-arts colleges cultivate can be "transformative" for students who—as he was—"are intellectually engaged and able, but may not be perfect high-school students."
Lawrence, whose students come from nearly every state and 40 countries, stresses individualized learning. It has a student-faculty ratio of less than nine to one. A National Science Foundation study ranked Lawrence in the top 14 baccalaureate institutions in the nation for the percentage of graduates who go on to earn doctorates.
Mr. Burstein says the scale of Lawrence was a big draw: "I can be fully participatory." To find out whether the college—and life in the Midwest—might be a good fit, he and his spouse, David Calle, toured the campus anonymously. "We were looking to live in a place that felt like a cohesive community," says Mr. Burstein, "and everyone at Lawrence was so welcoming."
The university and its host city of Appleton, with a population of 72,000, "felt different," he added, "like a frontier, with an openness that seemed exciting." Lawrence was founded in 1847, even before Wisconsin became a state.
As he looks ahead to his presidency, Mr. Burstein says, he will be guided, above all, by something he read in a self-review the college did. "It talks about how Lawrence wants to be a better Lawrence, not an imitation of other institutions," he says. "I found that very compelling."