As Macalester College president, Brian Rosenberg oversaw the recruitment of a more diverse student body, rebuilt the St. Paul campus and shored up its finances. After 16 years at the helm, he said it’s time to step down.
Rosenberg announced Monday he will wrap up his presidency at one of Minnesota’s most selective private nonprofit campuses in May 2020. He has gained a national profile as an advocate for liberal arts education — and as an uncommonly outspoken champion of liberal causes, weighing in on issues from climate change to President Donald Trump’s immigration policies.
In a note to the campus community, Rosenberg, 63, called his job at Macalester “by far the greatest privilege of my professional life,” saying he wanted to give the college ample time to find his successor. Rosenberg said in an interview that after a relatively lengthy tenure, change would be healthy, for the campus and for him.
He said he will likely continue working in education, perhaps as a consultant, but he will not lead another campus, noting the high demands and pressures of the job.
“The thing that weighs on me most is the responsibility of having 2,100 students in my care,” he said. “That can be a pretty heavy weight sometimes.”
Macalester board of trustees chairman Jerry Crawford said the college’s governing board tried repeatedly to persuade Rosenberg to stay, describing him as one of the most successful presidents in Macalester history. The college has enlisted a search firm to begin looking for a new president.
Rosenberg, a prominent Charles Dickens scholar and a former English professor, took over the leadership of Macalester in August 2003. Among the highest-paid higher education leaders in the state, Rosenberg’s total compensation came to about $795,000, according to Macalester’s most recent nonprofit financial disclosure statement in 2017, with a base salary of roughly $580,000. He said he has donated about $500,000 to the college during his time serving as president.
About 2,170 students attend the college, with roughly a quarter of the student body made up of international students. Crawford said during Rosenberg’s tenure the share of domestic students of color rose from 12 to 26 percent, and the faculty became more diverse as well. On his watch, the average test scores and GPA of incoming classes have improved, and overall enrollment has ticked up.
Rosenberg also presided over an expansion of the Macalester campus, with the construction of a new recreation and athletics center and a new music building, among other additions. Rosenberg raised about $260 million during his tenure, most recently as part of the “Macalester Moment” campaign slated to wrap up later this year.
Beyond his work on campus, Rosenberg has voiced support for the Paris climate agreement and bashed Trump’s initial executive order suspending travel to the United States by nationals of seven majority-Muslim countries, which Rosenberg called “cowardly and cruel.”
Crawford said he has never fielded complaints from alumni or donors about Rosenberg’s unabashedly progressive views, and the school’s governing board has not nudged him to dial down his advocacy.
“Brian will leave the presidency with the strongest reputation among our conservative alumni,” he said. “There’s great respect for the competency of his financial management of the college.”
Rosenberg has also spoken about the need to foster a campus climate in which students and employees can freely share conservative views, and controversial speakers are not shut down.
Rosenberg is a good listener as well, said Malik Mays, a Macalester senior and the student body president, who said the president showed genuine interest in his campus experience as a black male student. Rosenberg also offered Mays support and advice as he applied for medical school, urging him not to get discouraged by rejections and cheering his recent acceptance to the University of Toledo medical school.
“He’s such a great presence on campus,” said Mays. “This is a very welcoming environment, and that’s largely due to his work.”
Crawford said that despite his bluntness on politically charged issues, Rosenberg has largely steered clear of major controversy or conflict. Back in 2013, the college fielded criticism from some alumni and others over a decision to discipline a group of students who blocked a campus building’s doors during a protest against Macalester’s relationship with Wells Fargo.
Students, who argued the bank had played an outsized role in the national foreclosure crisis, were placed on probation for a semester. Rosenberg said he never once overturned a decision by a campus board made up of employees and students that determines discipline — and he dismissed calls to do so on that occasion.
Rosenberg said the toughest decision he made as Macalester president came early in his presidency, when the college shifted away from a “need-blind” approach in 2005 and started considering financial aid information in admission decisions. The move was needed to keep the school solvent, he said.
Crawford said trustees will share more details on the presidential search process and opportunities for students and employees to get involved next week.
“It’s an unenviable task to find somebody as good as Brian,” Crawford said. “If we find someone half as good, we will have done well.”