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Experience gives Burstein a jump on fresh start

By Ruth Stevens

Princeton NJ -- When Mark Burstein was named Princeton’s vice president for administration last summer, he seemed tailor-made for the job. During the previous decade at Columbia University, he had served as acting vice president for human resources, vice president for student services and vice president for facilities management.

Mark Burstein

Mark Burstein

Now in his new role overseeing human resources, facilities, public safety, environmental health and safety, compliance and University services at Princeton, Burstein finds himself drawing on prior skills — but also discovering new ways to approach familiar issues.

“I’ve had a lot of experience thinking about and trying to solve problems across the administrative spectrum at another institution,” he said in a recent interview. “Sometimes that serves me really well, in that I have thought about many of the issues that cross my desk. On the other hand, I have to make sure that I don’t apply the Columbia context or solution to Princeton and take the time to think through the problem anew. It’s great to have history, but you need to start fresh as well.”

Burstein’s connection with higher education began very early in his life. His mother, Janet Handler Burstein, retired last year after more than 30 years on the English faculty at Drew University. He is a 1984 honors graduate of Vassar College, and went on to earn an MBA in 1991 from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. His involvement in higher education administration began as a graduate student representative to the Penn board of trustees.

After a series of positions in consulting, investment banking and New York City government, he joined the Columbia administration in 1994. At age 31, he was thought to be the youngest vice president in Columbia’s history.

“The first year was tough,” he said. “The hardest thing for me was understanding the concept of how important the public part of the role is — that people really do watch one’s decision-making, the quality of one’s personal interactions, one’s ability to value individual members of the community. And that establishes a certain culture at an institution and, in some ways, is one of the most powerful tools that one has as a senior administrator.”

Connecting with others

Over the years, Burstein has developed a management style that he characterizes as highly collaborative. During the interview process here, one attraction was how well he thought his style would mesh with the Princeton culture.

“I learned how collegial an environment we are — that decisions are made by groups and try to involve as many of the stakeholders as possible across the University, which was something that was very appealing to me,” he said. “It is my own personal tendency, and I thought it would be a good fit for me culturally.”

Another attraction for Burstein was the University’s commitment to a diverse workforce. “That’s something I’m passionate about. I believe a diverse workforce increases creativity and productivity at an institution.” In his first full conversation with President Tilghman, Burstein said he asked about her views on this topic. Her response, one of strong support, was the deciding factor in his decision to accept the position.

“. . . at Princeton, many people think about being university citizens thoughtfully, and the institution really benefits from that.”

Burstein said that he’s also been impressed by the strong unified purpose he’s experienced since coming on board.

“The common sense of the institution — what Princeton is and where it should be going — is very closely held and important to people,” he explained. “At a larger research institution, sometimes it’s hard to find the common, institutional perspective. It’s more about the individual school perspective or the central administrative perspective. Here many people think about being university citizens thoughtfully, and the institution really benefits from that.”

He cited the example of working with the Executive Compliance Committee and staff members from a number of departments last fall to develop ways to strengthen the compliance and control environment on campus. The result was the naming of Laurel Harvey as the University’s chief compliance officer to coordinate the efforts, but for the responsibility to remain distributed to the heads of offices, departments and programs across the University.

“There are many areas that are sustaining a strong compliance environment, and we’re just trying to find ways to support that effort as opposed to adding another layer or being duplicative,” Burstein said. “Many of the people who were stakeholders in this conversation were involved in sorting out what would be best for the institution. People are so willing to be University citizens here and leave their parochial issues aside to try to come up with the appropriate response for the University. This process really benefited from Princeton’s prevailing spirit of collegiality.”

Planning for the future

In addition to dealing with specific issues such as compliance, Burstein said he has spent the first several months on the job simply getting to know the University.

“Just trying to understand what function reports to whom takes time,” he said. “What are the names of each building? What are our construction projects? Where do people feel the institution works well? Where do people feel the institution isn’t working up to the quality that we think should be Princeton?”

He also has been faced with the task of hiring a new vice president for human resources, following the resignation of Maureen Nash in December. He’s contracted with a search firm with which he’s worked in the past to get the job done.

“Maureen established the ingredients for a very successful human resources department,” Burstein said. “We need someone to take the ingredients and create an excellent organization. It will really require the right person for that challenge.”

In addition, he’s focusing on two other broader issues: improving the services the administration provides to support teaching and research; and developing a campus plan.

In the area of services, he plans to collect more information before preparing an agenda. One effort already under way is to move more services under the umbrella of the Department of University Services, created under Paul Breitman in 2003 to improve services in the areas of event planning, utilization of campus facilities, hospitality options and visitor experiences. Burstein has shifted the responsibility for several other areas to this department. They include the TigerCard (University ID card) office, the campus shuttle and parking functions and the oversight of the University’s relationship with ATM services and the Princeton University Store.

In the area of campus planning, Burstein said the University intends to hire an outside firm to develop an overall campus plan as well as individual design firms to map out specific projects (see related story).

Striving for excellence

Burstein said he sees his biggest challenge as maintaining the level of excellence that is part of the fabric of Princeton.

“Our goal is to create an environment that attracts extraordinary faculty and students and allows them to excel at the University,” he said. “I’m responsible for supporting this effort and making sure it runs smoothly. That’s a big challenge.

“The University provides many different services — trying to continue to strive for excellence in all areas at all times is difficult,” he continued. “One of our strengths is that there are so many talented people in administration who are committed and thoughtful, and that’s a real resource. But providing services is an everyday experience — you really are as good as your last day. Sometimes we don’t succeed in providing services as well or as consistently as we would like to. It’s a challenge to find a way to ensure that success is more likely, but I’m confident we can accomplish that at Princeton.”