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Mark Rosenberg of Florida International University: “Clarity ”

Clarity — This means that the leader must be able to define the situation, the risk, the threat, the opportunities and the path forward. As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mark B. Rosenberg. Mark B. Rosenberg is the […]

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Clarity — This means that the leader must be able to define the situation, the risk, the threat, the opportunities and the path forward.


As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mark B. Rosenberg.

Mark B. Rosenberg is the fifth president of Florida International University (FIU). A public institution of higher education, FIU is the face of the country’s future in higher education demographics: it is a majority-minority institution that leads the country in the production of minority degrees in the sciences and engineering.

Dr. Rosenberg has served as president since August 2009. A political scientist specializing in Latin America, Dr. Rosenberg is the first FIU faculty member to ascend to the university’s presidency.

Under his leadership, FIU has increased enrollment to almost 58,000 students, improved graduation rates by 23% and hired over 400 new full-time faculty members. As President, Dr. Rosenberg has provided leadership to grow the institution’s budget, improve student retention and graduation rates, expand internships for enrolled students, and coordinate FIU’s emergence as a leading producer of graduates in priority national and state areas focused on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). The university has been named as a Carnegie “Highest Research” as well as an “Engaged” institution, and has developed path-breaking partnerships with the Miami Dade County Public Schools, JP Morgan Chase, Florida Power & Light and Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. Research expenditures have grown by over 120% to nearly 226 million dollars, and over 100 new student advisers and counselors have been hired for a restructured and expanded student graduation initiative.

From 2005 to 2009, Dr. Rosenberg served as the second Chancellor (he was the first that was formally selected by the Board of Governors) for the State University System (SUS) of Florida, which includes all of Florida’s public universities — over 325,000 students and an all-accounts budget of nearly 9 billion dollars. As chancellor, Dr. Rosenberg led the system’s strategic development and financial planning and policy initiatives, working closely with Governors Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist and the state legislature to secure support for SUS priorities. During this era, major new strides were made in research support for the system, over 1 billion dollars was provided for new facility construction, and a new SUS strategic plan was developed, approved and launched.

Prior to becoming chancellor, Dr. Rosenberg was integrally involved in the expansion and development of FIU into a major public research university. As Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs from 1998 to 2005, Dr. Rosenberg spearheaded the establishment of a law school in 2002 and a medical school in 2006. Under his leadership, FIU increased enrollment, implemented major campus construction projects, and was invited to join the select national honor society Phi Beta Kappa. Dr. Rosenberg was also instrumental in moving FIU into the top tier of Carnegie Foundation research universities.

Dr. Rosenberg’s academic career began at FIU in 1976 as an assistant professor of political science. In 1979, he founded the FIU Latin American and Caribbean Center,

which today is one of the nation’s premier federally-supported research and teaching centers focusing on the region. Dr. Rosenberg subsequently served as the Founding Dean of the College of Urban and Public Affairs and Vice Provost for International Studies. He has also been a Visiting Distinguished Research Professor at The Peabody College of Vanderbilt University, and a Visiting Professor at the Instituto Tecnologico de Monterrey (ITESM) in Mexico.

Dr. Rosenberg earned a B.A. in 1971 from Miami University of Ohio and a Ph.D. in Political Science with a graduate certificate in Latin American and Caribbean Studies from the University of Pittsburgh in 1976. He has written or co-edited seven books and numerous scholarly articles in leading journals. His latest book, The United States and Central America: Geopolitical Realities and Regional Fragility (2007), is a Harvard University project co-authored with Luis Guillermo Solis of Costa Rica. Governmental and media organizations have frequently sought Dr. Rosenberg’s expertise on Latin America. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, has testified before Congress numerous times, and has served as a consultant to the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Firmly committed to service with national and local educational impact, Dr. Rosenberg serves as Immediate Past-Chair of the Association of Public Land-Grant University’s (APLU) Coalition of Urban Serving Universities (USU) and its Commission on Access, Diversity, and Excellence (CADE); Co-Chair of the Board on Science Education’s (BOSE) Roundtable on Systemic Change in Undergraduate STEM Education and as a member of the American Council on Education’s (ACE) Transfer Task Force. He also served Chair of the National Academies’ Committee on Developing Indicators for Undergraduate STEM Education, and as a member of the national Task Force of Apprenticeship Expansion.

Within Miami-Dade County, Dr. Rosenberg was the 109th Chair of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce (GMCC), one of Florida’s leading business associations; served a 5-year term as Chair of the Academic Leaders Council (ALC) for the Beacon Council, Miami-Dade County’s official economic development organization and is currently on the Board of Directors for the South Florida Business Council (SFBC). He serves on the Board of Directors of City National Bank of Florida, and is active in a variety of other civic organizations, including the Holocaust Memorial Miami Beach, Florida Council of 100, and the United Way of Miami-Dade County.

Dr. Rosenberg is a first-generation college graduate whose two children, Ben and Ginelle, are both graduates of FIU. He and his wife of over 45 years, Rosalie, are members of Temple Menorah in Miami Beach.


Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I had the privilege of being raised in a university community — Athens, Ohio — which is the home to one of the United States’ oldest public universities — Ohio University. While my father, a decorated U.S. Army veteran did not have a college education, he was a wise and gentle man. He was an elected member of the city’s school board and its leader for nearly 12 years. He had a style about him that inspired respect and comfort, even from members of the university community who were invariably much better educated formally. I learned many lessons from him in that college town. He helped to bring my mom, a survivor of Auschwitz, to the U.S. from a displaced persons’ camp in Germany. Under her tutelage I learned the power of optimism and determination. She was the only survivor from a large Polish family that was exterminated in the slave labor and concentration camps run by the Nazis. My zest for learning and leading is driven by these two powerful people in my life. While both are now gone, their lessons and determination drive me every day.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I have learned many lessons along the way. I am indebted to so many for their patience with me. I have been blessed with countless mentors. One of the many lessons is to find a way to show appreciation as much as possible for those around you who care to take their time to share their approaches with you. Many of these mentors have passed. Invariably their advice echoes in my mind to this day.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?

We are a public university founded on an airport field. An abandoned airport tower was the first office used by our first president Charles “Chuck” Perry and his fellow founders Butler Waugh, Donald McDowell and Nick Sileo. FIU at the time was a two-year upper-division school. Our purpose then was to provide college degrees to those place-bound students who had come through the state college system and to provide service to the international community. We opened our doors in 1972, with 5,667 students — the largest opening enrollment at the time in U.S. collegiate history. The typical student entering FIU that year was 25, attending school full-time and working full-time. Eighty percent of the student body had just graduated from Miami Dade Community College. Forty-three percent were married. Today we are a comprehensive research university with 58,000 students, graduating nearly 17,000 a year, offering nearly 200 degrees, and generating nearly 250 million dollars in research expenditures annually. We are proud of the fact that we are the country’s largest majority-minority university.

Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?

When I was named provost, I asked one of my mentors, the University of Florida President John Lombardi, what my job as provost was. He told me that my job was to stay “calm.” Shortly thereafter, the “9/11” attacks challenged the foundation of our security and democracy. I used his advice to stay calm to make sure that I could do my job as provost in those troubled times.

Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?

Of course giving up has always been an option. In graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh, there were very difficult times, particularly getting unintentionally caught up in internecine department conflicts that were being played out between competing groups of faculty. Few jobs were available for newly minted faculty in the mid-1970s. I almost walked away then. I think what kept me engaged was the thrill of learning and my desire to work with students. Also, by dint of hindsight, I am a firm believer in turning the impossible into the inevitable — perhaps as a consequence of my mother’s journey and the lessons from it. I have disciplined myself to set stretch goals and to stay focused on achieving them. When I exercise, for instance, I am always leveraging that work and imagining I am doing it to enable me to cross the finish line — whatever and wherever that is. Today I have wrapped my efforts around “student success” and remind those around me that “every student counts.” I am an example of the power of education. I want that same uplift for every student with whom I interact and for whom I have responsibility as the university president.

What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?

I believe a leader must remain calm, intentional and forward-thinking. This is especially important during challenging times, when those around you are dealing with difficult decisions and new or unexpected challenges. A leader must always set the tone and lead with confidence and intentionality. One of the lessons that I learned from co-chairing a U.S. General Accounting Office assessment of U.S. foreign policy on Central America during the 1980s was that leaders must be aware of the negative unintended consequences of their initiatives. For instance, our policy efforts to build and fortify democracy throughout the region and to professionalize the military establishments of some countries in the region unintentionally led to massive displacement of communities and out-migration to the United States.

When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team? Leaders have choices: how to visualize the current situation, how to point to new directions and a better future, the words used to frame their approach, and their willingness to use non-verbal communication to further reinforce their message. In particular, words matter. Framing is critical. Repetition is necessary. Dialogue must be constant.

What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?

I have found that key stakeholders must be advised individually and privately, to be followed by a public statement and, if possible, a willingness to hold open and public town halls or discussions about the situation in question. Further, it’s important to review likely scenarios in advance so that advance preparation gives added confidence to the presenter. Honesty is always best. If a question is asked, then it must be either answered or there must be an acknowledgement that the interviewee does not have an answer at that time. One of the most difficult questions I have been asked resulted in this answer: “That’s a very good question. We do not have answers at this time. We are investigating the very same issue and will have answers soon. One thing is for sure — we are committed to finding answers and to assuring the public that something similar will never occur again on our watch.”

How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?

I like Dwight Eisenhower’s approach: He said that “plans are worthless, planning is everything.” Large and small organizations need a guiding vision and direction to enable coherence and success. Beyond plans and planning, they also should have agreement on organizational philosophy and values. The latter, in particular, will be the glue that binds hard-working people together, especially in times of difficulty or stress.

Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?

As I mentioned earlier, a necessary condition for getting through turbulent times is a leader who remains calm, musters their cadres, keeps them together and moving forward. Some storytelling about previous difficulties and how the company survived can help as well.

Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?

1) Inadequate assessment of the situation at hand. Good information is hard to come by.

2) Absence of a full assessment of options — including those presented by individuals who will have minority or divergent views.

3) Prevalence of group think-pressure for consensus results in short-sightedness and decisions that end up being ineffective for the challenge.

Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

First, it is important to have a well-run, efficient operation even in good times. Second, it is important to understand that markets and environments are volatile, and that change is right around the corner. Therefore, contingency planning is necessary — especially with a focus on the products that drive company success, whether they are tangible material goods or intangible services. There must be awareness of the risk that these products face in the marketplace and strategies that respond accordingly.

Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.

Here are the five most important things a leader needs during uncertain and turbulent times. First, clarity. This means that the leader must be able to define the situation, the risk, the threat, the opportunities and the path forward. At FIU, we used table-top exercises, and consultation with experts to understand that we were in for a long period of difficulty. This recognition was key to our planning. Second, intentionality. Decisions must be made, but they should be data-driven and evidence-based if at all possible. We set our performance standards in accordance with national best practices, expert input, and a constant review of the data at land. We also placed a heavy emphasis on the guidelines and expectations of external stakeholders (largely elected officials) juxtaposed against the local conditions at the time. Our decisions were ecosystem-specific because we found that conditions varied across the legal jurisdictions that bind us.

I also want to emphasize the importance of flexibility/creativity. The absence of a playbook from past pandemic situations and little or no prior experience coupled with the complex layering of advice, policies and regulations, the politicization of the pandemic and the differing scientific approaches to building a credible response complicated even further the clarity/intentionality duplex, and further drives the imperative for flexibility and creativity. One of the keys here is a willingness to listen to alternative views. Avoiding groupthink is critical. Someone in the decision-making circle must be willing to be a devil’s advocate or a “critical evaluator.” We have seen with this virus that today’s surprise is tomorrow’s norm. It is essential in this regard to seek diverse viewpoints — largely through having a diverse group of advisers providing input and review.

It is also important to manage expectations and manage ambiguity. The uncertainty of the present and future are paralyzing. Just walk into your local grocery store. Remember the toilet paper quotas? No Purell? Who would have expected that basic goods such as paper towels and other cleaning products would be in short supply?

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I have many life lesson quotes but the one that I come back to continuously is borrowed from the poet Maya Angelou who reminds us that “People may never remember what you said but they will never forget how you made them feel.”

How can our readers further follow your work?

You can learn all about all the great things happening at FIU by visiting FIU News.

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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