Born in New York City, Wallerstein received his undergraduate degree at Dartmouth College in 1971. In 1972, he followed with a Master's degree in public administration from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He received a second Master's (1976) and PhD in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1978.
For the next five years, he worked as an assistant professor and program director at MIT. From 1983 to 1993, he worked at the National Academy of Sciences, holding progressively more senior positions, including deputy executive officer of the National Research Council. Also while at the National Research Council, Wallerstein directed a series of highly acclaimed studies on scientific communication, technology transfer and national security.
In 1998, Wallerstein joined the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation as Vice President of the Program on Global Security and Sustainability. In this capacity, he directed the Foundation's international grant-making in 86 countries around the world. The Program made $85 million in grants each year focusing on international peace and security, population and reproductive health, biodiversity and sustainable development, human rights and the impacts of globalization.
In July 2003, Mitchel Wallerstein became 8th dean of the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. Wallerstein pushed for expanded internationalization of the school's programs and relationships with other elite schools of public affairs around the world; he secured an endowment for the School's Institute of Global Affairs in honor of the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was twice a member of the Maxwell School faculty; and he initiated new academic programs in security studies (which included the establishment of the Institute for National Security and Counter-Terrorism), and he supported new programs in public diplomacy, and history and documentary filmmaking.
Dr. Wallerstein began his tenure as President of Baruch College on August 2, 2010. In this capacity, he successfully concluded the Baruch Means Business fundraising campaign, reestablished the endowment of the Weissman School of Arts & Sciences, created the first outdoor public space (a plaza created by cloing a city street) in the College's history and also the first student center. He also led an initiative to expand the College's graduate programs, including new Master's degree in International Affairs and Arts Administration. In 2016, President Wallerstein successfully secured a $30 million endowment gift to name Baruch's third school as the Austin W. Marxe School of Public and International Affairs.