On July 1, Jorge Gonzalez, Ph.D. will officially become president of Kalamazoo College, succeeding the retiring Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran, Ph.D. The Kalamazoo-based liberal arts school is on strong footing, Gonzalez said, noting that the college just completed a successful capital campaign. Gonzalez, who joins Kalamazoo College from Occidental College in Los Angeles, praised Wilson-Oyelaran for her “visionary leadership” and said he wants to work to increase the college’s endowment and further engage Kalamazoo’s business and philanthropic communities. He spoke with MiBiz about those plans.
As you step into the president’s role, where does Kalamazoo College stand from a fundraising standpoint?
My challenge is to take it from where it is and make it even stronger. The challenge is that you have unlimited wants and limited resources. I’m an economist and I always think like an economist. Every faculty member, every student and staff has great ideas as to how to make our education even better. However, we have to balance it out with the limited resources the college has. We have more resources than most, but still, they’re limited.
What are some strategies and best practices you intend to use to further grow K College?
I’m an absolutely strong believer in the power of the liberal arts. Within the liberal arts, Kalamazoo College places special emphasis on experiential education. That education includes study abroad, so we have to make sure we’re providing resources so that every student has an opportunity to go abroad. And also experiential education offers opportunities within the community.
Can you share an example?
By that, we mean internships or community engagement. So providing resources for our students to be able to engage in those activities is absolutely essential. This is what K College promises students when they come in, so we need to make sure we’re delivering on that promise effectively.
Speaking of community engagement, how will K College engage the region to benefit students and the broader community?
You put it the right way. To me, community engagement is not a one-way avenue in which the students just go to help the community. It’s a two-way avenue. When the students are in the community, they’re learning just as much as they’re helping the community. This is done by putting students in contact with whatever cultural institutions we have in town and whatever social institutions we have in town.
How do you go about doing that?
If, for example, a student studies immigration in a sociology class on campus, perhaps there’s an organization in Kalamazoo that is helping immigrants adjust to a life in the U.S. or in Kalamazoo in particular. We have the students go there and either provide some service or have an internship in that place so they hear directly from immigrants. … Or if a student majors in economics, you have financial institutions and insurance companies.
How do you plan to engage the community’s business and philanthropic communities in a way that is net positive for all parties?
To me, K College is one of the jewels of Kalamazoo as a city because K is a natural importer of talent. We’re bringing talent from across the state, country and across the world to Kalamazoo. Many of these talented students will stay here and they will develop new industries and develop new companies. They will be remarkable employees, whether in science, culture or in business. So in my mind, for the Kalamazoo business community, it’s to their benefit to make K College stronger. That’s going to make Kalamazoo a stronger city.
You mentioned that K College recently completed a capital campaign. How do you carry on that momentum to effectively implement these programs?
The biggest challenge is that costs increase every year, and we have family incomes that can’t keep up with those costs. So the biggest challenge is continuing to make your location better by trying to constrain the costs as much as you can, while at the same time being out there very publicly trying to raise funds so we can continue to provide access for students from all backgrounds. It’s complicated — it’s not easy.
What are the trends you’re seeing in the liberal arts education?
There’s a tremendous misunderstanding about what a liberal arts education is about and whether a liberal arts college is going to prepare you for the world you’re graduating into. I’m absolutely convinced — and there’s hundreds of years of proof from alumni — that this education works. But we need to be proactive telling the story of the liberal arts.
What is the misunderstanding that you mentioned?
The misunderstanding is that people think if you want to work in the world in four years, you need to be training for a specific profession. To me, given the world students will graduate into — a world shaped by constant change from technology, globalization — I can almost guarantee that 99 percent of the graduates won’t retire from the industry where they found their first job. The education they need is one that will allow them to be flexible and look at the world and be creative and analytical about it.
Interview conducted and condensed by Nick Manes. Courtesy photo.