There seems to be no doubt about it. Dr. Jorge Gonzalez was meant to be the next president of Kalamazoo College.
The economist turned professor and administrator clearly has the background for the presidency of this liberal arts college, and his attitude of service to others is consistent with Kalamazoo College’s stated tradition and values. But what may be most interesting about his ascendancy is the series of events, chance encounters and role models that created a glide path to the corner office of Mandelle Hall.
Gonzalez, 54, grew up in Monterrey, Mexico, where the extreme poverty he witnessed on a daily basis inspired him to want to eliminate it.
“I wanted to study economics in order to learn how to make the world a better place by using resources to provide more opportunities for people to have better lives,” he says, “not how to make a company's maximum returns on investment.”
Gonzalez went to the Monterrey Institute of Technology and later pursued a doctoral degree in economics at Michigan State University, the same place where his father, Dr. Jorge F. González-Arce, had earned a Ph.D. in marketing. In Gonzalez’s fourth year at MSU, he was asked to teach a microeconomics class and discovered he liked teaching.
“It was pure joy,” says Gonzalez. “I knew right away that college teaching was my life.”
MSU would also present Gonzalez with an opportunity of another sort. It was there that he met his wife-to-be, Suzie Martin, who was studying for a doctorate in educational psychology. The couple married in 1989.
Suzie was born in Kalamazoo to John and Millie Martin. Her father worked for The Upjohn Co. (now Pfizer Inc.), and when she was 3 years old, her father's job took the family to Mexico and then to Puerto Rico. While the family was in Puerto Rico, Kalamazoo College alumnus and her father’s Upjohn colleague Phil Carra encouraged Suzie to go to Kalamazoo College by buying her hats and shirts with the school’s logo emblazoned on them. The seed Carra planted took root, and Suzie graduated from Kalamazoo College in 1983.
“Through Suzie I learned about Kalamazoo College for the first time,” Gonzalez says.
After graduating from MSU, Gonzalez's first job was teaching international economics and macroeconomics at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.
“I had the time of my life as a professor at Trinity,” he recalls. “It suited me and my values. I loved the students and felt I was doing what I should be doing in life.”
'Love what I am doing'
One day the dean of Trinity asked Gonzalez to be chair of the economics department. Gonzalez says he had never thought of being an administrator, but he gave it a try and ended up serving for three terms. He had planned to go back to teaching, but Trinity’s president, Dr. John Brazil, asked him to apply for an American Council of Education (ACE) fellowship, which prepares promising individuals for senior leadership in colleges and universities. Coincidentally, Gonzalez’s fellowship was at Pomona College in Claremont, California, where he first met Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran, who was a member of the college’s board of directors and the president of Kalamazoo College.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would come to K and follow in Eileen’s footsteps,” he says.
After completion of the ACE fellowship in 2008, Gonzalez expected to return to Trinity to teach. However, fate — and Dr. Brazil — had other plans for him. Gonzalez became a special assistant to the president, a position in which he would do “a little teaching and a little administration.”
“It turned out to be a lot of both,” says Gonzalez, “but I loved what I was doing.”
Gonzalez spent 21 years at Trinity. He moved on to Occidental College, in Los Angeles, in 2010, serving as its vice president of academic affairs for six years. (Interestingly, the current provost at Kalamazoo College, Mickey McDonald, was a professor and administrator at Occidental before he came to Kalamazoo in 2009.)
Then last year Kalamazoo College found itself needing a replacement for its retiring president, and Gonzalez was asked to apply for the job by the college’s presidential search committee.
“It was a match made in heaven,” Gonzalez says. “I felt at home from the moment I set foot on campus. Given my wife's history and her own good reviews of her education here, I knew it was meant to be.”
Gonzalez says that role models have had a significant impact on his life. His father was a professor of marketing in Mexico who later went into the banking and brewery industries in Monterrey.
“My father always said that he would not leave any money for his children, but he was committed to paying for our education, which is a lifetime investment in our future. He taught me about the importance of education.”
Gonzalez’s maternal grandfather was a chemical engineer who went to high school and college in the United States at a time when Mexicans were not as welcome because of prejudice. He later ran successfully for mayor of Monterrey. Gonzalez participated in his grandfather’s campaign and gained his first taste of politics and fundraising as well as a sensitivity for and a desire to reduce the inequalities of society.
“In Mexico, I saw poverty all around me,” Gonzalez says. “That's when I realized that only through human ingenuity and appropriate investment of resources could we solve those problems.”
As Kalamazoo College’s first Latino president, Gonzalez sees himself as an important role model for the Kalamazoo community. “Not many people have an opportunity to be a Latino role model,” he says.
It’s a role he has experience with. While at Occidental, Gonzalez participated in a Science Olympiad for K-12 students and interacted with all the students and their families and gave out medals to the winners.
“I loved doing this, especially when the kids and their parents saw someone like me was running a college,” he says. “Many couldn't believe I was in that position.”
Global education 'essential'
Exposure to other people from different walks of life is one reason that Gonzalez, who is an enthusiastic traveler, believes study abroad — a key part of a Kalamazoo College education — is one of the most important experiences college students can pursue.
“I've been in global education all my life,” says Gonzalez, who will be Kalamazoo College’s first international president. “It's essential in the intellectual development of our students. It allows you to see the goodness of people you don't know. It allows you to ask questions. And when you can't speak the language, it puts you in a vulnerable position where you develop greater empathy and sensitivity to others.”
While at Trinity, Gonzalez took students to economic and business conferences in Mexico and Spain for seven weeks during the summer. He organized a trip to France, Germany, Luxembourg and Belgium to show students how the European Union operated. He also took students on a trip to Vietnam.
“It changed their lives, as it changed mine when I spent a year of study abroad in Wisconsin as an undergraduate,” he says. “Study abroad is all about understanding the dynamics of global connections.”
Gonzalez's plan for Kalamazoo College is to continue to build on his predecessor’s strong legacy of opening up the college to more students, especially those of diverse ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. He says that it is important to explain the value of a Kalamazoo College education to those who do not know much about it.
“We have small classes, bright students and a dedicated faculty and staff,” he says. “My reason for being is to open the doors of such a fine education to students from all backgrounds and environments.
“Many of the leaders of society come from institutions like K. We need to nurture our students so that they can be exposed to all that the college offers in experiential education, study abroad and engagement with the community.”
Gonzalez also wants to emphasize social justice, which is the focus of the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership at Kalamazoo College.
“Most professors talk about this issue in class, but we must go beyond the classroom and become more engaged in the community. Students get so much out of such experiences,” he says. “It will make us all stronger as a result of such engagements. It's a two-way street.”
Gonzalez plans to “ease himself into” involvement in the Kalamazoo community by first learning about the area to determine where he might have the largest impact.
“Kalamazoo has civic pride and cultural amenities that make it a great place to live,” he says. “It is concerned about the future of its young with fine programs like the Kalamazoo Promise. It is obvious that people believe in the importance of community and making it better through an investment in education.”
Gonzalez also notes that there is yet another serendipitous connection between his background and Kalamazoo: beer.
“Monterrey is the beer capital of Mexico,” he says of his hometown. “The city was built around beer, and Kalamazoo is becoming that, too.”
But, more importantly, Gonzalez says, his new community aligns with his own aspirations.
“When you love what you do and find a place that's dear to you that aligns with your own purpose and goals in life, that's a fantastic match.”