Dr. Eileen B. Wilson-Oyelaran’s first connection to Kalamazoo was decades ago and half a continent away. She was a counselor at a Girl Scout camp in California, and the camp’s assistant director happened to hail from a school in a town with an odd-sounding name.
The school was Western Michigan University, and the town was Kalamazoo. Years later, the place with the funny name would become Wilson-Oyelaran’s home and the former camp counselor would lead one of its colleges.
On June 30, Wilson-Oyelaran will complete her tenure as the 17th president of Kalamazoo College.
“I have come to love this place very much,” she says, “and even though I know that it’s time to go, the leaving isn’t easy.”
She and Olasope, her husband of 36 years, will return to their home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, from which they moved 11 years ago when she took the helm at Kalamazoo College. They have strong roots there as well. Wilson-Oyelaran served as associate professor and chair of the department of education at Winston-Salem State University, dean at Salem College, vice president of Salem Academy and College and acting president of Salem College.
“When I left Winston-Salem to come to K in 2005, I was excited about a new professional opportunity, and the game plan was clear,” she says. “Retiring from K represents the end of my professional work. It’s a final period and rather bittersweet.”
Life after Kalamazoo
But leaving academe doesn’t mean Wilson-Oyelaran will be idle.
“For the first three months I will take time for myself and time for travel,” she says. “Eventually I’ll consult and write, but I have no desire to work full time on anything anymore. I want to be very deliberate about my choices.”
Wilson-Oyelaran also plans to spend time with the couple’s children and their only grandson, who lives in Taiwan, as well as visit Nigeria, her husband’s homeland and the country where the couple met and lived for more than 14 years.
And there will be periodic visits back to Kalamazoo. A board member of the W.E. Upjohn Institute, Wilson-Oyelaran will return to the area for meetings in the spring and fall. But the Los Angeles native admits she’s quite happy to be able to avoid Michigan winters.
“I bought good coats and lots of socks when I first came here, but I never learned how to dress properly for winter,” she admits.
The long road from her native Southern California to Kalamazoo was not on Wilson-Oyelaran’s radar when she started college with the intention of becoming a teacher. Neither was a career in higher education or a college presidency. However, opportunities arose, and the young, enterprising sociology major followed up on them with vigor, enthusiasm and a spirit of adventure.
One life-changing opportunity was the year she spent studying in London, England, where her research immersed her in the lives of immigrant children from Africa and the Caribbean.
“This experience was transformative,” she says. “I left England committed to understanding a wider world, fascinated with the notion of the African diaspora and determined to travel and study abroad more extensively.”
After graduation from Pomona College in 1969, she received a Thomas J. Watson Traveling Fellowship and spent 16 months traveling and studying in Ghana, Nigeria and Tanzania. After earning master’s and doctoral degrees in childhood development at Claremont Graduate University, Wilson-Oyelaran returned to Nigeria to teach at Obafemi Awolowo University, where she spent 14 years in the departments of education and psychology. From 1982 to 1987, she chaired that university’s department of psychology and served as a consultant for UNICEF. In 1988, Wilson-Oyelaran and her family left Nigeria so that she could become a visiting scholar of education at North Carolina Wesleyan College.
Bringing more diversity
As she reflects on her career in higher education, Wilson-Oyelaran sees links between herself as a student in the 1960s and today’s students who are deeply engaged in social change and issues of social justice.
“I was a student activist in college during the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, when racial tensions were erupting in Los Angeles, Detroit and elsewhere. Communities all over the nation were in crisis, and those concerns impacted college and university campuses,” she says. “The issues of today, like the issues of the ’60s, have created another heightened moment which calls us to pay attention to our society and our communities.”
When she came to Kalamazoo College in 2005, the college's student body was primarily white and middle class, and making the college more diverse was one of her primary tasks. Today, Wilson-Oyelaran says, the college’s roughly 1,450 students represent greater diversity of geography, religion, socio-economic status, race and ethnicity, but "there is much more work to be done in this area.”
“Many students of color continue to feel alienated by academic institutions that they experience as white spaces. Throughout America, students of color feel marginalized in the classroom. Their experience is not well represented in the curriculum, and their interactions with peers are sometimes problematic because white students often make assumptions about students of color based on stereotypes. These factors can make a college campus a very complex environment in which to build community.”
She says that building community and a feeling of inclusion becomes even more complicated because society has provided young people with few models of how to have respectful disagreements in a pluralistic society. Absent such models, we shouldn’t be shocked at the tension on campus, she says. However, Wilson-Oyelaran is concerned that this tension has become quite “brittle,” with students unwilling to engage in conversations with people holding alternative perspectives from themselves.
“Freedom of speech complicates the matter,” she says. “How do we hold freedom of speech as a first principle and ensure that the dignity of every human being is honored and recognized? Students are asking, ‘What mechanisms do we have when someone else’s speech challenges my dignity or my right to exist as a human being?’ How do we uphold freedom of speech in a democratic pluralistic society? This is a major challenge facing many colleges and universities and our society at large, as demonstrated by the current political discourse.”
Wilson-Oyelaran believes in equal measure in the importance of facing challenges and celebrating progress. When she started her career, she had no examples of African-American women presidents to emulate. College presidents were mostly white men, with only a few women administrators at women’s colleges. African-Americans served as college presidents of historically black institutions, she says, but not of other institutions. Now, African-American women in academe have assumed presidencies at Swarthmore College, in Pennsylvania, and Trinity College, in Connecticut, a change that Wilson-Oyelaran heartily applauds.
“It’s gratifying to see the diversity of the world better reflected in higher educational leadership,” she says.
As she departs Kalamazoo College, Wilson-Oyelaran has great hope the college will continue to thrive. During her administration, the college’s endowment increased from $152 million to $220 million, and its recent major fundraising effort was the most successful in the college’s history, raising $129 million.
Other achievements include renovations of the Upjohn Library Commons and the Hicks Student Center and construction of the new athletic fieldhouse complex on West Michigan Avenue. Construction of a new fitness and wellness center began last fall, and a new natatorium is in the design stage.
In addition, curricular enhancements include reinvigoration of the “K-Plan,” a customized curriculum plan for students, three new academic majors (business, critical ethnic studies, and women and gender studies), and new career and professional development opportunities.
“These are things to be proud of,” says Wilson-Oyelaran. “Students, faculty and staff have worked hard by bringing their whole selves to our work. I have great faith this spirit will continue.”
Wilson-Oyelaran also played a central role in the creation of the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership at Kalamazoo College, which seeks to develop leaders who will help make the campus and the world a more equitable place that enables people to thrive.
“I’ll miss being a part of the exciting things happening at the Arcus Center,” she says. “The center’s programming has included important town-and-gown conversations, and the fellows program gives support to local young people as they pursue their interests in promoting positive social change. It has become a real hub for deep conversation regarding issues of social justice.”
Wilson-Oyelaran does leave with some regrets — namely that she didn’t have enough time to take advantage of all that Kalamazoo has to offer in the arts.
“There are a tremendous number of things to do here,” she says, “and that helps make the community a wonderful place for institutions of higher education."
Above all, she will miss the joy of watching students grow and develop during their years at Kalamazoo College.
“K allowed me to develop relationships with students,” Wilson-Oyelaran says. “I’d meet them at the opening convocation in September of their first year and four years later say goodbye to them at graduation in June. I know some of their stories as well as some of their struggles and accomplishments. It’s a gift to be able to participate in such an important part of their journey and to observe the changes in their lives that the institution has helped foster.”