In August, Kalamazoo College welcomed J. Malcolm Smith as its new vice president for student development and dean of students. Smith came to K from Salve Regina University in Newport, Rhode Island, where he also served as the vice president for student affairs and dean of students. Prior to Salve, Smith worked at a variety of institutions, including John Carroll University, Ohio University and University of Illinois at Chicago. He brings extensive experience to K in areas such as student conduct and advocacy; retention efforts; diversity, equity and inclusion; Title IX administration; housing management; budget oversight; and crisis management. Recently, we sat down with Malcolm to talk about his background and goals for student development at K.
Q. Malcolm, how did you become involved in student development and student life as a profession?
A. I always like to say I got into this specific line of work by telling a joke. Let me give you a bit of backstory: As an undergrad, I changed majors a few times. I ended up with an elementary education and music degree, and then after graduation I went into business. I was working for a company and within six months I’d become the number one account manager in the region—yet I was working 60, 70, 80 hours a week and I wasn’t necessarily happy. During undergrad at Ohio University, I had done a research program called STARS (Student Achievement in Research and Scholarship). For completion of that program, I had a fellowship available to me if I wanted to go to graduate school in state of Ohio. So, I’m in this job that wasn’t very fulfilling, and I went to the person who ran the Academic Advancement Center at OU—I had been a tutor for a number of subjects so we knew each other well—and she said, “Malcolm, you really liked helping students, have you thought about higher ed?” She took me down to meet with the faculty of the master’s program and I ended up going into the program.
When I left my job, my regional VP said, we’ll hold your job for you if you decide to come back. And about halfway into my grad program, I walked into the assistant dean’s office and I said, I think I’m going to leave the program and go back to work. She said, “Why don’t you stay here for the summer and work for me, and if you still want to leave in August, I’ll support it.” So, there I was, working in the dean’s office, and one day I overheard the assistant dean talking with another director about how it was the last day of applications for an assistant director of conduct, and he’d gotten great candidates but he wished he had more diversity. So, as I’m walking through the office, I say—as a joke—“I’ll get you my resume.” They call me back and the guy says, “Are you serious?” I say, “No, I’m a grad student in career development, why would I apply for an assistant director of conduct?” Long story short, requests were made and I had my resume ready by five o’clock and I ended up going through the interview process. Later, the director calls me to let me know they had hired someone else who had 15 years of experience. I said, “Outstanding, I really appreciate the opportunity, I learned a lot.” And then they offered me a different assistant director position that they created for me. And that’s how I told a joke and moved from career development to conduct…and the rest is history. As a higher ed professional, I think I’ve been able to do well in the work because I truly care about students and I care about the people I work with. Student affairs and conduct is emotionally heavy work in many instances, so I’ve always tried to support the people on my team.
Q. What attracted you to K?
When we moved to Rhode Island, my wife, Nichole, and I decided we’d stay there for three to five years. We ended up being there for eight. But we always hoped to come back to the Midwest, if the right position at the right school opened up at the right time.
I had talked to consultants about positions at other schools—some of which are as close as 15 minutes to my mother’s house. But when K popped up, I sent an email to Nichole and said, I think we should look at this one. I went through the process and I enjoyed my time with the committee from the very beginning. I liked President Gonzalez immediately. And then I came to the interview—it was during the pandemic and they brought me out to see the school and then I sat in the conference room and talked with people on the computer. But the people I got to meet were really impressive to me. And it was a very difficult decision because I was extremely happy at Salve. I called the president and it was tough telling her I was thinking of leaving. But I think that the ultimate moment when I decided to say yes was after she talked to Jorge. She said, “Malcolm, I hate to say it, but he’s a wonderful man, and if I had to lose you, it’s okay to lose you to someone like Jorge Gonzalez.”
So, we said yes. And we’re very happy we did. It’s a really good place doing a lot of really good work. In my whole career, I’ve been trying to help move institutions toward doing everything it can to prioritize building a transformational educational process. I think K has done a lot of good work in this space—we’re not perfect, but we’re truly working to engage all of our students and our alumni. I thought, well, wouldn’t it be interesting to take my skill set and see what I can do in a place that already has a really strong foundation, and see if I can help maximize that. So professionally, that was the call for me.
Q. What are your goals, short term and long term, for the Office of Student Development?
First and foremost, I think it’s important to integrate myself fully into the team and to build a team atmosphere around a shared vision. So, one of my objectives will be to develop a set of goals that the entire division can buy into and see themselves in, which ties into the strategic plan for the College.
Another goal of mine is to do program reviews of all the offices and departments that are in the division to ensure that we’re using best practices or moving toward best practices. I also want to continue to ensure that our staff in the division understands the values of diversity and inclusion, and are integrating those values into the work they do, the programs we are running and the discussions they’re having. And as we move forward, I want ensure that students are always going to be first. It does not mean we’re always going to agree with students, but student needs will always be primary for me.
The biggest long-term goal that I can see is that we have to improve our residential experience. The residence halls need either a great deal of work or need to be replaced, and probably a combination of the two.
And finally, I want to make sure that the programs that come out of Student Development are aligned with the instructional learning outcomes and the academic mission, and are value-added for the students.
Q. It’s exciting to have everyone back together on campus this year. How do you like to connect with students? What’s your approach?
My approach is to be accessible to students at all times. They’ll see me having lunch in the dining hall every day, I’ll be at events. Last night I was at the SAC picnic. I’ll be at sporting events and I’ll be at performances. I’ll be walking on campus during the day, and I want to spark conversations with people and be present. And then the approach in that presence I think is to be kind, is to lead with love and to recognize that whoever’s in front of you is what’s important at the moment.
Q. On a personal note, what are three things people may be surprised to learn about you?
- I would say that to relax, my go-to is either cooking or gardening—I think because it’s one way to show love to my family and to friends.
- My game of choice is chess. Although the game has not chosen me—I’ve chosen it.
- Regardless of having just come from Rhode Island, I’m not a beach guy. My go-to vacation would be in cities, mostly because of the food. My favorite city is probably Chicago—amazing food, amazing architecture and great culture!