WSW: Retiring KVCC President Schlack Values 'Community' in Her College's Name

Sep 26, 2017

Marilyn Schlack, who'll be retiring as president of Kalamazoo Valley Community College after 35 years, visits the WMUK studios on Friday, Sept. 22, 2017.
Credit Earlene McMichael | WMUK

It was rare to see a female college president anywhere in America when Marilyn Schlack took over leadership of Kalamazoo Valley Community College 35 years ago. Her tenure will soon come to an end. Schlack, 81, will stay until a replacement is found.

In an interview airing Thursday on WMUK's WestSouthwest news and public-affairs show, Schlack talks about being a pacesetter not only for women but for higher education for the innovative programming and economic development partnerships during her administration. Schlack recently announced her retirement from KVCC, which marked its 50th anniversary last year.

Schlack's hand helped change the face of downtown Kalamazoo. She was a key influence behind the scenes in the Arcadia Commons redevelopment project in the early 1990s that resulted in several institutions, such as First of America Bank, building new sites in downtown, including KVCC placing its second campus there. An extensive list of substantive initiatives would follow.

Among them is The Groves, a business-education-technology center near the original Texas Township campus. It has provided hands-on training to prepare workers for opportunities at local businesses since 1998. More recently, in 2013, KVCC opened the Culinary and Allied Health Building, and Food Innovation Center, as part of the Bronson Healthy Living Campus in downtown Kalamazoo.

Is Schlack fearless?

"It's very important to me that, once I start a job, I have to do it well," Schlack says on WestSouthwest.  "I am driven. Also, I feel a strong responsibility to those I represent -- in this case, it happened to be Kalamazoo Valley Community College -- but, more importantly, to the community as a whole because Kalamazoo Valley Community College takes great pride in having 'community' in its name."

The Western Michigan University alumna was born in Highland Park in the Detroit area. Her first stop as a college student was Highland Park Community College. She later transferred to the University of Michigan, majoring in English and earning a teaching certificate. 

After stints as a middle school teacher in the Detroit and Saginaw areas, she and her husband, Larry, moved to Kalamazoo so he could become a professor at WMU. Soon they would welcome a son. Schlack was a stay-at-home mother for three years.

On WestSouthwest, Schlack tells of becoming restless. Upon her husband's urging, she successfully applied for an adjunct instructor position in Western's College of Education. When that position was cut for budgetary reasons, she says she obtained a doctorate in higher education and administration from WMU.

Then she joined the Kalamazoo Valley Community College staff in 1974 as assistant dean for general studies, a position she held for two years. She was subsequently promoted to dean of instruction and executive dean roles. She was named President Dale B. Lake's replacement in 1982.

Did she think she would be selected president?

"I didn't think I had a chance," Schlack says on WestSouthwest. "There were no other women presidents in the state.  I had a passion for the community college, having attended one myself. And, I had strong support at home and within the college community as well.

"So, they brought in two consultants. And several of us that were working at KVCC applied (for the presidency), and I was lucky enough to be chosen."

In 1982, when Schlack became KVCC president, the college had about 4,000 part-time and full-time students. Now, enrollment is around 11,000, she says.

Listen now to the interview or, at 9:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 28 on WestSouthwest on NPR station WMUK at 102.1 on the FM dial.