A reception with Greater Dowagiac Chamber of Commerce packed Southwestern Michigan College’s Student Activity Center Jan. 16 to welcome eighth President Dr. Joe Odenwald.
Board of Trustees Chairman Thomas F. Jerdon introduced Odenwald on a “rare occasion for SMC. SMC bucks national trends. For example, the national-average service time for community-college presidents is 5 ½ years, and this is expected to drop to just 3½ years. Dr. David Mathews was president over 18 years. SMC, including Dr. Odenwald, has had only five presidents since 1971. Continuity has been part of SMC’s success.”
After Mathews announced his intention on Aug. 6 to retire at the end of 2019, trustees interviewed four internal candidates on Sept. 30, and on Oct. 21 unanimously selected Odenwald, Vice President of Student Services since 2017.
Odenwald thanked Jerdon and the Board of Trustees “for your confidence in putting me in this position. Since its founding, Southwestern Michigan College has employed the motto ‘Knowledge for All,’ and, thanks to our generous taxpayers and donors, at a reasonable price. I’ve been told the late Dr. Fred Mathews often said SMC was this region’s version of the war on poverty.
“For more than five decades,” Odenwald said, “the college has produced nurses, teachers, law enforcement officers and others who serve our area. That’s what’s beautiful about a community college. Most graduates don’t move away, but contribute right here. Last winter, when Laura and I welcomed our son, I was really nervous, then relieved when almost all of our nurses were SMC graduates.”
SMC constructed a campus designed with a master plan “and stuck with it. This was in an era when most community colleges built a single campus building as an extension of high school. This disciplined vision was instrumental in distinguishing SMC as a college, not simply grades 13-14.”
SMC built three residence halls and invested in residential life “before the majority of community colleges thought about it,” Odenwald said. “We were the leader. Unlike many peers, we didn’t build ‘dorms.’ They’re truly residence halls. The idea from SMC’s infancy was to have a learning environment. In 2008-09, when we built McKenzie Hall, we renovated and expanded the Zollar Building, where we’re gathered tonight. This bold move is why we have 2,100 students instead of 1,700. It’s not uncommon for other colleges our size to accumulate millions of dollars in deferred maintenance, but we take care of what we have and reinvest within our operational budgets.”
SMC developed an honors program with research opportunities for high-achieving students reminiscent of four-year universities.
“We reinvested in the Niles Area Campus in anticipation of the growth of the Early College movement,” he said. “We’re a unit of local government governed by a democratically-elected, non-partisan Board of Trustees which serves for free. This allows us to direct our energy toward the quality of the college rather than political struggle.”
Quoting Eric Hoffer, Odenwald said, “In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.
“Changes we face will require new methods in health care, new technology in the trades, new techniques in the helping professions, better yields in agriculture and so on. As a college, we will prepare graduates in these fields to be lifelong learners who appreciate the past, but don’t simply curate it. I look forward to steering this college in concert with our Board of Trustees, our administrators, our faculty and staff and engaged students for many years to come.”
Odenwald, of Dowagiac, is a fourth-generation farmer from Ferriday, La. He came to SMC after working as Assistant Dean for Academic Affairs and Student Services for Louisiana State University’s College of Engineering.
He previously held positions at Mississippi College, including Associate Dean of Students and Director of Student Life, while teaching graduate courses on the adjunct faculty.
Odenwald earned his bachelor’s degree from Louisiana College, a master’s degree from Mississippi College and his doctorate from The University of Southern Mississippi.
“With an external hire, it can take a year for a new president to figure out campus culture,” Jerdon said. “We didn’t have that problem. Dr. Joe started as president on Jan. 1 and hit the ground running.”
Jerdon said he and Odenwald in December embarked on a “quest” to visit all 23 municipal boards across the college district by September. “I don’t think this has been done since 1964 when Dr. Fred Mathews campaigned to start this college.”