When Ali Malekzadeh took over as dean of the Williams College of Business four years ago, he was, in a sense, closing a large circle. Although Malekzadeh studied and worked at universities across the United States, his educational roots lie in Jesuit schools in his native Iran. And the lessons he learned from the Jesuits continue to permeate and color his life, including his passion for taekwondo, a Korean martial art form similar to karate.
An avid student, Malekzadeh is a fourth-degree black belt, a certified instructor and a member of the American Taekwondo Association. But he’s not the only black belt in his family—nor, to hear him tell it, is he the best. “My oldest daughter is a fourth degree, my wife is a fourth degree, any my youngest daughter is a third degree, so this is a family thing,” he says. “It started with my oldest daughter when she was 8 years old. She was pushed around in school. She was a shy girl and I said, Well, maybe we’ll go to the karate place that was next to our home because the owners were two young women who had black belts.”
Soon, all of the family members were regulars: daughters attending classes after school and parents taking classes later in the evening. “We would do our karate and then go home and have dinner afterward,” Malekzadeh says. “And anytime one of us didn’t want to go, the other three were always insistent they should. Pretty soon all of us are black belts. Both of my daughters were in the top 10 in the world. I was ranked in the top 10 just once, and I emphasize just once. My oldest daughter is 20 now. She can rearrange my headgear in an instant.”
Malekzadeh sees a similarity between his day job and teaching martial arts. “I see the 17- and 18-year-old freshmen who show up on campus,” he says. “They are not focused. They have been high school graduates, and then suddenly they come to a university and they have to start over and grow up. We help them grow up. The parallel with martial arts is, when a student comes in, we surround that student with a team of peers and a team of instructors and assess what the needs of that specific person are, and then help that person succeed. Our job is not to fail them; our job is to help them succeed.”
Part of that, he says, is modeling the concept of teamwork, creating the recognition and realization that team members succeed or fail together—and giving students the tools to persevere.
“Jesuit education is personal education,” he says. “My entire first through 12th grade was in Jesuit school, back in Iran. What I learned from the fathers who were running the school was value hard work, the value of personal relationships and of caring about every student—and the value of education. We really grew up with them, and they kind of grew with us. Those were lifetime friendships that we took away. Almost my entire graduating class is in the U.S. somewhere in very professional jobs, many of them in the Los Angeles community because there is a large Persian and Iranian community. They all have very good professions, and it all goes back to high school education and the role models that we had.”
In the past year, increasing day-to-day demands have cut into Malekzadeh’s taekwondo workouts, but he says sparring, breaking boards and handling weapons are all very therapeutic. “Then you come back to the stress of being dean,” he says. “It keeps things in perspective.”