| Payton North
SPRINGFIELD – “Have you ever gone someplace and from the very beginning it felt like home? Like this is some place you belonged? That was what it was like for me,” is how Western New England University’s (WNE) new President Dr. Robert E. Johnson described his first day on the Springfield campus. Though this may be the seventh campus Johnson has worked on, he said this is the first time he felt like he’s “come home.”
Education? ‘No – never gonna do it!’
In his mid 20s, Johnson was living in Dayton, OH, where he was working in marketing and also serving as a motivational speaker. His uncle, Bob Johnson, was the associate publisher for Jet Magazine out of Chicago, and he happened to know the then-President of Central State University Dr. Arthur E. Thomas. His uncle advised him to reach out to Thomas to book future speaking engagements. What started as a career-building connection wound up changing Johnson’s career trajectory.
When Johnson reached out to Thomas, Thomas asked Johnson when he was going to leave his current job and come work for him at the university. Johnson explained to Reminder Publishing that he said “Never, not gonna do it!” For a year Thomas would call Johnson once a month about his proposition, and finally one month Johnson shared with Thomas that he was thinking about going back to school to get his masters degree.
Thomas gave Johnson an offer he couldn’t refuse.
“[Thomas] said, ‘I have the perfect deal for you – you can come work for me, I have this position in enrollment admissions and marketing, you can be the director. Whatever salary you’re making I will match it. We have a special arrangement with the University of Cincinnati, you can get your master’s for free and if you need flex time to go to classes during the day, as long as you get your job done, I don’t care,’” Johnson explained Thomas’s offer. With a chuckle he told Reminder Publishing, “I was like – so let me see if I got this right – I was 26 at the time. You’ll match my salary, you’re going to make me a directors job, free master’s degree, flex time to get to and from class...and [Thomas] said ‘Oh by the way – because of this arrangement that we have with the University of Cincinnati, they’ll give you a $1,000 a month stipend during the regular academic year on top of that.’ I was like okay – I can do this for a few years!”
Thomas got his wish – Johnson ended up working for him for roughly 10 years. Though he did serve in the director position that was offered to him, Johnson also became Thomas’s speech writer. He shared that Thomas would invite him to his cabinet meetings, and after each one, he would spend 10 or 15 minutes with Johnson explaining to him why he made certain decisions and would give him the context for each discussion.
“It was probably sitting with him and learning more about what a president did in real time that inspired me to become a president. It was around the early ‘90s – and what, I was 30, 31 years old at the time – I decided that I wanted to become a college president.
“[Thomas] mentored me – he said, ‘You should become a president.’ I said, ‘I don’t want to do that!’ Finally, I said you know what – this might not be a bad idea,’” Johnson said.
‘This is the life we have chosen’
In 2020 and now 2021, educators – along with countless other professions – have had to pivot: online learning, Zoom classes and meetings, face to face learning with restrictions, social distancing. In an ever-changing field in a fast-paced job, personal time can go by the wayside.
“I’m a big movie fan. One of my favorite movies is ‘The Godfather’ and there’s a line in there that says, ‘This is the life we have chosen.’ For me – it’s a choice,” Johnson said of his rapidly changing career in education. “I get to transform lives each and every day, but you carve out time to do the things you need to do with your family, as I encourage everyone on the team to do as well.”
Keeping up with the rapidly changing environment and the challenges that COVID-19 brought to the industry may have presented challenges, but Johnson explained there were positives to note.
“Yes, things are changing at an exceptionally fast pace, but having said that, nobody’s on their deathbed saying they wished they’d worked more hours. I make sure that we have family time,” he said, noting that his 88-year–old dad lives with him and his wife, Michelle.
“We truly have an inter-generational family. My daughter who is 27, Jasmine, still lives with us. My son Alex is in Chicago, he works for the Chicago Sky in the WNBA, but we have three generations in the house. One of the things that COVID has done is we’ve had more sit down dinners together over the last six months than we probably have had in the last five or six years. There’s not a week that goes by where we’re not sitting down multiple days having dinner.”
Johnson explained that he feels that the world of work will be changing in a post-COVID-19 world. “People are starting to say in some ways, this is not so bad if I can do some of my work from home. The family time, the quality of life...I think people are now finding we can have a different kind of work-life balance and have the best of both worlds in many ways,” he reflected.
A man of many interests – Johnson shared with Reminder Publishing that in his down time, he loves being outdoors in nature, and enjoys playing golf.
As previously mentioned, he is a movie buff, and admitted to being a “Trekkie.”
“I think Jean Luc Picard was the coolest of all the captains for sure,” Johnson said. His favorite movie is “Apollo 13,” as he feels it embodies the human spirit.
“There’s this one classic line in there where it was said, ‘Failure is not an option.’ They were trying to figure out how to get the astronauts back from the moon with a few paper clips and batteries and a handful of other things, and it embodies the human spirit of can-do, succeeding against the odds,” he said.
Johnson noted that he likes to read and travel, though he can’t do the latter at this time because of COVID-19 guidelines. He also said that he loves to cook – but he doesn’t bake.
“I make a mean seafood and chicken gumbo – really!” Johnson laughed.
Aug. 17, 2020, marked Johnson’s first official day working on the Western New England University campus, and he explained the feeling as “surreal.”
“My very first day, that very first weekend and even until now – it’s like I’ve come home,” he said of the small, private, classic New England campus.
His transition to WNE from his former position as Chancellor at UMass Dartmouth was anything but ordinary. Johnson shared that his interviews were conducted entirely via Zoom until he finally was able to meet with five board members on campus in May 2020 outdoors around the golden bear statue – WNE’s mascot.
He noted that in a larger institution it takes longer to get to know people, however the business models of a school of UMass Dartmouth’s size and a school of WNE’s size are not much different. “Fundamentally, you don’t have to make those types of adjustments – it’s really just learning the culture, because every place it’s different. It’s easier to do it in a place like this because we’re small,” he said.
“From where I sit, it’s not that much different,” Johnson said of drawing a comparison between UMass Dartmouth and WNE. “We have our set of issues here, they have their set of issues there. Every place has issues. You’re going to have stuff to deal with no matter where you are – it’s all about the people. What I find about the people here is that they’re kind, they’re humane, they’re civil, and they’re just good people. It’s the spirit that’s here that I really, really enjoy.”
One of the positive aspects to COVID-19 that Johnson has found is the way he has been able to get to know people on campus in a more personal manner than he typically would. He explained that in a pre–COVID-19 world, there would be a reception for the new president with hundreds of people in attendance. He noted that he would be in the middle of conversation with one person and would exchange pleasantries, and 30 seconds to a minute later, he would be on to meeting someone else. Due to social distancing rules, there can only be a limited number of people in a room, thus no such reception can take place. He shared the way he has had to go about meeting people has been “very different.”
“It’s been small groups of 10 to 15 people, many of them face to face, many of them via Zoom. In a strange kind of way, it has actually been better than when I’ve gone to other places only in this sense: by being in these small meet and greets with 10 to 15 people for an hour, I actually have a conversation, an extended conversation with a group of people. You learn about me, I learn about you, and there’s a real dialogue,” he shared.
Forging into a second century
Former Western New England President Dr. Anthony S. Caprio retired in June of 2020 after 24 years of service for the university. He saw the campus through exponential growth, adding numerous buildings, programs and activities to the campus over the years. When asked if when he came to campus there was anything he was seeking to improve or thought the University wasn’t doing enough of, Johnson diplomatically responded that he didn’t come to campus with any preconceived notions.
“For almost 25 years [Caprio] was the leader of this institution. If you think about where the institution was 25 years ago and where it is today, as we look at the physical space, it is literally the campus that Caprio built,” Johnson said. “I did not come in with preconceived notions of, ‘oh, we’re going to make all of these changes.’ It’s about the second century,” Johnson alluded to WNE’s celebration in 2019 of the University’s centennial.
“How do we prepare students for the future of work – giving them, what I call, the agile mind. Preparing them for jobs that do not yet exist, to solve problems that have yet to be identified, utilizing technology that has not been created yet,” Johnson said. “That’s the opportunity – I didn’t come in with preconceived notions that ‘we need to change this’ or ‘we need to change that,’ I came in with the idea of how do we take Western New England and put it in a crucible and reinvent ourselves for the second century, and what it will look like in the future.”
Insofar as where he sees the WNE campus within the next 10 years, Johnson said there are many aspects of importance to consider. One main aspect to the future though will always remain the same – preparing all students for the future of work. Johnson noted that the “agile mind” is about giving students the knowledge and the power of learning as well as the essential human skills that “cannot be replicated by a robot or an algorithm” that will give them the mindset to be in a “constant state of adding and creating new value in whatever they do,” he said.
“Why is that important?” he questioned. “Because college grads today will have upwards of 17 jobs in five different industries, and three of those industries do not yet exist. “So if I give them the mindset and the skill set to get that first job and to create every job thereafter, they’re going to be well on their way.”
He continued to explain that students having a multidisciplinary experience as well as an experiential form of learning is important to him. He also shared that as a University, they need to figure out how to evolve research at WNE as a national university.
“We are a national university. What that means is when you count about 4,000 colleges or universities in a country, just about 350 or so have the designation of being a national university – we’re one of those. We’re in the top 10 or 15 percent in the country,” Johnson said of Western New England.
“How do we build on some of our grand pillars of the law school? Of engineering that has over the last 30 years nearly a 100 percent job placement rate? Our students go out and get jobs at PWC [Pricewaterhouse Coopers], they get jobs at Fortune 500 companies. In our sports management program they’re working for professional sports teams. We have over 150 sitting judges right now who are Western New England alums – we have produced four bank presidents at Western New England University. So how do I get our value and brand proposition out there to tell the good news about how great we are?”
Johnson said that though 2020 did feature many work-from-home and virtual experiences, he does not envision a virtual future for the typical undergraduate student at the campus during their second century. “I think this pandemic has – for the traditional aged college student – has blown away this myth that online learning is the future of undergraduate higher education. It is simply not so,” he asserted. “The future of undergraduate education is face to face, spending time with students during those critical years between 17 and 22 years of age, giving them a student experience that allows them to grow and flourish.” He did add, however, that he sees the potential for growth with online programs for graduate and certificate programs.
“Part of the secret sauce of Western New England is the experience. Faculty who know your name, who are engaging with you face to face. The people, the president engaging with you face to face – us as a community of learners having this on ground, face to face experience. We’re never going to give that up, and you can’t replicate that virtually,” Johnson maintained.
As for physical expansions, Johnson said that WNE will be completing a master facilities capital plan over the next year. Currently, they’re in the process of going through visioning exercises to create the University’s strategic priorities for the next five years. He noted that it is important for this plan to be “adaptive, nimble and agile,” and that once the plan has been determined, they will be able to think about what kind of physical space will be needed to support those plans.
As 2021 continues, Johnson shared that he’s hoping that most of COVID-19 will be in the rearview mirror by the fall, as the new president has big plans come the fall semester.
“I plan to reintroduce Western New England to the world,” he said. “We will stand on the tallest building with the loudest bullhorn and say ‘This is who we are, and we’re proud to be golden bears.’ We are a national university, second to none with the balance of the liberal arts and professional schools, including law school, business, engineering, the liberal arts, pharmacy, health sciences.”
He stated that he and his team are working on pulling together all of the information to “tell our story.”
“There’s going to be a big party sometime in the fall where we’re going to reintroduce Western New England to the rest of the world. It’s going to be a slow drum beat to the fall of 2021. In the words of Muhammad Ali, we’re gonna let the world know how great we are,” he laughed.
When asked if he saw a future for the long-haul at the campus, Johnson quickly responded with a resounding yes.
“Oh, I’m retiring from here, this is it. However long that is – this is it. It is a great place, with great DNA, great people, great students, great employees – it’s a great place,” Johnson said of his new home at WNE.
“You’re stuck with me for at least a decade – at least a decade,” he exclaimed excitedly. “That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. I’m not going anywhere. People ask me, ‘So how do you like your job?’ And I say, ‘I love my job. I love the campus. I love the people.’”