When Joseph F. Johnson Jr. stepped in as interim dean of San Diego State University’s College of Education last July, he had no intention of making the position a permanent one.
“I saw myself serving as interim for one year and returning to the work I loved,” said Johnson, an SDSU alumnus who joined the university in 2005 as the executive director of the National Center for Urban School Transformation and a professor in the Department of Educational Leadership.
“I was proud of the work I was doing as a professor and a center director, and I was convinced that I would be doing the same things for the remainder of my career,” he said.
Johnson’s colleagues had other ideas in mind. They encouraged him to step into the role of interim dean and later convinced him to apply for the position.
Nola Butler Byrd, chair of the Department of Counseling and School Psychology, is one of the faculty members who encouraged Johnson to throw his name in the hat as a candidate for dean. “I felt that he would do an excellent job pulling the College of Education together as a community and position us to go forward together toward a more promising future,” she said.
“As a college, we've faced some significant challenges over the past few years, and I observed Dean Johnson as a knowledgeable voice of reason and vision as we negotiated many difficult issues. He was a really grounded, centered leader and I had the sense that he would do a great job as our dean,” continued Byrd.
Caren Sax, chair of SDSU’s Administration, Rehabilitation and Postsecondary Education program, also supported Johnson as dean. “Joe cares about the college, but more importantly, he cares about the people in the college, including faculty, staff, students and our community partners,” she said.
“He listens to people, and he's thoughtful in his responses and his actions. He has made some very tough decisions since he came on board, in a way that is fully transparent. As a dean, he is able to represent the excellent work that we do, both in the University and in the community.”
Preparing future leaders
Johnson supported his colleagues in launching the Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership (Ed.D) program at SDSU, alongside retired dean Lionel “Skip” Meno. It was the first doctoral program in SDSU history created without a partner institution, thanks to special California legislation.
The program prepares a diverse group of leaders capable of initiating change and creating equity-oriented educational institutions for the region’s diverse student population. Ed.D. candidates conduct research on complex problems of practice that have regional and national implications for teaching and learning, education reform and transformation, and public policy.
Through his work with NCUST, Johnson leads efforts to identify, study and promote the best practices of high-performing urban schools and districts.
Urban schools are often plagued by low test scores, poor attendance, lack of resources and limited parental involvement. Johnson has spent the last 19 years working to help districts overcome these problems by emulating the best practices of successful urban schools — and convincing educators that it can be done.
Prior to his appointment at SDSU, Johnson held education administrative roles at the state and national level following his early work as a classroom teacher in San Diego. He holds a Ph.D. in educational administration from the University of Texas at Austin.
Building on excellence
Though the SDSU College of Education is home to nationally and internationally-recognized programs and faculty and is credited with educating the majority of teachers in San Diego, Johnson said the college still remains a bit of a secret.
“We have not done a good job of acknowledging our strengths or building upon those strengths,” he said. “I am looking forward to helping the College of Education do that in a way that will have a powerful influence on the institutions that hire our graduates.”
Graduates of SDSU’s College of Education go on to become teachers, counselors and administrators all over the country, working for school districts, community colleges and government agencies.
“What people don’t realize is that in many ways all careers start here,” Johnson said. “If we do a great job of creating a strong College of Education such that we’ve got stronger teachers, counselors, principals, community college educators, etcetera, then we create a community that generates every other profession.”
Looking to the future
Johnson said it’s been a struggle for the college to stay strong with cuts in state funding, but he is hopeful that they will find the resources and community support needed to ensure that education programs and faculty will continue to thrive.
“I want to bring us together in a focused way that will help us get better results for all of the populations we have the opportunity to serve,” he said.
His colleagues believe he is off to a strong start. “Faculty and staff seem recharged and are having new discussions with each other, due to the culture that Joe is building,”Sax said. “He has created a culture of respect, collaboration and compassion.”
Byrd agrees. “I think Dean Johnson will continue to build the sense of community and cohesiveness in our college and the university. I think he will take the college to a whole new level of achievement and help all of our programs, faculty, and staff do more effective jobs serving the needs of our diverse students and community,” she said.