University of New Orleans President Kathy Johnson knows the impact a faculty member can have in a student’s life. It is first-hand knowledge gained, not as a seasoned academician, but as a first-generation college student navigating through her first year at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
Johnson’s plans were to be a medical doctor. In high school she was gifted a book, “The Making of a Woman Surgeon,” and her first year at UMass was filled with science classes, said Johnson, who grew up outside of Boston.
“I took an honors class in child development the second semester of my freshman year. It was a class for upperclassmen,” Johnson said.
The professor summoned Johnson to her office.
“I honestly thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, she’s found me out and is going to yell at me for taking this class when I shouldn’t have,” Johnson recalled. “But she actually invited me to work in her lab.”
Johnson was astounded and remembered thinking she didn’t know what a “lab” was and knew only vaguely that faculty did research.
“I had no idea what that meant, and it was such a life-altering thing,” Johnson said. “It blew up all of my conceptions of what I would do. It was honestly because one of my professors took an interest in me. She saw something in me that I honestly didn’t see myself and put me on a completely different path.”
Johnson was captivated by psychology, specifically the field of cognitive development, which she later earned a doctoral degree in from Emory University.
“I learned so much from her, not just about psychology, but about how to balance a family and an academic job and what it meant to be a professor,” Johnson said. “I really fell in love with doing research and, of course, teaching students.”
Cognitive psychology is a favorite course of Johnson’s.
“It’s all about how people learn and how people think,” Johnson said. “I think whenever students would take it, it helped them to be better learners themselves. I felt like I was helping them to understand psychology, but also, I think it helped them be better students. I think that’s why it was my favorite undergraduate course.”
Prior to UNO, Johnson spent the past 30 years at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), the urban research campus of Indiana University. Half of that time was in leadership roles. Most recently, she was the executive vice chancellor and chief academic officer at the university, which enrolls nearly 26,000 students, including over 8,000 graduate students.
Johnson rose through the ranks of the faculty, leading a research laboratory and serving as department chair, followed by experiences as dean and associate vice chancellor for undergraduate education.
“I chose a career in higher education because I wanted to make a difference in the lives of students,” Johnson said.
Johnson sees a key to UNO’s continued progression rooted in student success.
“The keys I see that are most critical are student success and retention; diversifying our enrollment strategies and improving the student experience at all levels,” Johnson said. “From making sure they have their financial aid when they need it to making sure our facilities respect them as learners and are clean and technologically equipped and safe.”
At IUPUI, Johnson expanded peer mentoring and holistic support programs and led the development of integrated academic and career advising. She also created a Comprehensive Learning Record to help students reflect on and demonstrate their learning across the curriculum and the co-curriculum.
Johnson helped launch an Institute for Engaged Learning to connect undergraduates with research experiences, civic engagement and internships on and off campus that offered project-based learning and global learning experiences.
She was drawn to UNO because of its mission as a diverse and student-centered public research university that is deeply committed to shared governance, economic development and the public good, Johnson said.
“I love the mission that urban public research universities have, and that they balance a research emphasis with an emphasis on access and students’ success,” Johnson said. “I also love that when urban universities are at their best they are also hopefully contributing to their cities, through the research that their faculties do, also hopefully through students who are engaged in service learning or public service.”
That mission also resonates with Johnson’s leadership style, which she describes as servant leader. She tries not to use the “m-word” (management).
“Management to me always sounds a bit more heavy-handed,” she said. “I’ve always admired leaders who are able to inspire those around them to cultivate a shared vision for the future and then work toward that vision with lots of collaboration and lots of transparency.”
Johnson said it’s always important to have sound data and information to undergird the work and that her training as a social scientist helps her to do that.
“I really love both quantitative and qualitative data to inform decision-making,” Johnson said. “But I also really try to work on creating a team that is able to collaborate and work together well.”
While the term servant leader might sound opaque to some, the meaning for Johnson is clear.
“To me it means letting others get the spotlight and really going out of my way to shine a light on the work that others on my team do,” Johnson said. “My job is to guide and coordinate and shape the vision.
“Some of the best leaders I’ve ever seen are incredibly humble and quick to say a positive word about what others are doing and they are also very student-centered … that’s what I’ve tried to emulate myself.”
As Johnson settles into her new role in her new city, her perspective includes that of a parent of a young child. Two years ago, Johnson and her husband adopted an infant girl who turned 4 in January. The couple also has four adult children and two granddaughters who are closer to their youngest daughter’s age.
“My husband and I realized when our last kid went to college how much we loved having children in our lives and so we became licensed to be foster parents in Indiana,” Johnson said. “Just before COVID, we got this perfect newborn that we actually took home from the hospital.”
The baby did not have any family able to take care of her and when she became eligible for adoption, the couple made the arrangement permanent.
“So now, I have a 4-year-old, which makes my hobbies and down time absolutely nonexistent,” Johnson said. “She is a delight and a pleasure. We are enjoying sort of seeing New Orleans through her eyes.”
Johnson is also balancing a household that includes two dogs and a cat.
“They love each other, unless the cat is running,” Johnson said with a laugh. “Then, everybody’s running!”
City Park has become a favorite hangout spot.
“I just love sitting there and listening to the man who plays the saxophone and watching the playground and drinking my coffee,” Johnson said. “It’s heaven.”