Cover Story » Current Issue » Vol. 19

Robert E. Johnson, Becker College’s New President

By Ellen O’Connor


The new president of Becker College has not had a whole lot of time to settle into his new location, but
he has already formed a very positive opinion of the area that is to be his and his family’s new home.

“It’s been great,” said Robert E. Johnson, who became Becker College’s 10th president when he took over the post in July of this year. “It is a very warm and inviting community with very warm and inviting people.”

While getting the lay of the land, the Johnson family has enjoyed sampling the fare at Worcester’s many “great restaurants.”  As a Detroit, Michigan native, Johnson has made sure he and his family have taken advantage of the local seafood available here on the East Coast.  His daughter loves shrimp scampi and so she ordered her favorite dish. She thought it tasted a little funny. Her dad gave it a try.

“Oh,” he told her, as soon as he figured out the problem. “It’s fresh.”

“We’re not used to that,” he laughed.

Johnson, whose nearly 25 years in the field of education had, prior to July, taken place solely within the borders of the Midwest, came east to Massachusetts because of what he found when he took a good, long look at Becker College. What he saw was this: a well-respected faculty and staff, a committed student body, successful alumni, and a school well-positioned to meet the many challenges of the 21st century. Johnson, who holds several degrees, including a doctorate in higher education administration from TUI University of Cypress, California, was most recently senior vice president of Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio, where he served from 2006 until he signed on at Becker.  Prior to his time at Sinclair Community College, Johnson was vice president for enrollment management at the University of Dayton, which is also in Ohio. He served as vice provost at Oakland University in Michigan. His first career stop was Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, where he was the executive director of admissions, marketing and enrollment management.

Sinclair Community College is viewed as one of the finest community colleges in the country because of its high-quality delivery of career-oriented education.  Becker College shares Sinclair’s mission, and that’s was one of the selling points for Johnson. weller-2-copy

“We have great students, a great faculty and a great staff,” said Johnson, citing just some of the reasons why he came east.   Also tipping the scales in Becker College’s favor is the fact that it offers 27 different academic programs. The programs are varied and include nursing, veterinary science, computer game design, legal studies, and sports management.  Whether students opt for two year or four year degrees, says Johnson, they graduate well-equipped to enter the workforce.   He points out Becker’s computer game design program that was recently ranked number one in New England and number 4 in the United States, as well as the college’s nursing and veterinary science programs which routinely have high graduation rates; both courses of study turn out students well-prepared for successful careers in those fields.

“We are among the top 20 producers of nurses in the state,” he said proudly.

While proud of the college and its students, Johnson recognizes that there is some room for improvement in different areas. His goal is for all the college’s career-oriented programs to match the gold standard set by the computer design, nursing and veterinary programs. He intends to see to it that every one of Becker’s offerings can fairly be called academically excellent.  Another goal on the president’s list is more mundane, but still important to the school community as a whole: improving the physical plant, including the residence halls, and making sure that the campus’s stately and historic homes receive the attention and upkeep they need.

Johnson adds that in addition to Becker’s high quality career programs, the college has another good thing going for it ~ its central location, just an hour or so away from other cities, mountains, the ocean, and other states. “Central Massachusetts is truly centrally located and that is good,” says Johnson, who then laughed and explained that if you drive one hour or so in any direction from Central Michigan, “you will still be in Michigan.”  He notes that one of the most marked geographical differences between the Midwest and the Northeast is that states in the Midwest go on for hundreds of miles in pretty much all directions.

Becker’s premier location in a more concentrated place means that that it can attract students from a fairly extensive area, definitely a plus for enrollment and diversity.  Also good for enrollment is the focus the college puts on preparing its students for their lives post-graduation, Johnson reiterates. Becker places a high priority on getting its students ready to enter the world as successful, contributing and productive members of society, said Johnson.  Preparing itscharges has become more critical than ever, given the current state of the economy and the quicksilver way that the career landscape is now changing and shifting.

Johnson acknowledges that the top 10 in-demand jobs of this year did not even exist a mere six years ago. As a result, it is imperative that Becker keep abreast of the rapidly changing job market so that its students will be able to land jobs and succeed once they move on from school.

The new president is all too aware that those who graduate from Becker ~ or any other college or university for that matter ~ face a work world not experienced by any other generation.  A Department of Labor study demonstrates that today’s graduates will likely hold 14 different jobs by the time they have reached the age of 38. Clearly, the days of spending an entire career working your way up the ladder at one company ~ a virtual impossibility these days ~ has been replaced by the prospect of hopping from job to job every few years, and Johnson takes it as his responsibility to address the new workplace format.   img_8804-copy1

Johnson says he cannot stress enough that the way students market themselves in this volatile jobs environment is absolutely critical, and he strongly advises people, particularly young people, to use social media ~ Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and the like ~ in a careful and positive way.  He agrees that as a self-promotional tool, social media can be invaluable, but wants students to realize it can also be a double-edged sword.  He wants them to remember that everyone will have access to their information once they post it ~ not just your friends, but your potential employers as well.  Johnson, who speaks eloquently on a number of topics, frequently talks about the importance of creating your own “personal brand.” He also speaks on leadership, strategic marketing and planning, diversity, higher education, and volunteerism.

Johnson knows from personal experience of what he speaks. A few years ago, he Googled himself and came upon his own photo, which someone had posted on LinkedIn without his knowledge. Luckily for him, it was not a photo that portrayed him in a negative way, but the unexpected find was a reminder that, as he will continue advising his Becker students , once in a while “…everybody should Google their own name, just to see what is out there. You have to create the images that you want to be out there,” said Johnson. “And when you create your profile, make sure it is accurate.  Young people need to understand that what they put out there is out there forever.”

One of the hopes of the new president of Becker College is to graduate students who not only do well in their chosen career paths, but who also contribute something positive to the world at large. He sees Becker’s niche going forward as its ability to prepare its students to be much more than just a successful nurse or game designer.

“I see Becker, four, five, six or seven years from now educating global citizens who pursue academic excellence and who have a chance to change the world,” said Johnson.  “Just educating students is not sufficient. We want our students to become lifelong learners,” he said passionately. “They could be the best nurse or the best forensic scientist or the best vet, but just doing that is not enough. They must leave the world a better place better than they found it. That is what it means to be a global citizen.” leicester-student-center-copy1

Johnson is no stranger to trying to make the world a better place. His list of service on various non-profit and community boards is about as extensive as it can be for one man. So he is not just talking the talk about the importance of being a global citizen ~ he is very much practicing what he preaches.  He fully intends to get involved in the Worcester community the same way he has been involved in his previous communities once he and the family are settled into their new lives here, he shared.

The ordinary challenges that a college president faces have been made a little more daunting due to the severe economic downturn the country is either in the midst of or just coming out of ~ depending on which economist you listen to and choose to believe.

It is a challenge that Johnson welcomes;  he is a self-described optimist and he strongly believes that we are all up to the task of improving the world and making it a better place to live.

“There is nine, 10, 12 percent unemployment in some places,” he said. “But, I prefer to look at it this way:  90 percent of the people are working. When have we ever not risen to the occasion? We will emerge from this as an even greater and stronger nation. All college students will play a vital role. They can and will make a difference.”

Today, Becker has two campuses about six miles apart ~ one in Leicester and one in Worcester. The two locations consolidated in 1977 into what is now known as Becker College. Both campuses have their own dormitories, libraries, dining hall and academic facilities.   But the College’s roots go all the way back to 1784, when John Hancock and Samuel Adams, two historical figures of significant note, signed the charter for Leicester Academy, an educational institution that was Becker’ s predecessor.  The site of the former Leicester Academy is the 19th oldest campus in the country. At that time, young America’s ragtag bunch of fighters took on the British army, which, at the time, was the best and most powerful army in the world, pointed out Johnson. The ragtag bunch beat the British army at its own game and a country was born.

Johnson looks back on this history and remarks that, “The human spirit of Becker is embodied by Adams and Hancock.”

It is that kind of attitude that gives Johnson the great hope that he holds for not only Becker College’s future, but for our future as well.

Pictured: President Robert E. Johnson, Worcester Weller Academic Center, Leicester Swan Library, Leicester Hawk’s Haven.

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