Higher Education and Adaptability: Interview with Dr. Joseph Johnson

Joseph E. Johnson, Ed.D., served as the  University of Tennessee President from 1990-99 and Interim President 2003-04. He is currently President Emeritus.

With a B.S. from Birmingham Southern College, Alabama, an M.A. and Ed.D. from the University of Tennessee, Johnson has served in various high level administrative positions with substantial work in alumni relations, public relations, fundraising, government relations, campus planning, capital construction, and liaison to various departments including athletics. He has served on the board of directors of numerous public organizations.

Johnson is nationally recognized for his outstanding leadership as an educator and as a university president and has been the recipient of numerous awards.

NP: In light of the evolving paradigms shifts in higher education how would you describe the pressures on today’s college or university?

Johnson: Higher education today finds itself in a fluid environment. Pressures have always been there. When the economy is uncertain there is an increase in the amount of political pressure. Students, faculty and administrators all feel the pressure. For example, how does a university strive to maintain itself as a major research university providing an exemplary and otherwise quality education in a less expensive way? How do we reach more people, while alleviating the pressures on young people who cannot afford a quality education? Further, many prospective students are asking, what is the most individually advantageous course of study in such a competitive job market place? Today’s economy forces the potential student to ask what is my education going to cost, how will it be paid for and what is the return on the investment going to yield?

NP: There are literally millions of college graduates that are over qualified for the work they are doing and many have an excruciating challenge in finding work . According to a 2013 study by the non-profit Center for College Affordability and Productivity, this trend is likely to continue for newly minted college graduates over the next decade.

Johnson: Doors once easily opened are increasingly difficult to open. Being flexible and creative in use of resources is significant. On the one hand, at the University of Tennessee we do ask how relevant are coursework offerings within the context of the economy are and what are the options? I think we have looked deeper while paying attention to the student who borrows money to receive an education in hopes of being a more knowledgeable person and finding relevant work. Students today are more pragmatic than ever.

Part of the challenge may be measuring follow through after a person graduates. What kinds of measurements would be needed? What kinds of studies need to be conducted by colleges and universities that follow their students after graduation in determining that their education was of value? Will it be easier to obtain information about the measurement of graduate success through the use of more advanced technological record keeping? The challenge is how does one measure success? We can teach people to be well-rounded and thoughtful citizens and the work they perform is another matter. What else should universities be doing? What is the role of government in this process? What can students do to help their chances to receive a quality education and get a job that fits their credentials? It’s quite a laundry list.

As we can see there are a lot of good questions. I think at the University of Tennessee, as a major research institution we recognize those questions and are attempting to resolve many of them. We are building on the strong foundation of a quality education that’s part of our vision and mission. One of the questions for public universities is how well have we prepared our students regardless of the work they perform? Higher education is about adding value to life on a local and global scale. It may be an increasing challenge to get into the university but the student should know they have received a quality education with a faculty and administration that worked towards helping them achieve success.

NP: How has the paradigm shift in technology affected the educational process?

Johnson: There’s been much talk about paradigm shifts in higher education and we are beginning to see new directions. For example, we know from experience that in today’s classroom a teacher might have 5 students in front of them and 15 online from various parts of the globe. Traditionally I can easily interact with the student in front of me as I can see their facial expressions, body language, and it’s more of an intimate interactive experience between student and teacher. The experience feels more direct. It’s the traditional classroom environment. And when you are on campus you have access to a multitude of varied offerings.

On the other hand, teaching online allows us to reach more people with diverse backgrounds. Online classes are designed for students to interact with each other and develop a collaborative approach to their coursework through such things as digital online journal or diary sharing and working on joint projects. The digital global classroom is changing how we teach. It’s a collective experience in working together to solve issues. That’s a very positive aspect of the technological paradigm shift. The grading system in the long term might be affected by these changes, as we need to change how we measure the aptitude and work of students. To date it’s been rare in my experience to admit students that have not done well on ACT or college ready assessment tests. Yet there are students that do not test well but are more than capable of handling the coursework. Is more mentoring needed on how to take the tests? Do the tests need improvement?

Further, I see the shift towards a two or multi-tier approach to higher education. That is, designing courses and costs of a course in terms of online, or on campus, or other variation, but with the challenge of maintaining the quality of the educational experience across the board no matter how the education is accessed. We are dealing with people’s future. And whether the student takes courses long distance or on campus all the course work should offer the same exemplary quality.

NP: Public universities stand at the forefront of opportunity and affordability. Given the increasingly complex role of funding, politics and competition along with other factors, what stands out in your mind as essential to survival and progress?

Johnson: Adaptability! I think public universities must continue to examine how adaptable they are in the use of their resources while students need to be increasingly flexible in their strategies to gain an education. The growing complexity of operating a public university requires cultivating diverse partnerships and a wealth of collaboration.