Alex Johnson wasn’t searching for a new job. In fact, he was quite content serving as president of the Community College of Allegheny County in Pittsburgh. Johnson helped the institution raise $41 million for scholarships and programs, as well as build a few new facilities.
“I was happy in Pittsburgh and doing well,” Johnson says. “We had really established ourselves as a leader in student success. Our graduation rate was up. Our numbers were up. We were getting money from foundations. These were things that evolved in the time I served as president over the past five years.”
But while Johnson was happy in Pittsburgh, here in Cleveland, Cuyahoga Community College was going through a transition. Its long-time president, Jerry Sue Thornton, announced in January that she would be retiring June 30. Since that day in January, the arduous search for a replacement that could carry on the legacy that she was leaving behind was underway.
When Johnson learned of the news, he was conflicted about pursuing the opportunity.
“I was called by headhunters to determine my interest in the Tri-C job, and I said, ‘No, that’s not something that I want to do,’” Johnson says. “I was not looking for something new. But at the end of the day I had to come to the conclusion that it was about, for the lack of a better term, my destiny. That was the only way I could rationalize considering the opportunity.”
From that point on everything started working in his favor toward going after the Tri-C presidency. For example, his daughter-in-law, who lives in the Cleveland area, got pregnant again and wanted family closer than Pittsburgh. The other contributing factor was that Johnson knew Tri-C very well, as he had been president of Tri-C’s Metropolitan Campus from 1993 to 2003.
“That struck a chord,” Johnson says. “I had learned so much as a president here at Cuyahoga, and I knew this community well. Once I realized that it was a possibility that I could become the president, I pursued it, and I pursued it diligently and aggressively.”
When June 30 came around and Thornton left her post, it was Johnson who had the task of filling her shoes as the college’s fourth president in 50 years.
Here’s how Johnson plans to move the institution forward with continued innovation and community engagement following its golden anniversary.
Return to Tri-C
Despite the fact that Johnson had a good thing going as president of the Community College of Allegheny County, there was something about Tri-C that drew him back after 10 years.
“I’m delighted to be back, because it does have a wonderful history in terms of innovation,” Johnson says. “It has a better history, however, with respect to community engagement and from my vantage point, that’s what I value about the institution. Innovation is an ongoing endeavor, but community outreach and engagement is among the things that Tri-C does best.”
Johnson, having only been in his new role as president for a month at the end of July, had a number of initiatives to focus on and the institution’s 50th anniversary in September was fast approaching. His first few weeks were busy ones.
“My calendar is very full, but it’s full with the right stuff,” he says.
Johnson has been traveling to the various campuses and taking tours. He has been meeting with the campus presidents and the college leadership to talk about his vision for the future. He has also met with individuals outside the institution, such as members of Tri-C’s foundation board and public officials like Mayor Frank Jackson and Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald, to get feedback on what they see as the institution’s role in the future.
“I have to become reacquainted with the city,” Johnson says. “I know a lot of what is going on because it was this way when I was here 10 years ago, but there is a lot that has changed and I need to get up to speed on that. The way you do that is to talk to individuals about how the city has progressed over the last 10 years.”
On top of having to get reacquainted with Tri-C and Cuyahoga County, it’s important that Johnson and the institution continue to strive for support, particularly during a time when a Tri-C education means so much.
“It is pivotal that people understand the value of this institution,” he says. “My responsibility is to continue to get support.”
The third piece is to continue to promote a collective vision for the institution.
“This is not just Alex Johnson; this is our board of trustees, people from inside the institution who represent the ranks from top to bottom and across the breadth of the institution,” he says. “We all realize that in order to advance the institution, we’re going to have to graduate more people, we’re going to have to have more opportunities for them to join the workforce, we’re going to have to enrich the image of the institution through our marketing and communications efforts, and the last piece is to ensure that we are stable financially.
“That’s not just from me, it’s from a whole host of individuals I’ve had the chance to chat with, most notably the board of trustees.”
Vision for the future
Among those goals seen as areas Tri-C has to keep pursuing is a continued and more concerted emphasis on workforce development, and the fact that Tri-C needs to ensure that it has trained individuals to take current and future job opportunities.
As a result, Johnson is positioning Tri-C to expand its programs and create more short-term training opportunities. This is to ensure they result in certificates that have labor market value, and that the institution reaches out to the community so individuals know these opportunities exist and that they take advantage of them.
“The workforce and economic development has been primary among the things that we have talked about,” Johnson says. “The second thing that they continue to emphasize is that we need to graduate more individuals from our institution in a timely manner. We have been working on establishing our graduation goal for 2020 in concert with the national initiative around completion.”
Johnson is also focusing on marketing communications where Tri-C has to continue to foster and enrich the institution’s image.
“We’ve got to continue to do that,” he says. “We have to be forceful about telling our stories because so many great things happen for us. We’re a League for Innovation School — there are only 19 in the country. We are No. 4 in the country in terms of the production of nursing graduates among 1,200 community colleges.
“We have been recognized in our workforce development area for some of our manufacturing initiatives. We are a Goldman Sachs institution. Our responsibility is to ensure that we can promote the development of small business throughout our region. We are doing an outstanding job, and we got a $5 million grant for five years.”
With a strong focus on initiatives surrounding workforce development, student success, marketing communications and community outreach, Johnson also wants to make certain that Tri-C manages its costs and expenditures.
“We want the education that we provide our students to remain affordable,” Johnson says. “It’s already affordable, but we have to work hard to ensure it continues to be. As I looked at where we are financially, I think we do a very, very good job of managing our resources.”
Since Johnson is still fairly new, a lot of his initiatives are a work in progress.
“I’m meeting with my cabinet and I’ve asked those individuals who are responsible for each of these areas to come up with a tactical plan,” Johnson says. “So we have a tactical plan for student success, we’ll have one for finances, workforce development, marketing communications, and community outreach and engagement.”
These areas are not new to the institution — these are things Tri-C works on all the time.
“What I’d like to see is some idea of where we are headed in those specific areas with a focus on excellence in each one of them,” Johnson says. “These areas are not the weakest points; those are areas of emphasis. There’s strength in each of those; however, it’s about continuous quality improvement.
“You want to continue to ensure that it remains at the forefront of your institution. That’s what makes Cuyahoga stand out above other institutions and community colleges.”
Big shoes to fill
Another thing that separates Tri-C from a lot of other institutions is the fact that Tri-C has had long-term leadership.
“I’m the fourth president in the entire history of the institution, and we recognize that the transformation of an institution and the change that’s necessary comes more deliberately when you have long-term leadership,” Johnson says.
Thornton, Nolen Ellison and Charles Chapman, the founding president of the institution, all served long tenures as president of the institution.
“I’m No. 4,” he says. “My hope is that I can stay around long enough to benefit from the legacy that they’ve already established to advance the institution in the right direction. It’s a scary place because it’s daunting. I’m following in the footsteps behind three legendary presidents that people across the universe know, most notably Thornton, who was a national model for leadership excellence in community colleges.”
Johnson says following in Thornton’s footsteps is an honor, and he recognizes that he has to be a star within his effort to move the institution forward.
“The only thing I can do is benefit from her legacy to ensure what Chapman, Ellison and what Thornton envisioned for this institution continues,” he says. “And that is to serve as a model of excellence in community college education. That’s what we’re all about. It’s about innovation and excellence.
“Part of that is emphasizing those five things I talked about in order to move the institution forward in that regard. That’s what we have become and that’s the course we must continue.”
The institution, with the help of its presidents, has built itself into a nationally recognized community college, celebrating its 50th anniversary on Sept. 23.
“I think it’s one of the most important dates at the institution this year,” Johnson says. “The important thing about this date is it represents a transformative period at the institution. We’re going to build on the legacy to heighten our success.
“That’s a commitment to the future of this institution and the change of a president represents that. My inauguration is Nov. 21 and the anniversary is Sept. 23. They couldn’t have occurred at a better time for us.” ●
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How to reach: Cuyahoga Community College, (800) 954-8742 or www.tri-c.edu