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Unfiltered: A conversation with Central State University's interim president Dr. Alex Johnson

Dr. Alex Johnson is the new interim president at Central State University. He comes with more than 30 years of professional experience in top leadership positions at community colleges. He considers his appointment as interim president at CSU the pinnacle of his higher education career.
Kathryn Mobley
Dr. Alex Johnson is the new interim president at Central State University. He comes with more than 30 years of professional experience in top leadership positions at community colleges. He considers his appointment as interim president at CSU the pinnacle of his higher education career.

Central State University has a new Interim President — Dr. Alex Johnson. An African proverb accompanies his picture on the school’s website, ‘If you want to go fast–go alone. If you want to go far — go with others.’

Alex Johnson has more than 30 years of professional experience in top leadership posts at community colleges in New Orleans, Pittsburgh and most recently, he served as president of Cuyahoga Community College.

Johnson considers his appointment as interim president of Central State University the pinnacle of his higher education career. According to Johnson, CSU students and Alums are the university’s best ambassadors.

“One of the things that delights me the most is during graduation. I can witness those who have worked hard, cross the stage, be awarded their degrees and then use that to catapult themselves, their families and their communities.”

Johnson is making the rounds to the departments–learning what professors and students need. Already, he says there’s consensus regarding benchmarks for the upcoming year.

“The student experience, affordability, marketing–getting the good news out there, making sure we have robust educational programs, and then making sure the administrative structures of the institution are stable, most notably in finance and information technology."

Nationally, Johnson has worked to promote institutional innovation, workforce development and higher education accountability. Central State is Ohio’s only public HBCU. Recently, he spoke with WYSO's Kathryn Mobley about his efforts.

(Transcript edited lightly for clarity)

Kathryn Mobley: Education. Why are you so drawn to higher education? What is it about your background, your upbringing, your grandmother?

Dr. Alex Johnson: Wow. How did you know that my grandmother was so influential and in my life? Early on? Marion Johnson, she extolled the virtues of education generally, even though she only went to the fourth grade. But later in life, when she was around 65, she decided that she was going to earn her GED. She was in a GED program until she was about 75.

And I always ask her, because she is among the smartest people I knew. 'Why do you why are you still in that program? Why don't you just finish it up?' She felt that if she left that GED program, that she would lose her place in the world of knowledge and the life of the mind. That's how much that GED program meant to her. And the only reason she stopped going is because her friend who drove her back and forth was no longer able to do that.

Not only did my grandmother extoll the virtues of education, but also my entire community identified youth they thought they had potential and they nurtured us. They provided us with the experiences that would enabled us to live in the world, whether that world was inclusive or exclusive.

Mobley: Your upbringing — what were your parents like?

Johnson: Yeah.

Mobley: Did you have a dog?

Johnson: No, we didn't have a dog. You know, my mother used to say, 'I can barely feed you and I'm not bringing any pets in the house.' My parents are James and Betty Davis. My mom, she worked at the local hospital. She was an x-ray runner, so she had to take x-rays to different departments throughout the hospital. Once again, the hospital was segregated. Black folk could only occupy the third floor in that hospital. That's where they were served.

My dad worked very, very hard. And if there's anything that I think I have benefited from is his work ethic. He worked very, very hard to support his family. He was a really, really good provider, even though the jobs that he had were very menial for the most part. Growing up in Concord, he worked at a tire service that recapped tires back in the day, and then he worked in a shoe factory. Ultimately, he developed enough skills so that he opened his own business as a repairman. He did painting and he did like carpentry. He really had a work ethic that I think has benefited me.

Mobley: Did you have siblings?

Johnson: I do have siblings. I have three sisters and I have a brother and I happen to be the oldest. And they really ground me and they remind me of my roots and what we dealt with growing up.

Mobley: Talk to me, Dr. Johnson, about growing up in Concord back in the fifties, that experience.

Johnson: Well, you know, I was fairly insulated. We had a library, George Washington Carver Library, that all to tell you something. Even though it was small, diminutive. But I gained knowledge from those books. I learned about the world at large, from the holdings in that very, very small library. We had Lincoln Pool that could only accommodate maybe 25 or 30 students at a time. So you had to wait your turn to swim in the water, doing the blistering hot. We had a school where the books were handed down to us after they were used by the students who attended the predominantly white schools. They were all tattered and torn.

I benefited from the Christian upbringing in that little Lutheran church that we attended, and those served me well. So when I was able to get out and attend college during the time of the civil rights movement and the passage of the Civil Rights Bill, I majored in general education, and my first experience as a teacher was sixth grade students in Brooklyn, and I worked in a community college sector for 30 years as a president.

Mobley: You are the author of two books, Changing the Lapel PIN, and that was published in 2018 and then Capturing Change, which was published in 2021. Right. These are books that focus on leadership in. The realm of higher education. Talk to me about the essence of these books. Let's start with changing the lapel pin. Talk to me about that.

Johnson: A taste of Pal pin is a more personalized approach to leadership. Based on my experiences over the last 45 years since I've been in higher education. I talk about it as a way to create leaders of transformation. So in this system, there are three distinct elements that serve as a foundation education. So it could be anything that you learn and understand. Experience with experience. I'm talking about all those experiences that provide value, professional development, mentoring, all those things that help you gain in your leadership approach, and then exposure that comes from your interactions with individuals. You gain ideas of what it is you'd like to do, and then you can also find out what it is you're not very comfortable with doing. So that's the exposure piece.

There are people in the book that I allude to that provided me with those experiences and exposure. The first one is a gentleman by the name of Walter Cronkite, who was a news reporter when I was growing up, and he was a trusted voice of America. He was the one who communicated to the nation the assassination of John F Kennedy. I love watching him on TV. I wanted to be able to be trusted like him and to be able to talk like him. The other person is William Friday.

William Friday was the president of the University of North Carolina Joint Administration, and he had to work with the federal government back in the seventies and eighties to desegregate the system of higher education. He never leveraged his position to get the work done that he knew needed to be done. He dropped on consensus building. He dropped all collegialities. And I did an internship with him. It was one of the most illuminating experiences I've ever had. And he said to me one time, he said, the best way to retain power and to build power is to never have to use it. He was the master of consensus building. He was extraordinary.

The other gentleman is a gentleman by the name of Louis Stokes. I knew Congressman Stokes personally and he was a gentleman. And his demeanor in the manner in which he carried himself was extraordinary. And I said, 'You know what? I want to be like that when I walk into a room. I want people to recognize that I bring maybe something to the table in terms of knowledge, in terms of potential, whatever.' I always wanted to do that.

So those three people in particular, I have tried to style my approach to leadership after. Then you have the technical skills and they include emotional intelligence. They include your personality traits, all strengthening those. They include also your ability to plan strategically. So that's the technical piece of it. And then the other piece of it is what does it take to look and act like a leader? How do you communicate? How do you listen? It's about building of God and coalition. And the list goes on and on and on. And then at the end of the day, based on all of that, you come up with this personalized approach to leadership that serves you steadfastly.

Mobley: Talk to me about your other book.

Johnson: Capturing changes a little bit different. What it does is really compare and contrast change management over continuous improvement and talks primarily about the virtues of continuous improvement to promote lasting change and development, but also has a change model in it called the uninterrupted cycle of leadership effectiveness. How you identify sense of urgency, how you come up with solutions, how you assess them, and you use the results to promote the next level of development.

Mobley: With all that experience, how are you bringing that to Central State University? Because the university has had some bumps. Yeah, they've had some challenges. What are some of your goals?

Johnson: The first thing that I hope to help people understand is that everybody's work is valued. They feel comfortable providing feedback and there's no repercussions, for example, but telling us the truth that we're open and we're inclusive and that we appreciate all of their contributions. I think that's number one.

Mobley: You strike me as an individual who at the end of the day, your focus is on the students, right?

Johnson: First and foremost, it's around the student experience and student outcomes. Our investment in support services for students and what are the outcomes as a result of that? Those are the things that we are focusing attention on the student experience, affordability, marketing, getting the good news out there, making sure we have robust educational programs, and then ultimately making sure that the administrative structures of the institution are stable, most notably in finance and information technology. I want them to be proud of their choice as an institution and know that we're doing the best that we possibly can for them. And sometimes we need to just change our behavior in some instances in terms of how we interact with students. I think that's very important indeed.

I want them to talk about the institution in their communities and tell them how formidable Central State University is as an institution of higher education. That provides them a great education, but also supports their values and beliefs as well, particularly culturally. I want them to know that we have their back and that we're not going to do anything to undermine their safety and security while they're here, and I want them to be comfortable in this environment. To the incoming freshmen, I would thank them for choosing Central State University and help them understand that we're going to do everything that we possibly can to make certain that their experience is not only satisfactory, but that it leads to their success.

Kathryn Mobley is an award-winning broadcast journalist, crafting stories for more than 30 years. She’s reported and produced for TV, NPR affiliate and for the web. Mobley also contributes to several area community groups. She sings tenor with World House Choir (Yellow Springs), she’s a board member of the Beavercreek Community Theatre and volunteers with two community television operations, DATV (Dayton) and MVCC (Centerville).

Email: kmobley@wyso.org
Cell phone: (937) 952-9924
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