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Robert Johnson embraces Worcester; avoids ivory tower

BY Sam Bonacci

12/7/2015

Robert E. Johnson has taken his presidency at Becker College as an opportunity to both turn around a school that lacked a coherent direction and in the process become one of the most engaged and dynamic college figures on the Greater Worcester community.

“He has made himself relevant. He is not just sitting in an ivory tower and running the school. He is off the campus, in the community and engaged at many different levels,” said David Jordan, president and CEO of the Seven Hills Foundation, who sits on Becker's board. “(Collaboration) is both the right thing to do, and it's in the best interest of the university, and I think it's in his nature to want to do that.”

When Johnson became president of Becker in July 2010, he set about plotting a course that has transformed the school into one with tech savvy pursuits such as the Massachusetts Digital Games Institute and soon a first-in-the-country Yunus Social Business Centre. Under Johnson's guidance, students are required to take four formative courses that end with a capstone, which provides a real-world application of their education.

“It was really about redefining and refocusing the college on its strengths,” Johnson said. “We rewrote the mission and created a set of core values and identified senior leadership that could drive that value proposition and then involved the college and the community at large to help.”

All of this is a far cry from the Becker of the pre-Johnson era, said Jordan, who stepped down from the college's board only to return at Johnson's request three years ago. Key to the transformation of the school has been Johnson's ability to envision an unfathomable goal and set up the proper people to pursue it, encouraging and building them up along the way, he said.

“Robert came in when the institution was very troubled and established a vision,” Jordon said. “Today Becker is one of the most innovative colleges and universities in the city. He did that by ... pulling together other people to realize a vision of a yet unrealized future.”

It is this kind of collaboration has allowed so many positive projects and programs to move forward in Worcester, Johnson said, citing the ability of people from all areas of the community to find their passion and rally together under one project to make it a reality.

“We are right on the tipping point of evolving into great things economically, I think, because of this type of collaboration and working together to get things done,” Johnson said. “What's good for Worcester is good for Becker… They are very intertwined.”

Although Johnson is a high-level planner, it is the difference that these changes can make in the lives of individuals that ultimately drives him, he said.

“When all is said and done, if it can be said Robert Johnson made a difference and transformed one life, then that is my passion,” Johnson said.

Change Agents: Executives bringing their organizations to new heights

Visionaries: Forward thinkers pushing to realize the promises of the future
Politicos: Public officials leveraging their positions to further business development
Fresh Faces: Newcomers to Central Massachusetts with refreshing perspectives and ideas
Inner Circle: Long-time players who continue to have a significant role in new developments