September 13, 2010 | last updated March 25, 2012 3:51 am

Shop Talk: Q&A with Robert E. Johnson, Becker College

Photo/Christina H. Davis
Robert E. Johnson, President, Becker College

In March, Robert E. Johnson was named the 10th president of Becker College, which has two campuses, one in Worcester and one in Leicester. Johnson actually arrived on campus only a few weeks before the new semester. In fact, he's so new, the day this interview was conducted, the paint was still drying on the walls of his office. Johnson replaces Kenneth Zirkle who left the school in August 2008 for the top job at Post University in Connecticut. Johnson comes to Becker from Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio, where he served as senior vice president.

>> What drew you to this position at Becker?

A number of things drew me to the position. Number one, I think the programs Becker has, particularly in video game design, nursing and veterinary science, are very high-quality programs that are really well-positioned for the future. Number two, is because of the long history of Becker. The original charter of the Leicester campus was signed by John Hancock and Samuel Adams. The third reason was because of the people. The people here at Becker really seem to have a very strong commitment to trying to make a difference in the lives of the students whom we serve.

>> You've lived most of your life in the Midwest. What's been the biggest difference now that you've moved to New England?

Being here in Central Massachusetts, you're so close to everything — to the ocean, the mountains. You also get four real seasons, which I really appreciate. It's the climate, and the food — seafood in particular. I've already learned how to ask for not chowder, but chowdah.

>> What do you see as Becker's niche and what makes it stand apart from other colleges?

I think Becker's niche is really centered around preparing students to become global citizens and be prepared to be professional in the 21st century. We prepare them and make them job-ready. It's really this notion about developing the whole person and giving them a transformative experience.

>> Who are the leaders that you've looked up to in your career and what was it about them that you try to emulate?

There have been different types of leaders. First and foremost, my Uncle Bob, who I was named after, Robert E. Johnson, he was associate publisher and executive editor of Jet magazine and he was a classmate of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. They graduated from a class of 48 at Morehouse College. I always looked up to him as a leader. I also think of people like Judge Daniel Keith, who is a federal judge in Detroit. He's been a mentor and family friend for many, many years. He's always inspired me to do great things. Then I think of people that I don't necessarily know: Jim Collins who wrote the book "From Good to Great," Sun Tzu, who wrote "The Art of War," and John F. Kennedy. There have been many along the way that I've looked to — that I know and that I didn't know — that have inspired me as it relates to leadership.

>> What do you see as the biggest challenge facing higher education today?

Preparing our students to become global citizens. I do not think it's sufficient to help students to just get jobs. Most of the top 10 jobs today did note exist in 2003, so we have to prepare students for the jobs that don't yet exist. The challenge is to help students to become global students and to become lifelong learners.

>> What's the toughest management lesson you've had to learn?

Toughest management lesson I've had to learn is that people are the most important aspect of leading any organization and to the extent that you have good people, you will have a good organization. So you have to find a way to empower people to go out and make the decisions that will best serve your customers. You also have to make tough decisions when it comes to people and you can't hold on to people who are not productive. People have to be held accountable. All of us have to be held accountable. Human capital is the most important commodity that we have within an organization.

>> WEB ONLY: This is your first position as a college president. Was getting to this point and this title a specific goal for you, or was this just the right situation at the right time?
Well, both. In recent years, it became a goal and this was the right situation at the right time. I think when you look at my background you'll find that my eclectic background in higher education positions me quite well to be the president and CEO at a college like Becker.

>> WEB ONLY: You earned a bachelor's degree in economics. What drew you to the field of higher education administration?
Through a family friend I came to know the president of Central State University in Dayton, Ohio, where I was working for a company called Ohio Works. The president offered me a job at the time. When I declined, he kept calling once a month for two years. He made me an offer to work at the college and go back to school that I just couldn't refuse. At the time, I thought, I can do this for two or three years and I'll go back and get back into corporate America. But here I am, 25 years later. I got on the college campus and I really love being in this environment. It's done well by me.

>> WEB ONLY: Are there things you think the private sector could learn from higher education and how it operates?
I don't know if higher education teaches business anything. I think we learn from one another. I think the two are intertwined. We are an institution of higher learning, but I think we have to operate like a business. We have to have an entrepreneurial spirit and we have to spur innovation and creativity among our faculty, staff and students.

Robert E. Johnson, the new president of Becker College in Worcester, on what he'd be doing if he weren't working in higher education.

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