Alex Johnson reviews his career and reminisces as his retirement from Tri-C approaches in June.

By MAKAELA BOGARDY

PART ONE OF A TWO-PART FEATURE

CLEVELAND — Dr. Alex Johnson has served at Cuyahoga Community College for almost 20 years. He became the president of Tri-C’s Metropolitan campus from 1993 to 2003. Dr. Johnson returned in 2013 as President of college, and announced in October that he is retiring effective June 30, 2022. 

Only the fourth president in Tri-C’s 58-year history, Dr. Johnson has taken Cuyahoga Community College to even greater success as both a learning institution and a catalyst for growth in Northeast Ohio. 

A few of Dr. Johnson’s many accomplishments include a dramatic increase in graduation rates, construction of more than a half-dozen new buildings, and increased job and career opportunities. He also guided Cuyahoga Community college through the Covid-19 pandemic. (More on all this is below.)

Dr. Alex Johnson, fourth president of Cuyahoga Community College

This profile examines Dr. Johnson the person, his accomplishments, and what faculty and administrators think of his tenure as president. It concludes with some advice he is offering to students, staff, and his successor.

FOUNDATIONS OF FAITH & FAMILY AT A TIME OF SEGREGATION

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was leading the civil rights era in the U.S. when Alex Johnson was born and raised in the segregated town of Concord, North Carolina. Growing up in segregation was very impactful, and made him determined later in life to provide equal opportunities to Blacks and others facing segregation.

“It (segregation) is the foundation and personality of who I am,” Dr. Johnson said in a November 2021 interview. “As I grew up, every opportunity we had, both personally, socially, and educationally was segregated.”

Dr. Johnson attended an all-black school, he borrowed books from an all-black library, and the church he attended was all-black with a white minister. He depended upon his religion, his family, and relationship with God to help him overcome challenges he faced.

“It (the church) was a place that provided a sense of community and is why I love student community engagement now,” said Dr. Johnson. “It was your family, (and) some of the lessons I learned I still remember to this day.”

Dr. Johnson emphasized that in challenging times, there are bright moments and opportunities one can capitalize on, and that theme — overcoming challenges — repeated itself many times in his career.

“That experience…with the support of my grandmother who was my caretaker, prepared me for a larger world, a larger global society,” he said.

Dr. Johnson found knowledge and comfort from books he checked out from segregated libraries. He found faith in his segregated church.

“She (his grandmother) reminded me that even though we were in that environment there are still a lot of good things you can take away from it,” said the Tri-C president. “She was brighter than anybody I know, and she only went to the fourth grade.”

IMPORTANCE OF STUDENT ENGAGEMENT

In his tenure as president, Dr. Alex Johnson has maintained a laser-like focus on improving student success. He’s also made listening to and addressing student concerns a high priority. When asked to describe a heartfelt moment with a student, Dr. Johnson recollected about a family that he helped graduate early.

Dr. Alex Johnson speaking at a groundbreaking for the Metro Campus Student Center, 2016

“I received an email message from a student, who was not only representing herself but also her twin sister.” he recalled. “She asked me if I could help her get into a science class, (as) she was graduating with an associate of science.”

He added the twin sisters were also College Credit Plus (CCP) students.

“She added, ‘I’ve been here a year and a half and I’d like to graduate in the fall, but in order to graduate I need to take a specific class,’” Dr. Johnson explained. “She said, ‘My sister needs a course too and the reason we want these courses is so we can graduate with our grandmother.’”

Dr. Johnson said their grandmother was graduating in December of that year. 

“I got into contact with the faculty members who readily agreed to take those students in,” he explained with a smile. So the twin sisters were able to successfully graduate with their grandmother.

Tri-C’s president has also mentored multiple students during his time with the college.

“A lot of people come here because of my positions here at the institution and the work that we do in the community. They ask me to serve as their mentor,” he said.

The first question the Tri-C president asks the students is what they want to accomplish through his mentorship. 

“(Many times) They say I want a career like what you’ve had,” said Dr. Johnson. “I say to them… what I have been able to achieve, might not necessarily be your path, you might have a different path.”

He also asks the students what are the experiences they depend upon, and what has helped them in their career so far. 

“We build off of that. I do it (mentor) individually as a result of my experiences and what ultimately people would like to become,” he explained. 

Dr. Johnson also works with Leadership Cleveland, which provides opportunities for young black leaders to advance their community impact. 

These students are learning from the expertise of senior-level leaders and are able to form connections with organizations to help support their ambitions and careers.

SOME OF THE COLLEGE’S ACCOMPLISHMENTS UNDER DR. JOHNSON

Cuyahoga Community College has made great strides during Dr. Johnson’s nine years as president of the college. Some these are:

  • Dramatically increasing the college’s graduation rate, from 4.5 percent (Fall 2013) to 25 percent (Fall 2021).
  • Gaining public support for a $227 million capital bond issue in 2017, spurring the biggest reconstruction in the college’s history.
  • Creating career path and educational opportunities through the development of Access Centers
  • Navigating the college through the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020,
  • Receiving the Aspen Prize Top 150 — awarded by the Aspen Institute — twice. This is considered the signature recognition for high achievement and performance among American community colleges. Tri-C was the only Ohio school named to the newly-released Top 150 list last month, and
  • Helping Tri-C’s Nursing, Creative Arts, Public Safety, Hospitality Management, Information Technology and Manufacturing programs becoming recognized as Centers of Excellence

When Dr. Johnson was asked how he was able to increase graduation rates, he said collaborative efforts centered around improving student outcomes influenced the college’s success.

“The One Door Project has created a culture committed to student excellence,” said the Tri-C president. “(It is) ingrained in our culture now, as it wasn’t before.”

Tri-C’s One Door Initiative has increased graduation rates by partnering with advanced technology to provide insight into Tri-C student data. The easy access to these analytics has allowed the college to spend more time building student relationships with programs such as DegreeWorks and the development of transfer pathways.

Aspen Prize logo. All pictures are courtesy of Cuyahoga Community College Integrated Communications Dept.

The accessibility of technology to faculty and the relationships faculty has built with students under Dr. Johnson’s leadership has helped increase the college’s graduation rate from 4.5% in 2013 to 25% in 2021.

“That’s a big deal. Even in the midst of Covid-19 we increased our graduation rate,” said Dr. Johnson. “Not only did we increase our graduation rate, but we increased our graduation number.”

Of all the accomplishments he has made at the college, Dr. Johnson said increasing graduation rates has left him most proud.

“During the pandemic Tri-C had the highest number of certificates and degrees awarded to students in the history of the institution,” said Dr. Johnson.

When asked how Tri-C was able to gain support for the $227 million capitol bond (which passed in 2017) under his leadership, Dr. Johnson said it was an important measure of trust.

“Citizens invest in us (Tri-C) because they believe and trust in us,” he explained. “(It is) the highest approval of any bond or levy in the history of the institution.”

The bond funded construction of the Western Campus STEM Center, the Westshore Campus Liberal Arts and Technology building, the Public Safety Simulated Scenario Village at the Western Campus, and an addition to the Advanced Technology Training Center at the Metropolitan Campus.

Dr. Johnson also navigated Tri-C through a time of uncertainty when COVID-19 caused a shutdown in March of 2020. The college restructured its classes for an online environment and maintained a sense of community and continuity through weekly virtual town hall meetings.

Dr. Johnson’s experience in 2005-2006 as chancellor at Delgado Community College in New Orleans prepared him for the Covid-19 challenge. The former chancellor helped navigate the college to normalcy after the outbreak of Hurricane Katrina. 

He was able to lead Delgado to an online learning environment, transferring as many classes as possible to an online presence. Faculty and staff had a few weeks to implement the a virtual fall semester in 2005, which offered 5,281 courses according to the Delgado website.

“We (Tri-C) are a system of transformation,” said Dr. Johnson. “We handle change consistently, and very well.”

Dr. Johnson’s navigation of the pandemic inspired his new book, Capturing Change (2021). In his book, the Tri-C president challenges leaders to handle difficult circumstances such as natural disasters and financial crises in a new way. 

The book builds off of an organizational development system titled, “Uninterrupted Cycle of Leadership Effectiveness (UnCLE),” introduced in his first book, Change the Lapel Pin (2018). 

All proceeds from Capturing Change are going toward student scholarships through the Cuyahoga Community College Foundation. 

All proceeds from Change the Lapel Pin are going toward student scholarships through the Cuyahoga Community College Foundation’s Gap Scholarship Fund.

Another measure of Dr. Johnson’s success is shown through the establishment of Access Centers. Access Centers partner with the community to have a physical presence in nonprofits, community centers and faith-based organizations.

Access Centers are an important part of making education accessible to everyone, said Dr. Johnson.

Part Two to Follow

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