FROM DARK DAYS TO STEM POWERHOUSE Robert E. Johnson ’82 Leads Becker College in Becoming Digital Games Top Player
By ADD SEYMOUR JR. OBERT E. JOHNSON ’82 had no plans to become a college president. “All I knew is I wanted to go out into the world, make a difference and lead an organization,” he said. “That could have been a for-profit, a non-profit, or as it turns out, a college or university. But I knew I was going to lead something. There was something within me and I knew it was going to happen. It was something I was meant to do.” What he has done over the past five years is lead Becker College, a small liberal arts institution in Massachusetts, through a darker period in its history to become one of the nation’s most respected technical institutions. In fact, the college’s digital games program has been ranked nationally and/or internationally for seven consecutive years. A Detroit native, Johnson had always planned on attending an HBCU. His uncle, Jet magazine publisher Robert E. Johnson ’48, advised him to try Morehouse. An economics major, Johnson graduated and went to work in the corporate sector and as a motivational speaker. His uncle then referred him to Central State University president Arthur E. Thomas for potential speaking engagements. Instead, Thomas
offered Johnson a job. “I said, ‘Never. Higher education? It’s never going to happen,’” Johnson recalled. But Thomas, knowing that Johnson was pursuing a master’s degree in marketing, offered him a job as vice president for Enrollment and Marketing and the chance to earn his graduate degree for free. Johnson took the leap. In Thomas, he found an attentive mentor. “He would invite me to the cabinet meetings. After the meetings, he would take me to his office and explain some of the things in terms of decision-making. It was one of the most interesting and unique experiences. I was like, ‘You know, I’d like to do this.’” Johnson moved up the higher education ranks, becoming vice provost at Oakland University, vice president of Enrollment Management at the University of Dayton and senior vice president at Sinclair Community College. Meanwhile at Becker, the president left his post for another presidency in 2008. An interim president and the college’s board of trustees were running the school during the nation’s economic recession that ravaged the higher education landscape. Becker felt the impact. Student enrollment and the endowment dropped.
Washington Monthly magazine even listed the college as one of the nation’s worst when it came to net price, average student debt, default rate and graduation rate. Johnson took another leap, eager for the challenge to lead the college. “I chose Becker because it was like a piece of clay,” he said. “They had some programs that needed a bit of polishing, branding…, but it was poised for change.” Much of that change focused on STEM fields. While the nursing and veterinary science programs continue to be strong, Becker has carved out a niche as a center for digital game technology. “You’ve got to have a niche,” said Johnson. “You’ve got to know your brand and you have to keep at it.” In 2015, the college was ranked ninth in the world as a place to study game design. It is also home to the Massachusetts Digital Games Institute, a statewide endeavor that fosters partnerships between the digital games industry, academia and the public sector. Today, enrollment at Becker is the highest in the college’s history. “Right now, 52 percent of our students are in some sort of STEM major,” he said. “My guess is that within the next seven years or so, we’ll probably be at the 75 percent mark.” n
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