- Associated Press - Friday, October 24, 2014

TUSKEGEE, Ala. (AP) - Brian Johnson grew up in a Durham, North Carolina, housing project where friends were killed or served long stretches in prison.

That wasn’t how he planned to live his life and he’s spent most of his 41 years following a scholarly path that has led him to the presidency of Tuskegee University - one of America’s legendary institutions of higher learning.

“I couldn’t see how joining a gang was a virtue,” he said. “And, frankly, there was always that personal fear of what could possibly happen.”

He said 10 friends died violently, two were paralyzed by bullets and others were jailed for selling drugs “or using them.”

Inner strength served him well, keeping him out of trouble along Morning Glory Avenue in the Few Gardens housing project. His future was destined to be in university classrooms, not the mean streets of his childhood.

When TU trustees began searching for a new president last year, Johnson’s name was among the leading contenders from the start.

In office only four months, he’s quickly become accustomed to his new surroundings and responsibilities. It’s been a whirlwind start for a man who isn’t much older than some students enrolled in graduate degree programs.

“This is Day 112 for me, and I’m still getting my feet wet,” he said during an interview at his office where he touched on topics ranging from efforts to provide online degree-granting courses to his admiration of author F. Scott Fitzgerald.

“You could say I’ve got eclectic tastes when it comes to education,” he said, breaking into a big smile. “I consider myself something of a closet historian because I’ve always loved that subject.”

Johnson may be a presidential rookie at a major university, but he hasn’t shrunk from a position closely watched by TU students, past and present.

He’s received so many academic awards through the years that he probably could cover the walls of his office. The one that means the most, however, is an enlarged portrait of Booker T. Washington. It’s his daily inspiration.

“I never imagined I’d ever be at Tuskegee University and didn’t seek this job, but when the opportunity presented itself, I applied,” said Johnson, who turned 41 in July.

His academic background certainly impressed the trustees, who voted unanimously for him to become TU’s seventh president since the school’s founding on July 4, 1881.

Before being named president, Johnson held several important administrative and academic posts at colleges. He has also written seven scholarly books. The list of achievements goes on and on.

“We could see from the start that Dr. Johnson was a perfect fit for us,” said Charles Williams, a retired Army major general who serves as chairman of the board of trustees at the university.

Williams said TU had been at a growth “standstill” for many years and when a presidential vacancy unexpectedly occurred a year ago this week, it provided an opportunity to get moving “in the right direction.”

“We needed someone who could come in and become part of a transformation to help move us to another level,” said Williams, a TU graduate who grew up in Hale County. “Dr. Johnson was just what we needed,”

One of the things that impressed trustees the most was Johnson’s pledge to serve as president on a “performance-based” contract, not one focused on salary and fringe benefits.

“We wanted someone who could set the correct tone, and he’s done just that,” said Williams. “Dr. Johnson wants to be measured by the job he’s doing, and we all appreciated that promise.”

Since Tuskegee University is a private school, compensation packages are closely held matters unless the recipient feels the need to disclose them and that’s rarely done.

Williams said he and fellow trustees aren’t requiring or anticipating immediate results, indicating that Johnson’s presidential “honeymoon” will be long enough for him and his family to become adequately acclimated.

“We don’t expect him to turn things around in one year because we know it’ll take time, but he is already off to a fast start and we can’t ask more than that,” said Williams.

It hasn’t taken Johnson long to examine campus needs. All he had to do was walk around the sprawling facility and check out some of the old buildings to know Tuskegee University must be taken into the 21st century.

“Our students want better facilities, but you don’t build them unless you demonstrate fiscal strength to potential donors,” he said. “They aren’t going to help you pay off debts, they are going to give to places where wealth is properly managed and sustained.”

Some buildings on campus were constructed by Washington’s 19th-century students - a fact quickly acknowledged by potential students and parents. Those are exterior facts of academic life these days and it goes much deeper than that.

“Today’s college students want modern dorms, suites, flat-screen TVs and other technological extras,” said Johnson. “But, that can cost a lot of money and those are some of my goals to achieve.”

One of more than 100 predominantly black colleges and universities in America, TU is in better financial shape than some that are facing questionable futures. Its glittering academic reputation has put it in select company - a “gold standard” among a handful of HBCU universities.

Johnson has personally done his part to make a good first impression, establishing a $100,000 family gift that will take the form of an endowed student scholarship spread out over five years.

He said funds won’t be withdrawn from the base amount, only interest drawn from the endowment to help students far into the future.

Johnson said at the start of his presidency that he planned to put his money where his mouth is and his $100,000 endowment announcement brought a huge roar of approval from students and faculty members at his official introduction.

“I’m not coming as the great messiah,” he said that day. “I am building on a very grand and glorious tradition.”

He has come a long way from that housing project in Durham and, for someone who is no stranger to collegiate moves, has let it be known he won’t mind hanging around for a few decades or so.

Gen. Williams would certainly like to see that happen.

___

Information from: Montgomery Advertiser, http://www.montgomeryadvertiser.com

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