Monday, Apr 23, 2018
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UT's leader steers school on new path


Johnson: He's been on the job a year.

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Dan Johnson came to the University of Toledo a year ago as the maestro of metropolitan universities, a sort of high priest of public service and civic engagement.

In fact, he wrote the book on it. Back in 1995 when he was at the University of North Texas, Dr. Johnson penned an essay about major leadership challenges facing metropolitan universities.

“Universities must begin to redirect a portion of their major resources, i.e., faculty interests and expertise, research priorities, and service activities, from discipline-defined issues to community-defined problems,” he wrote. “The need for change is urgent.”

When he was hired by the UT board of trustees to be the school's 15th president, the former provost at the University of Alaska at Anchorage finally had the unique opportunity to do what he wrote about on an institution-wide basis.

Since then, the rookie president has busied himself laying groundwork, assembling his own administration team, and listening - all in the hopes of refocusing UT on its urban mission after it suffered frequent setbacks during the previous administration of Vik Kapoor.

What it means to be a metropolitan university, however, can be different things to different people.

To Dr. Johnson, it means this: “The University of Toledo is in the city of Toledo, of the city of Toledo, and for the city of Toledo.”

To UT and the group of 56 other universities nationwide that make up the Coalition for Urban and Metropolitan Universities, it means providing access, involving students in service learning, and engaging with the community to solve urban problems.

To Dan Dawson, a resident in a neighborhood near the UT campus, it means no more students having sex in cars and urinating in yards.

Mr. Dawson, president of the United Neighborhood Residential Association, and other neighborhood leaders have met with Dr. Johnson about the issue of students' off-campus behavior and believe he will make a difference. It's this kind of personal interaction that separates this administration from that of the previous one, Mr. Dawson said.

“There was no relationship at all with Dr. Kapoor,” he said. “He made no attempt to meet with us. It's a 100 percent difference.”

Dr. Kapoor, who was ousted after 17 months, focused more on the school's research mission and expanding to a more traditional student base. He made promises of increasing enrollment by 10,000 students and raising UT in a decade from the fourth tier of nationally ranked universities to the second tier.

“There's no question, if you look at Vik, it certainly looked like he was moving away from [the urban mission],” said Joan Uhl Browne, chairman of the board of trustees.

Ultimately, though, Dr. Johnson characterizes his efforts as a refocusing - an attempt to take what has always been there in one form or another and make it part of everything the institution does.

The first step was to assemble a team of like-minded administrators. Since taking office in July, 2001, he has hired a provost, two vice presidents, two deans, and an athletic director.

“It's essentially a whole new administration,” said Gerald Sherman, chairman of the faculty senate.

The president has worked to rebuild faculty numbers that dwindled through early retirement and defections to other schools and which were not replaced.

Between 1998 and 2000, the number of tenure-track faculty dropped from 601 to 473. There are 552 at the university now, and if all current searches are filled and 24 more positions added as planned, there could be 616 by next year despite continued funding reductions from the state.

Dr. Johnson, a tall, soft-spoken man, has personally and actively gone about selling his idea of a metropolitan university.

Internally, that meant clarifying the university's mission statement, one of his top priorities when he took the job. A revised statement was approved by the board of trustees last month, identifying the university as “a student-centered public metropolitan research university, [which] integrates learning, discovery and engagement, enabling students to achieve their highest potential ....”

There has been progress on other fronts as well: Enrollment has been making gains and undergraduate applications for this fall are up 15 percent, putting UT among the state's leaders.

Of course there have been bumps along the way - most recently a decision to give substantial raises to four college deans that was opposed by some faculty leaders. But Dr. Johnson feels like the university is moving in the right direction.

“We're not all on the same page, but we're all in the same book,” he said.

Externally, it meant meeting with community leaders like Mr. Dawson and politicians such as Toledo Mayor Jack Ford.

The mayor has talked with Dr. Johnson about the possibility of UT pursuing more of a presence downtown. Dr. Johnson said that question should be answered in about a year through the university's strategic planning process.

Dr. Johnson didn't invent this idea of a metropolitan university, of course, but it has been present in some form at UT for a while.

“When we were chartered in '67, we were chartered as open enrollment. We were chartered as an urban institution. We were chartered to serve this population,” Ms. Browne said.

The metro university movement has been brewing for a couple of decades and traces its roots to campuses that opened in urban centers in the 1960s, said Claire VanUmmerson, vice president at the American Council on Education in Washington and a former president of Cleveland State University.

Outreach is common at many schools in urban settings.

What officials say sets these apart is the extent to which they take the idea of serving their communities, sometimes tying it into the curriculum and even faculty reward systems.

At UT, Dr. Johnson said he envisions students who get practical, hands-on experience applying their academic work in the community.

He foresees working more with local K-12 schools and creating more interdisciplinary centers to tackle urban issues, such as the Intermodal Transportation Institute, which focuses on developing ways to make various forms of transportation work together in Toledo.

The metro university movement is young and growing, but still faces hurdles among some academics and can take a back seat to research or other missions, said Travis Reindl, director of state policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

“There's a lot of selling that has to go on,” he said.

Generally, UT faculty seem to be following their president's lead.

“I think by and large it's been reasonably well received,” said Harvey Wolff, president of the faculty union. “I think we're moving in the right direction. He's certainly saying the right things.”

Other are mindful that it's only been a year since Dr. Johnson took office and that the work is just beginning.

“It's still early in his tenure here to see any major changes,” Dr. Sherman said. “I'm interested in something a little more concrete. If you look at where the economy is going in the city of Toledo, it's not going forward. The university has to do its share, too, in letting people know what's available here.”

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