UMassD's new chancellor, Dr. Robert E. Johnson

Embracing innovation with an agile mind.

Chancellor Robert E. Johnson greets students, faculty, staff.
Robert E. Johnson, the new chancellor of UMass Dartmouth, believes higher education must become more “agile, nimble, and entrepreneurial.”

by Barbara LeBlanc

The nation’s colleges and universities are preparing graduates who will hold, on average, 15 jobs in seven different fields before they retire according to Robert E. Johnson. Only about one quarter will work in their major. And, about half of all that students learn in school could be obsolete within five years.

"It is predicted that by 2025, more than 50 percent of cars will be electric," he said. "If I’m educating an engineer for the Chrysler and GM of 1990, I’m committing educational malpractice."

These concerns are at the top of Johnson's mind as he assumed the chancellorship of UMass Dartmouth on July 1. 

"I want to bring UMass Dartmouth into the future of work and ask what our educational paradigm has to look like so we can prepare for the world our students are going into," he said. "The university has some unique DNA, and it already is playing an important role in economic development, job creation, and innovation. We can bring it to the next level for our students."

Opportunities, challenges, and demands

Technology and changing social norms have created opportunities, challenges, and demands that were unimaginable just a decade ago, he said. In that time, Uber became the largest provider of rides without owning a single vehicle. Instagram, the photo sharing application, earned a $1 billion market capitalization with no more than 15 employees—in just five years. At the same time, Polaroid, once the dominant film and camera producer, ceased to exist. And Airbnb came to offer more rooms than Hilton Hotels without owning any property.

As he watched these head-spinning changes, Johnson understood that higher education had to change, too. He formulated a new approach called "The Agile Mind," which fosters the skills and characteristics needed to negotiate a fast-changing and uncertain world.

Johnson developed "The Agile Mind" at Becker College, in Worcester, where he served as president for the past seven years. In establishing the program, he worked with faculty from a range of fields—including the humanities, business, and interactive media—to replace five traditional general education courses with the new interdisciplinary curriculum.

The program’s five core classes teach empathy, which he calls a "hallmark of creativity and innovation;" how to "create something out of nothing" through divergent thinking; the entrepreneurial outlook, and social and emotional intelligence. Seniors complete the curriculum with a capstone project, undertaken in teams; to apply their learning to real-world problems.

"The Becker community recognized that preparing students for the workplace of the future would mean cultivating global learners with agile mindsets, capable of thriving in a world of growing ambiguity and unpredictability," he wrote in a series on the project published by the Huffington Post.

The transformative power of education

Johnson, 57, can trace his passion for education to his years growing up in Detroit, and particularly to his father, a Korean War veteran who worked as a cook and later a dietary expert with the Veterans Administration. His father continually stressed how education can transform a life, and Johnson finally chose higher education as his career while working as executive director of enrollment and marketing at Central State University in Ohio. The president at the time, Arthur Thomas, took Johnson under his wing, inviting him to cabinet meetings and explaining how he made decisions.

"He saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself," Johnson said. "Eventually, I had this epiphany—‘this is what I’d like to do to make a difference.’"

He went on to earn his master’s in education administration from the University of Cincinnati and his doctorate in higher education administration from Touro University International. He served as vice provost of Oakland University, vice president of enrollment management at the University of Dayton, and senior vice president of Sinclair Community College before assuming the presidency of Becker College in 2010.

While at Becker, he raised the college’s enrollment and profile by focusing on its interactive media program, which has made it one of the top schools for digital game design in the country. He also has taken a lead role in economic development, serving on the Massachusetts Business Roundtable, Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, and as chair of the Worcester Regional  Chamber of Commerce.

"One of my fundamental philosophical paradigms is that an institution of higher learning must be a vital asset to the local community," he said. "I like to use the assets of the institution in partnership with the assets of the region to create growth. It’s a win-win."

Preparing students for the "future of work"

Johnson said he wasn’t looking to leave Becker when the opportunity at UMass Dartmouth arose, but he was drawn by the university’s size, its focus on both teaching and research, and its place in the community.

"Elements of the 'agile mindset' already exist in the university’s programs," he said. "I want to develop the intended outcomes of that educational approach within the UMass Dartmouth culture, preparing students for the 'future of work' and to quickly adapt in a hyper-connected world.

"I don’t believe in one-size-fits-all," he said. "My first job will be to listen and learn. In the end, it’s about making decisions that will benefit students and student success."

Features Corsair Stories, Features Magazine