The Colgate Scene
January 2007

Meet the dean

Dean of the College Charlotte Johnson [Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko]

Charlotte Johnson, the new vice president and dean of the college, came to Colgate in August from the University of Michigan Law School, where as a member of the senior staff she focused on student services. In addition to supporting the extracurricular activities of the law students and coordinating those activities with the academic community, she managed and oversaw law school student organizations, established policies, administered budgets, and interpreted and enforced academic and disciplinary regulations. She also served on the steering committee for the university's Center for Institutional Diversity and the university academic services board, which advises the provost and president.

After earning a bachelor's degree in 1985 from the University of Detroit and a JD in 1988 from the University of Michigan, Johnson became the first African American female partner at the firm Garan Lucow Miller in Detroit. In 1997 she joined the University of Michigan as director of academic services.

While working at the University of Michigan Law School, she served on the core teams responsible for developing legal and communication strategies in defense of the university's admissions policies and assisted with formulation of oral arguments to the Supreme Court.

Three months into her tenure at Colgate, Johnson sat down for a conversation with the Scene.

You have said that one thing that attracted you to Colgate was that its core values closely match your own. Could you elaborate on that?

Colgate gets it. We are not just about educating students in a narrow sense to be successful in their careers, but in the broadest sense teaching to the entire student. That's important in the 21st century.

When I was growing up in the '70s, it was a very different world. I'm sure every generation has a different sense regarding respective eras, but I think we all can agree that because of technological advances and globalization, this is a much more complicated and complex society for young people to navigate.

Colgate is preparing students to be successful engaged citizens who have skills in critical and analytical thinking, and the ability to write well and speak well, to build interpersonal relationships and walk across differences. All of these things are equally important.

I believe that education should be a transformational experience that helps students become who they want to be. Students should leave here with the confidence that a four-year liberal arts education ought to give them. Those things really drive me.

The team

In addition to having joint oversight (with the dean of the faculty) of the Center for Outreach, Volunteerism, and Education (COVE), Office of the Chaplain, and the Center for Learning, Teaching, and Research, Johnson oversees a team of nearly 80 people responsible for all aspects of student affairs, including the administrative advising staff as well as the following areas:

ALANA Cultural Center
Campus safety
Career services
Center for Leadership and Student Involvement
First-year experience
Greek life
LGBTQ initiatives
Counseling and psychological services
Residential life
Residential education
Sophomore-year experience
Student Conduct Board/student disciplinary measures
Student Health Services

What else drew you here?

Rebecca Chopp. Rebecca is a unique leader who has the ability to reach out to people in a very warm and embracing way. She is sharp. She thinks strategically and has a clear vision for this university. Colgate really has transformed under her leadership.

The opportunity to lead a division also attracted me, and the dean of the college division has a strong staff. It is a very cohesive unit doing a lot of things. I was really impressed; the amount of programming and reaching out to students that goes on here is really quite incredible.

The strength of both the faculty and the academic program was apparent to me early on in the interview process. I also had several chances to interact with students. I was impressed by their questions, as well as the sense of community they generated.

Do you feel that your experience with institutional diversity initiatives gives you a special understanding of the opportunities and the challenges Colgate faces in preparing students for life and work in the 21st century?

I don't know if it makes me unique, but having come from the University of Michigan, where diversity is a component of academic excellence through and through, certainly gives me a nice vantage point. We shouldn't just tout diversity and embrace it for its own sake. We embrace it because we know that today, the ability to appreciate and work across differences will be paramount to success.

I've seen some of the brightest students start off lacking in their careers because they haven't yet learned that lesson. In any setting, it's about the team, in addition to the individual. The degree to which students can blend those two things, and learn to value how different experiences and mindsets contribute to solutions, the better off they are.

The institution that makes diversity a thread running through many different levels is attractive to the best and the brightest students, because many of them want the preparation for the real world that comes from being educated in a place that has diversity as a core value.

What other special strengths do you think you bring to the post?

Well, I do like students. That's a strength for the dean of the college! I come from a student affairs background where I was very much on the ground with students, on a one-on-one basis, with student organizations, and doing academic advising. I think that helps in a job where I could become consumed by policy, governance, and committees. I won't let that happen, because I regard connecting with students as very important.

Dean of the College Charlotte Johnson talks with the group at a recent dinner gathering at the Delta Delta Delta sorority house. [Photo by Luke Connolly '09]

What have been your most meaningful interactions with Colgate students?

I get psyched about connecting with students in their own spaces and listening to them talk about their issues. Yesterday Konosioni had a reception at West Hall with President Chopp, where I talked with several groups of students. I saw one of those students today as I was walking to lunch. She said, "Hey, Dean Johnson!" It meant a lot to me that she thought that I was accessible enough, while talking on her cell phone, to greet me so enthusiastically.

A group of students who are Hindu recently asked me to attend a dinner and light the ceremonial candle at their festival of lights, Diwali. How good is that? That just really warmed my heart.

One thing that has struck me about many Colgate students I've met is their willingness to talk to me -- and their politeness. That may sound trivial, but it's not. For instance, I sat down at a lunch table with a group of first-years who had just finished eating and they were probably preparing to leave, but they sat with me the entire time until I finished my meal. We had a wonderful conversation. You can tell that they were raised to have good manners -- we call it "home training" in the south. And, they really want me to be as excited about the community as they are. That's nice to see, too.

How have you gone about getting acclimated at the university, and what has impressed you the most so far?

The way I've gotten to know Colgate is relationship building, to get to know the people. I've been meeting faculty and students, connecting with the dean of the college staff and with the different segments of the community. I still have a long way to go. For example, I believe I have a lot more to learn about the student experience at Colgate. I'd also like to interact more with alumni -- I've met some great alums and I'm looking forward to getting to know many more of this impressive and dedicated group.

What I'm impressed about the most is the warmth of the community, which has really embraced me, and the caliber of the administration and the faculty. I thought it would take me a year to feel comfortable. I told a couple of people that I didn't think that I could ever have a better set of colleagues than those I had at the Michigan law school. But this group of colleagues is awesome and wonderful.

I often learn as much from students as they learn from me, and I can tell that this will happen here. It's the openness, the willingness to be candid, to share parts of themselves, to get to know me. I guess it is the Colgate spirit that is coming out in the students.

You arrived three years into the implementation of the new residential education program, which is attracting the kind of attention that indicates it is becoming a real model for colleges around the country. What was your impression of it coming in, and what excites you now that you see it in action?

This goes back to what we were talking about earlier, the links between the curricular and the co-curricular. Recognizing that just as much learning can take place outside of the classroom as inside of it, to me, is what residential education is all about.

The vision that my predecessor, Adam Weinberg, had is brilliant. It's about focusing on skills, like helping students with civic engagement -- for example, the project that links the Upstate Institute and the sophomore-year experience where students are learning philanthropic values and how to award money to different segments of the community in need. All res ed programs, which take place with the involvement of students and the faculty, are about bridging what has long been a gap between the student affairs and academic affairs sides of institutions. The recognition that, in order for these two to work optimally, for us to serve our students in the best possible way, we need to connect what's happening inside of the classroom with what's happening in their living spaces and other places where students gather and engage with each other.

Some alumni were concerned about how the program might affect fraternities and sororities. How are the Greek-letter organizations doing?

The Greek-letter groups are doing well under the leadership of Tim Mansfield, who is the assistant dean in the division and has done wonderful work with them. My experience with Greek organizations is that they've always been leaders. Like all student groups, which are under the same umbrella, bound by the same rules, I firmly believe -- and expect -- that the Greek organizations have a contribution to make to our community. I have met with Greek leaders and members of some of the organizations. I'm impressed.

What are some of your goals and priorities, both short- and long-term?

Short term, I want to learn the culture, because I don't think I can be an effective leader without doing that first.

Another is to get out the message that the entire division is a team. I meet with everyone -- managers, staff, and administrative assistants -- on a monthly basis. We collectively came up with a list of guiding principles. Everybody had input. We're all in this together, and we need to be on the same page in order to effectively achieve our goals and our mission.

Third, because I believe so much in the importance of diversity, I want to signal to everyone that it's not just a code word. For me, diversity encompasses increasing opportunities for meaningful participation in all aspects of both the university and society. It's about enlarging the circle of participation so that we benefit from everyone's viewpoints and abilities, and give more people the sense of belonging. Diversity should be a part of the fabric of the division, in line with the institutional diversity initiative, which is in its third year now.

We now have a divisionwide workgroup meeting regularly to talk about how to evidence in our daily work that we are inclusive, respect and value difference, and work across differences, which is something very different than just talking about what diversity is. If you came into my office or to a program -- and you're a student -- what would be the external cues that let you know, "there's a place for me here" -- that this place values difference? How can we make sure that we are paying attention to that in our staffing, in our programming, and the groups of students we bring together to aid us in these projects? What does our environment look like?

For example, let's say we need to put together a focus group to address a particular issue. The group needs to be representative, diverse across a number of areas -- such as socio-economic, race and ethnicity, gender. Or let's say we are hiring students to work in orientation programs or bringing on students to serve as peer mentors. Are they representative? Do we have people who can reach out to many different segments of the student community and pull people in? It's not really rocket science. It's just paying attention to the details.

Long term, I would like to build on the wonderful work that was done with the residential education vision and take it to the next phase. I'd like to focus on leadership skills and how what it means to be a great leader in the 21st century is different from what great leadership has meant in the past.

What challenges do you see for your division in the coming years?

I think one will be addressing the alcohol culture in this particular generation of students. It's not a challenge unique to Colgate; it's something that colleges and universities nationwide are dealing with. Binge drinking has been going on in one form or another for a very long time. But over the last half a decade or so it has become an increasing problem on many campuses. One is figuring out why that is, and two is determining what we can do educationally to help students to drink responsibly.

How would those who know you well describe you?

That's hard! I think what people say to me most is that I appear to be calm and collected. Also, probably warm, personable, sensitive, fun, outgoing. I'm always joking around. A sense of humor can go a long way.

What are your outside interests?

My husband, Bruce, and I like golf. I'm trying to improve my game. We are huge basketball fans, and we look forward to supporting the Raiders in basketball and other sports as well. We like to travel. I love to spend time with my niece and nephew, who are two and four years old. I like to read fiction. My favorite books in the whole world are Alice Walker's The Color Purple and Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a classic. Everybody should read it.

Who are your role models?

The everyday people that I come in contact with who, by their devotion and affection for me, have taught me how to give the same thing to others. My parents. I very much appreciate and admire the way that they've lived and dedicated themselves to us (I have two brothers). My husband. And I have mentors who serve as role models for me.

Were there any formative experiences in your life that drive what you do or your personal philosophy?

Do unto others . . . I really do believe in karma, good and bad. That is something I learned from my parents. It's not about who has the best title or the most money or who could do the most for you, it's about treating all people with an equal level of respect. For example, people in generations above me, I never address them by their first name. I was taught that all people deserve respect, no matter what their station in life. If we can make a contribution to our communities or families, we should, especially those of us who have so many blessings.

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