It’s 9:17 a.m. on a still Friday in September before the inauguration. The Lilli Glick reading room, located in Mackay Mines, is a throng of the president’s administration, regents, media personnel and close family and friends. President Marc Johnson, 64, navigates the crowd, graciously granting any reporter an interview, any stranger an introduction and maintaining the patience necessary for photographers to get snapshots of candid moments. He is the epitome of calm, cool and collected. He exudes an air of modest confidence in his personality and a humble nature that will surely carry over into his presidency.
“I am humbled by this moment,” he said in his inaugural address. “I am honored to have your trust and confidence.”
Dozens of empty chairs line the Quad at the University of Nevada, Reno, patiently waiting for friends, family, faculty and students, on the Friday of Johnson’s inauguration.
Johnson was officially inaugurated as the 16th president of the University of Nevada, Reno Friday, Sept. 28 at 10 a.m. on the Quad. An event anticipated to attract a large and diverse crowd did not disappoint as David Zeh, chair of the University of Nevada, Reno Faculty Senate, conducted the day’s energy in a diverse and positive direction from the get-go, addressing the mixture of attendees that he said included adventurers, leaders and entrepreneurs.
“As I look into this audience, I see people representing all walks of life,” he said at the inauguration. “I see…the University of Nevada, Reno – a living and vibrant community.”
It is that same living and vibrant spirit on the university’s campus that Johnson will strive to maintain as the mission of existing as the “people’s university,” as he so put it, continues to grow under his newly officiated position as president.
“It doesn’t matter, our economic condition,” Johnson said. “We have a great responsibility to produce a top quality education for our undergraduate and graduate students.”
‘Responsibility’ is a word often associated with Johnson’s character. A man who learned responsibility at an early age, Johnson grew up on a farm in an urban area near Wichita, Kansas. His family’s “pick your own fruit” orchard provided Johnson and his brother with ample opportunities for interaction with the public from a young age.
“We had a country store where we met the public on a daily basis,” he said. “When I was in high school, my father took a farm real estate job and he traveled a bunch so my brother and I were pretty much left to manage the place. I had some early experiences that a lot of people don’t get the opportunity to do and that really shaped my interest in managing organizations.”
Although he is an agricultural economist by training, this was not Johnson’s intended career path. Johnson originally thought he wanted to be a dentist. He studied biology in the pre-dental program at what was formally Kansas State Teacher’s College, now Emporia State University. It wasn’t until his sophomore year that he determined he didn’t want to be inside all of the time, working in small cavities. He became much more interested in public policy, human hunger and environmental issues on a world-wide scale.
He attended North Carolina State University after completing his bachelor’s in biology and it was there that he connected with a science in society program, a combination of theologians from NCSU, the University of North Carolina and Duke University that dealt with the theology and ethics of science. This was the opportunity Johnson needed to make his transition from science to economic policy and after earning his first master’s degree from NCSU, he attended Michigan State University to work on further graduate studies.
Johnson said that he truly thought he would spend his life working on economic development projects in different countries but that the university life has provided him with his economic development fix as well as his teaching fix.
Johnson’s wife, Karen Penner-Johnson, 63, assists her husband in readying himself for the ceremonies as they share a laugh together.
“I never thought I would be the president of a university,” he said. “I got to be a professor, though, and that was very rewarding. I have always enjoyed teaching.”
His love of teaching not only lead him to work as an educator in five different universities throughout his career – Oklahoma State University, NCSU, Kansas State University, Colorado State University and, finally, UNR – but was reflective in his personal life, as well, according to Johnson’s son, Joe Johnson.
“Dad taught me how to work and that important initiatives, as a father and as a professional, rarely conform to the 40-hour work week,” Joe Johnson said.
The 40-hour workweek is something that Marc Johnson rarely conforms to. An avid hiker and outdoorsman, he said he walks 2.5 miles every morning with his wife, Karen Penner-Johnson, 63, in order to “stay vibrant and get crisp air in our lungs.” His days are filled with meetings concerning things like new student housing, moving to the Mountain West Conference in athletics, fundraising and community initiatives. He does work with legislators and senators, travels within all 17 counties as the representative for UNR and welcomes groups from off campus who come to visit. Living a life of such mixed days, he said it’s impossible to get bored and that he likes staying busy.
“Growing up on a family farm, we learned work ethic at a very young age,” he said. “The nice thing about farming is there is no clock on the farm; there’s only the sun. You’d work until the job gets done. That’s the sort of work ethic that’s carried over into all my jobs.”
Even in the face of difficult economic adversity, that “until the job is done” work ethic is what got Marc Johnson through his time as not only university provost as well as his time served as interim president and, now, as president, it supports his visions for UNR’s future.
The hefty $75 million lost in UNR’s annual budget from cuts made between 2009-2012 made a significant impact on the university’s staff and programs. With the passing of President Milton Glick last April in the midst of financial woe, Marc Johnson was forced to oversee the difficult decisions necessary to be made to university’s budget. Dr. Jason Geddes, chairman of the Board of Regents for the Nevada System of Higher Education, said that Johnson handled the difficult curricular review process with thoughtfulness and careful deliberation.
“He showed concern for what the budget (reductions) would do to the students, faculty and staff and worked to ensure that cuts wouldn’t hurt all programs…but enacted a few deep cuts,” Geddes said.
Marc Johnson has been through the toughest of times at UNR and his training and knowledge of world-wide economics development and environmental issues assists him in drawing insight from world-wide problems. He said it is crucial that, now, more than ever, we put a high value on an education in a volatile and uncertain world.
From left to right, President Emeritus Joe Crowley, President March Johnson, President Emeritus John Lilley and chancellor of the Nevada Board of Regents Dan Klaich laugh together in front of the Mackay Mines building on the south end of the Quad before their participation in Johnson’s inauguration.
“This is a time when men need to think accurately and discern clearly the difference between the false and the true, between right and wrong, between iniquity and justice,” he said in his inaugural address.
Marc Johnson acknowledges that educating the masses has not gotten any easier and drawing on a memory of his time spent in Pakistan some years ago where he witnessed, first hand, the disparity between the classes, he believes that “education was the answer then and it’s the answer now.”
This idea of education providing people with the strength to pull themselves out of, or through, struggle is a central focus on Marc Johnson’s vision for the university, as Nevada is both a Land-Grant university, a product of the Morrill Act of 1862, providing an “access for all…knowledge belongs to everyone” college, and a state-wide liberal arts and sciences university, he said.
Regardless of the fact that Marc Johnson has his roots in the sciences, he does not turn a blind eye to the liberal arts, nor does he renounce a love for it. Joe Johnson describes his father’s nature as pragmatic but said that his father’s support of his fiscally less-than-safe profession has never faltered.
“His unwavering support of my career path speaks to his omnivorous nature of his passions, including art and music, in addition to a life devoted to public education,” Joe Johnson said.
Johnson’s son, Joe Johnson, as seen with the rest of the Johnson family. Much of Marc Johnson’s family traveled from the Midwest to celebrate his transfer from interim president to official president at the University of Nevada, Reno.
Marc Johnson’s description of himself as “not very flashy” mirrors that of many others’ opinions of him; however, this does not suggest that he is not a people person and his interest in community in outreach and it’s momentum in his career at UNR is one he hopes to continue steadily on.
“I speak often of how we are becoming a ‘Community-based University’ and why it is important that we must also become a ‘University-based Community,’” Johnson said in his inaugural address. “Without one, the other cannot succeed.”
President Emeritus of the University of Nevada, Reno, Joe Crowley, said that Marc Johnson is an out and about, “say hello” kind of guy. His considerable experience in university systems combined with his ability and interest in talking with people are qualities that Crowley believes will only continue to benefit Marc Johnson in his presidency. Having traveled with Johnson to many a Nevada athletic game, Crowley said that it’s not uncommon to see Marc Johnson descend to the field afterward, shaking the hands of coaches, players and cheerleaders.
“It might sound routine, but it’s a great strength,” Crowley said. “Not every person is willing to spend that kind of time with everyone.”
Marc Johnson said he is often involved in students. He enjoys going out to the Union for lunch when he is on campus and enjoys approaching students and staff and says that students “best beware” if he sees you because he will try to engage you in some kind of conversation.
Huili Weinstock, ASUN president, said that one of his favorite things about Marc Johnson is that he really strives to break the context of power between himself, as a university leader, and the students.
“Often times, students feel like the president is untouchable, unreachable,” Weinstock said. “It’s not like that with President Johnson. Whenever you feel you need to talk to him, you can get ahold of him.”
Marc Johnson poses with visitors from the Northern Nevada International Center. “I’m so glad you could make it today,” he says to them. Visitors traveled from countries such as India, Kazakhstan, Argentina, Poland, Jordan, Nicaragua and Bangladesh.
And that was apparent during the entire process of his inauguration, with no person being of too little importance for even a second of his time, down to engaging in intimate moments with his grandchildren, to posing with a group of international visitors from the Northern Nevada International Society.
“I like it when someone waves and says ‘hello, President Johnson,’” he said. “People feel, in a sense, that this is a very friendly environment, like home.”
President Johnson’s title is official now and his fondness for interacting with the public will continue to add to the stated missions and goals he has outlined for the years to come at Nevada. He hopes to maintain the mission of Nevada as a land grant university and also increase research done on campus by making a more definitive separation of graduate and undergraduate studies, allowing professors to cultivate relationships with students on a more personal basis.
Marc Johnson will remain in his position for the next three years and while he hopes to serve the university for more than said time, he said that Nevada is likely the place that he’ll retire from.
“We love the Reno-Sparks area. We think it’s the best climate we’ve ever lived in,” he said. “We enjoy the arts activities, outdoor activities and the university – why would you ever want to leave?”