Brian Johnson wants to be like Booker T. Washington, the African American educator who believed in bootstraps, racial uplift, and the power of helping people help themselves through education.

Johnson, who is in his second year as president of Warner Pacific University, a Church of God–affiliated college with 800 students in Portland, Oregon, knows that’s not the most popular thing for a college president to want to be.

In fact, he already tried to be like Washington at the school Washington founded: Tuskegee University. He was there for three rocky years.

Still, ask him about his vision for Christian higher education and what he hopes to accomplish at Warner Pacific, and Johnson doesn’t hesitate. He wants to apply the things he’s learned from studying Washington. He believes in fiscal responsibility, the unhesitating elevation of the ideal of excellence, and an insistence on opportunities for racial minorities.

If people don’t like it, well, that’s leadership.

“You know, if you’re pleasing everybody, you’re really not getting anything done,” he told CT. “There is a kind of leadership in higher education where you can sit there, say the right platitudes, say the right things, and just keep the ship the way it is. You can last a long time by not having any controversy, by not really telling the culture, telling its board, ‘Hey, we have not been doing this right.’”

Johnson, one of only three Black presidents at a Council for Christian Colleges and Universities–affiliated school, does not think evangelical higher education, or higher ed generally, has been “doing it right.”

Dorothy Cowser Yancy, former president of Shaw University ...

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