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 and Johnson C. Smith University, knew Johnson as a student and an administrator. She says he is someone who has the backbone necessary to make changes and he’s realistic.

“When you are a president, sometimes you become a realist. Because you got to get the job done,” she said. “Booker T. Washington was also a realist.”

Johnson’s academic journey didn’t start with Washington, though, but with W. E. B. Du Bois, the Black intellectual who argued that civil rights, not education, was the first step toward equality. The two historic figures were contemporaries and often conceptualized as ideological rivals.

At the University of South Carolina, Johnson studied Du Bois’s writings for his PhD in English. The more he read, the more he was attracted to Du Bois’s more conservative, reform writings rather than his more popular, progressive protest writings.

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“Protesting ceaselessly and endlessly about what others are doing was not going to fill my belly,” he said. “I needed to develop a calling.”

He found that calling as an English professor at Gordon College, a Christian school in Massachusetts. Gordon was “almost like the dream job,” said Johnson’s wife, Shemeka. But after a few years, he grew interested in administration. There weren’t many administrative positions open at Gordon, nor did he feel encouraged to go for the positions that did open up.

“For African Americans to be in positions of authority, such as administration, you have to check every single box,” he said. “And even then, you are still given an opportunity where you need to work a miracle.”

Johnson left evangelical higher education to pursue his career at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). In 2006, he went to Claflin University, where he founded an institute for southern African American history. Then he made the jump to administration at Johnson C. Smith University, first as associate vice president for academic affairs and then as chief of staff to the president.

Then, in 2014, Johnson saw the position he thought was the perfect fit for him: president of an HBCU. And not just any HBCU, but the school founded by Washington: Tuskegee.

“I love Booker T. Washington. I find myself Booker T. Washingtonesque,” Johnson said. “I loved the idea of it. But I quickly understood that it was no longer Booker T.’s university.”

Washington preached fiscal conservatism, yet the university was $143.6 million in debt. Washington admonished students to study hard, and Johnson saw some students were doing that, but there was also a concerning party culture at the school. Washington built relationships with white benefactors, but the school had few white donors. Johnson felt the university had strayed from its founder’s original vision, and he thought he was the man to correct that.

His first year at the Alabama school, Johnson decided to lift up the Washington vision by blogging daily commentaries on Washington’s writing.

“Make no mistake, appropriate dress and eloquent speech is quite essential for the university-trained man or woman,” he wrote in one. “Grades alone without accompanying poise, presence and posture will not assure one’s entrance into career fields where appearance often factors into personal prejudices.”

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It was not popular.

“People don’t want to be told, ‘Hey, your gold isn’t as shiny as you really think it is,’” said Edward Brown, Johnson’s chief of staff at Tuskegee. “People perceived that as arrogance.”

During Johnson’s second year, the board chair brought in Jim Davis, a professional coach, to help Johnson.

“I felt that he did a pretty good job advancing Tuskegee at a time when they were in a difficult position,” Davis said. “But he wasn’t shy about his own ego.”

In three years, Tuskegee reduced its debt by 9 percent. The university also saw finances and learning assessments improve to the point that the university’s accreditor removed a warning it had issued for noncompliance.

It wasn’t enough, however. Though there’s some disagreement over whether it was Johnson’s decision or the board’s, he stopped being president after three years.

Shemeka Johnson said that was “disheartening,” but she saw her husband learn “how much change you can effect and not be so far ahead of even the culture.”

That’s what Johnson hopes to do better in his current role at Warner Pacific, where he started in August 2020.

The biggest challenge for the Oregon school, Johnson said, is growth. Warner Pacific has 466 traditional undergraduate students and about another 400 in graduate programs and, as with many small universities, depends on tuition as a primary source of revenue. Full-time fall undergraduate enrollment dropped by 22 percent between 2015 and 2019. Warner Pacific is facing deferred maintenance costs and needs to attract more students to grow revenue.

The other issue, for Johnson, is diversity. Warner Pacific has a diverse student body. Roughly 40 percent is white, nearly a third Hispanic, 12 percent Black, 8 percent multiethnic, and 6 percent Asian. It is the first federally recognized Hispanic-serving college or university in Oregon. But Johnson said the administration has historically been mostly white.

Johnson believes that by recruiting more people of color to work at Warner Pacific, he can create opportunities for minorities to help themselves, elevate ideals of excellence, recruit the students necessary to grow revenue, and take care of the school’s budgetary problems.

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Making Booker T. Washington–type decisions, he believes, is exactly what Warner Pacific—and evangelical higher ed more generally—needs.

Johnson has already started by filling three positions on his cabinet, two with people of color and one with a white woman. He said he is also committed to keeping some positions unfilled until hiring committees find a qualified minority candidate.

Most people would be dumbfounded, he said, to see “how minimally qualified whites at Christian universities have roles that minorities could occupy,” while minorities are disqualified for the vaguest reasons of “fit.”

“Well, we are going to wait to find a minority to fill that role to get adequate representation,” Johnson said.

Shirley Hoogstra, president of the CCCU, said there are good reasons to prioritize diversity, and the need for diverse faculty and staff is only expected to grow.

Johnson’s path forward will likely lead to conflict. But he thinks that’s what it means to be a leader.

And he believes that’s what Washington would do.

Liam Adams is a journalist in Tennessee.

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