Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2007

Tough decisions already for new president

Lack of state funding, affordability issues are among the challenges at Montgomery College

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Brian Lewis⁄The Gazette
New Montgomery College President Brian K. Johnson (right) greets MC-Rockville Athletic Director Barry Street during a women’s basketball game between MC-Rockville and Howard Community College. ‘‘It is truly a bell-to-bell experience. There’s been a lot of getting familiar,” Johnson said.
Brian K. Johnson has been Montgomery College president for nearly one month, but he has already received a crash course in Maryland politics and the challenges facing his college and higher education.

At the very top of Johnson’s ever-growing to-do list is to secure more funding from the state to help expand the community college — the state’s largest and one of the best in the nation.

The college is overcrowded, and his administrators are somehow finding ways to fit students into classes. Non-instructional areas are being turned into classrooms, and some adjunct professors are forced to grade papers in their vehicles.

Montgomery College, with more than 22,000 students, received only $1.2 million of a requested $40.5 million in state construction aid in Gov. Martin O’Malley’s budget proposal.

The college needs $39.2 million to build 56 new classrooms and modernize 109 labs to meet the state’s increasing demand for biology and other classes needed for Maryland’s bioscience industry. Of that money, $28 million is needed from the state to help build a new science center on the college’s Rockville campus.

It has been baptism by fire for Johnson, 50, who emerged from a nationwide pool of 70 applicants to become Montgomery College president in December.

‘‘We’ve got some labs that are in disrepair, and some that are severely dated,” he said. ‘‘If we need $40 [million] to get to the level we need to be at, and we are faced with the proposition that we may receive $1 [million], we’re not even running in place, we’re going backwards.”

The state’s 16 community colleges received only $58 million of a requested $136.8 million in capital projects, which makes it difficult to build facilities, said Clay Whitlow, executive director of the Maryland Association of Community Colleges.

Community college officials are in talks with the House and Senate to get more funding for construction, Whitlow said.

‘‘That’s a huge issue for us,” Whitlow said. ‘‘We got less than half of what we asked for.”

The state’s community colleges, including Montgomery, face other demands besides construction. They need to hire new faculty to replace retiring baby boomers, and they need to update aging computer equipment, Whitlow said.

Johnson hopes to work with a $199.2 million operating budget that the college’s Board of Trustees adopted last month for fiscal 2008, which begins July 1.

The budget would provide startup operating costs for the Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation Art Center at the Takoma Park⁄Silver Spring campus and help renovate an office building on Goldenrod Drive, next to the Germantown campus.

Montgomery College also faces affordability challenges.

In September, Maryland was among 43 states that received an F in college affordability on a biennial report issued by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, an independent nonpartisan group in San Jose, Calif.

So far, it has been meeting after meeting for Johnson, who has traveled back and forth between Rockville and Annapolis, met informally with the County Council’s Education Committee and attended as many campus basketball games as possible.

‘‘It has been nonstop,” Johnson said. ‘‘It is truly a bell-to-bell experience. There’s been a lot of getting familiar. This is a place that is humming and there’s never a dull moment. There’s a lot to do.”

Life after Nunley

Johnson, at a salary of $220,000 per year, is the college’s seventh president in its 60-year history.

He was hired after a six-month national search that followed the January 2006 announcement by the popular Charlene R. Nunley of her intention to retire in 2007. She spent 28 years with Montgomery College, the past eight as president.

The search firm, he said, simply called him last year to ask if he was interested in the position. Both he and his wife, Libra, a Howard University graduate, have family in the area, making the Montgomery job ‘‘an attractive possibility.”

‘‘I said, ‘Of course,’” Johnson recalled. ‘‘I was elated because of the reputation of Montgomery College. Of all of the two-year college vacancies in the country, this was the presidency that was at the top of the heap — bar none.”

Johnson, along with the other two candidates, toured Montgomery College in November, met with administrators, faculty, staff and students, and participated in three public forums on each of the college’s three campuses in Rockville, Germantown and Takoma Park⁄Silver Spring.

Ana M. Guzman, president of Palo Alto College in San Antonio, Texas, and Karen A. Stout, president of Montgomery County (Pa.) Community College withdrew their candidacies, leaving Johnson as the lone candidate for the president’s position.

‘‘He is our president and our first choice,” Sylvia W. Crowder, chairwoman of the Montgomery College Board of Trustees, wrote in an e-mail. ‘‘Dr. Johnson has a broad and deep knowledge of community colleges. [He] has a genuine compassion for students. We all believe that we have a winner in Dr. Johnson.”

Following Nunley is no easy feat. Johnson said he first met her six months ago and was immediately fascinated by her abilities.

‘‘I immediately joined the long list of people who called themselves fans [of Nunley],” Johnson said. ‘‘I bring my own gifts to the institution ... and I think it’s a continuation for the school to enjoy a very great legacy of leadership.”

Nunley, now working from an off-campus office in Rockville, acts as Johnson’s consultant until her contract expires on June 30.

‘‘I want Dr. Johnson to come in here and be able to lead in a manner and style that he thinks is appropriate,” Nunley said during an interview in January with The Gazette. ‘‘He will be his own leader. I need to get out of his way, which is what I fully intend to do. I will be out of his way, watching him lead the college.”

Johnson has the credentials to effectively lead Montgomery College, said Sen. Patrick J. Hogan (D-Dist. 39) of Montgomery Village, whose Hogan Commission looks into long-term funding solutions for Maryland’s higher education.

‘‘That’s a tough act to follow,” Hogan said. ‘‘But given Dr. Johnson’s background, he’s going to be outstanding.”

A road well traveled

Johnson, originally from Jersey City, N.J., comes to Montgomery College from Pennsylvania, where he spent more than two years with the Community College of Allegheny County in Pittsburgh.

His tenure began in July 2004 as vice president of the college’s Allegheny campus — its largest, with more than 20,000 students. Three months later, he was promoted to CEO of the campus and served as system senior VP for student and community services.

The entire system, with four campuses, served more than 60,000 students, Johnson said.

Johnson has been credited with establishing integrated enrollment services and coordinating $1 million worth of improvements to the Allegheny campus’s student lounge and theater. He also launched the Achieving the Dream initiative at the college, a national program aimed at underperforming students, especially those of color or students from low-income families.

Before Pittsburgh, Johnson spent 20 years with Mesa Community College in Mesa, Ariz., where he started as a student adviser and ended his tenure as dean of students.

At Mesa, he opened a campus that serves roughly 4,000 students and helped pass a $386.9 million capital bond campaign that at the time was the highest in the history of community colleges, he said.

As a journalism major at Ottawa University in Arizona, he worked an internship as an editorial assistant with the Boston Globe newspaper and then as a reporter with the Patriot Ledger in Quincy, Mass., in the mid-1970s. When he graduated, there were not many journalism jobs, so he instead decided to pursue higher education as a career.

But with all the traveling he has done in his lifetime, Johnson said he and his family are ready to settle down.

‘‘My wife and I are committed to making Montgomery County our last stop,” Johnson said. ‘‘This is home for us.”

Brian K. Johnson

Originally from Jersey City, N.J.; Now lives in Rockville with his wife and five children.

Earned bachelor’s degree in psychology from Ottawa University in Arizona, and a master’s in education in counseling⁄human relations and a doctorate in educational leadership from Northern Arizona University.

Has experience as student counselor and workforce educator in adult basic education.