Board of Trustees Appoints Dr. Mathew B. Johnson as 17th President of Albion College

A sociologist by training who officially joins Albion on July 1, the Carnegie Fellow is an international expert in the field of community engagement and brings from Brown University a passion for engaged scholarship and the public purpose of higher education.

April 23, 2020

Dr. Mathew B. Johnson

Dr. Mathew B. Johnson

Boldness. Tenacity. Courage.

Those three words go a long way toward defining who Dr. Mathew B. Johnson is and what he will strive for as the 17th President of Albion College.

Dr. Johnson, who has spent the past five years at Brown University as Associate Dean of the College for Engaged Scholarship and Senior Fellow and Executive Director of the Howard R. Swearer Center for Public Service, was selected by the Albion College Board of Trustees from nearly 100 candidates following a four-month search.

He assumes Albion’s presidency July 1 and follows the retiring Dr. Mauri Ditzler, who in six years helped rebuild Albion’s enrollment and prestige while making it a liberal arts centerpiece for diversity and inclusion.

“I looked at the landscape of liberal arts schools across the country and Albion fell into the landscape of schools that were doing really interesting things,” Dr. Johnson said. “It’s a school poised to jump forward. The three words I want to stress are boldness, tenacity and courage for public purpose. That’s what Albion is about and that’s what makes me excited.”

Dr. Maud Mandel, president of Williams College, hired Dr. Johnson at Brown and described her former colleague as “the perfect leader for Albion at this moment. Mathew is a changemaker. He is somebody with big ideas; really a visionary who is a motivator of people, through the energy of his ideas and the power of the programs that he seeks to build.”

Dr. Johnson’s story is, in some ways, the story of many Albion College students.

Born on a poultry farm in upstate New York, who by his own admission was an average student and took the SAT on a dare, Dr. Johnson is a first-generation college graduate who went to Siena College with an eye on playing football.

But as Michael Harrington, ’85, a member of Albion’s Board of Trustees and chair of the presidential search committee, said, “He fell in love with ideas.”

When football didn’t work out, Dr. Johnson focused on his studies and flourished, earning his bachelor’s from Siena and his master’s and Ph.D. in sociology from Brandeis University before he found his calling in community engagement.

Over the next 20 years at the University of Maine–Presque Isle, West Virginia Wesleyan College, his alma mater Siena and then Brown, Dr. Johnson worked on the creation and implementation of community engagement centers on both the national and international levels.

From creating a First Nations Institute for Native American students at Presque Isle, to empowering the children of miners in West Virginia, to creating and coordinating the National Assessment of Service and Community Engagement at Siena with his longtime colleague Dr. Don Levy, to directing the Carnegie Community Engagement Classification and then leading the Swearer Institute at Brown, the scope and significance of community engagement has become Dr. Johnson’s quest. His work also touches higher education centers in Australia, Canada, Ghana, Singapore and other locations around the world.

“And I’ve had so much fun doing it,” he said, adding that he will continue to direct the Community Engagement Classification on behalf of the Carnegie Foundation. “I get to go to college campuses and see the varied ways they approach diversity. I have accumulated so many tools from those partnerships that fill my toolbox. I absolutely believe those tools will be useful at Albion. I would like to build, at Albion, a public purpose institute.”

That commitment to purpose stands out among peers.

We know how special Albion is. We are a unique place and it was clear that Dr. Johnson understood and shared the values that have made Albion what it is today.” –Dr. Trisha Franzen, professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies

“What excites me is that Mathew’s background, his work, scholarly and otherwise, has focused on the question of purpose—purpose in higher education, purpose of higher education in society. And his passion for it is genuine,” said Dr. Paul LeMahieu, senior vice president, programs at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. “He is a listener first. The value-added that he brings is the ability to both synthesize and integrate multiple perspectives, and honesty in doing so.”

Harrington, Vice Chair Joey Edwards Miller, ’75, and their fellow committee members got to experience those qualities firsthand over the course of the search.

“My impression is he is somebody who is not afraid to make decisions, but does it through a disciplined process of hearing from a lot of people,” Harrington said. “I think he’s going to be a bold leader but I don’t think he’ll act rashly. He’s going to be a change agent.”

Dr. Trisha Franzen, professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies and head of the Faculty Steering Committee, saw Dr. Johnson’s career in community engagement as crucial, especially as Albion College and the community continue to build their relationship.

“We know how special Albion is,” she said. “We are a unique place and it was clear that Dr. Johnson understood and shared the values that have made Albion what it is today. He presented a vision for an Albion future that built on those values and built on our history, a shared vision that would continue in the innovative work we have done over the last few years.”

Dr. Johnson has a son, Noah, who will be attending the University of Vermont this fall specializing in environmental studies, and his daughter, Savannah, will be a junior at Brandeis studying economics and sociology.

He works closely with his partner, Dr. Shannon O’Neill, who has a distinguished career of her own at Brown as a Dean of the College, and in her prior roles as a faculty member and as a founding director of a Center for Women. They have co-taught courses, taken students abroad together and enjoy getaways in out-of-the-way places such as the Shetland Islands, Iceland, the Azores and Newfoundland.

Dr. Johnson and his partner, Dr. Shannon O’Neill, come from Brown University to Albion College, “a school poised to jump forward,” in the words of Dr. Johnson.

“We really are a modern partnership,” Dr. Johnson said.

And the goal for Albion’s new president is to build on what Albion College does well, find new directions to go, and thrive in all of them.

“There’s a thirst in the faculty I’ve met for a renaissance of the curriculum,” he said. “I want to create an ecosystem where the faculty feels supported and valued and challenged to innovate the liberal arts.”

“He was always going to be a college president someplace, but his experience makes him the perfect college president for Albion,” Harrington said. “He has dedicated his academic and professional career to building a community, and we’re already engaged in community-building at Albion. He’s going to lift that to the next level.”