Season three of Knights Do That, UCF’s official podcast, returns with its second guest, Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Michael Johnson. Over 30 years ago, Johnson started as an assistant professor in the Department of Physics and over the years he has continued to serve Knight Nation through various leadership roles. He discusses strategic decision-making that serves a greater good, how universities serve a critical function to society and the future of higher education.
Michael Johnson: We have this ethical responsibility to that very diverse student body to make sure that in every case where we can, we help students graduate. We help them do so in a major that suits them, we do it in a timely manner, ideally in four years and with as little debt as possible.
James Evans: Hello, and welcome back to another episode of Knights Do That. Colleges and universities drive the social, intellectual and economic development of their region. At UCF, we produce graduates that are capable, curious and compassionate leaders. We create innovations and conduct research that redefines the human experience. We unleash the potential of people and ideas, thus enabling them to change the world. My guest today is Provost and Executive Vice President Michael Johnson. He’s a lifelong learner and a leader within Knight Nation who started at UCF as a faculty member over 30 years ago. His insights into building a great university are unparalleled.
James Evans: Let’s hear what he has to say about UCF as a university for the future.
James Evans: Provost Johnson, thanks for being here today. How are you?
Michael Johnson: I’m very well. I’m happy to do this.
James Evans: Awesome. I love it. So you have been with UCF for three decades now, can you share with us a summary of your journey? What’s it been like?
Michael Johnson: I came as a new assistant professor in the Department of Physics. I’d completed my Ph.D. I’d done some postdocs, which is typical. And then I took my first faculty job here and what seems to have turned out to be my last. I came to the physics department at an interesting time.
Michael Johnson: I came to the physics department at an interesting time. The department had just had a Ph.D approved and they were building their research programs. And I was part of a set of hires associated with that. I was brought in part because there was a really good collaboration available with somebody who unfortunately has moved on in the years since, but it made the work great fun.
Michael Johnson: I now realize that I came at a time when UCF was in transition to become a call it normal public university. With a mix of residential students and students living up and down Alafaya Trail and fraternities and sororities and intercollegiate athletics getting going.
Michael Johnson: And it was starting to develop this identity, which it really didn’t have in the earliest years as a call it “regular” university. And during the years since I came, UCF has established itself on the national landscape as a national research university. One way of saying that is that we’re rated by the Carnegie Foundation as a very high research institution.
That’s puts us in the category of a hundred odd universities. It’s a little bit like being 1A in football. You get to take the field. It doesn’t mean you’re going to win. So we’ve developed to the point that we’re a competitive institution. And now academically — frankly, a bit like athletically — we’re seeking to become exceptionally good.
James Evans: I’m very curious with the idea of the UCF identity shaping over that time. How do you feel about how we started out and how that identity has molded over time and your perspective on that as it’s changed through the years?
Michael Johnson: I really feel fortunate to have fallen into public higher education. When I started out looking for faculty jobs, I didn’t really realize the significance of the mission. Now I’ve come to appreciate it at the other end of my career, but UCF has become what it has because that’s what the public needs from us. Public universities are established to do good for the public we’re established for the public wellbeing. That’s been true since the Morrill Act that Abraham Lincoln signed in the 1860s.
Public universities are established, of course, to educate members of the public, to do research and solve problems that are significant for the public good. In our case, we are the only research university —originally, the only major university — in what has become a very large metropolitan area. Orlando is now the 23rd largest metropolitan area in the U.S.
Quite different from when UCF started. And in the years since, as Orlando has developed, as this region has developed and, frankly, as the state of Florida has developed, UCF has changed to meet its mission of doing what is necessary for the public good. So that includes really first-rate research programs, especially in areas that are significant.
To this region, it means educational programs that matter that help students get jobs and help fulfill the workforce needs. So the path we went on wasn’t something we made up because somebody in the university thought it was a good idea. It was carrying out our obligations to the public.
James Evans: Absolutely. And there’s this very intriguing notion to me of doing research through partnerships. Using our metropolitan identity to hone in with industry, where the innovation really starts, and researching that and crafting it and building it from there. Can you speak to that notion at all?
Michael Johnson: Part of what really is special about UCF and universities like us is that we are located in a major metropolitan area. Frankly, if the Morrill Act were signed today. All universities would be like us. It made sense 150 years ago, 170 years ago, for public universities to be dropped in little rural towns all around the country, because it was in agro economy.
It was perfectly reasonable to locate universities in market towns or locations that people that were no harder to get to than any other place. Those days are long over. Nobody would put the public universities in little rural towns today. They would go to Orlando, Tampa, Miami, Jacksonville in Florida. The major metropolitan areas, the cities and the regions around them are the social and economic center of the United States.
Michael Johnson: That’s the majority of the population. And by far the majority of the economic strength. It’s not saying rural areas don’t matter. It’s saying that there’s this concentration of people and economic strength in these regions, and that’s where the universities can do the most good. There’s a very important point to make about this.
When we fulfill our obligation to this region, when we have a hospitality college, the Rosen College of Hospitality Management,supporting this important economic part of the region, we fulfill part of our responsibility. But here’s the point that matters to me as an insider: It also gives us an opportunity to be great at something because of our location and because of meeting that obligation.
So the Rosen College, depending on your survey, is the (one of the) best or perhaps second best hospitality college in the world. We’ve done a remarkable job of building strength there by partnership. This is similar with much of engineering. This region has one of the largest aerospace and defense industries in the world.
Michael Johnson: Something people don’t often know about Orlando, we have an extraordinary set of engineering programs and they’ve developed in partnership with major aerospace companies in this area. It’s true with modeling and simulation, right? The Research Park where we’re sitting right now is home to an $8 billion industry for the state of Florida focused in this region.
We’ve developed modeling and simulation programs in partnership with that. And I could go on and on. The point is fulfilling our responsibility to this region doesn’t make us the best darn college in Orlando. It actually gives us the seeds and the opportunities to become a great university on the national and international landscape.
And the only thing you said that I would really disagree with is that actually innovation doesn’t really start in businesses. Innovation starts in universities. I’m not suggesting businesses don’t innovate, but the fundamental research which helps establish economic opportunities in the future is now more than ever centered in universities.
A generation or two ago, fundamental research took place in businesses. You know monopolies, like the Bell Company, could have Bell Labs — one of the greatest research facilities in the world. It’s where the laser and the semiconductor were invented.
Michael Johnson: Those days are over. Businesses largely work on product development with some exceptions. National labs are no longer as strong as they were after World War II. Our country, in particular, has focused its efforts to do the research, which leads to the innovation, which builds real economic strength in the future, in the universities like UCF, the research universities.
James Evans: And I want to take a second and zoom out on that, right? As we are working so closely with our area and its economic strengths and the industries that are here, how are you looking at that? With, I don’t want to say competitors, but our operational comparisons. In that larger context of not just Florida, but the entire United States, and even now globally, right? How are we looking at ourselves with other universities and shaping up how our identity is forming with our region and how that may be different from other regions and other institutions?
Michael Johnson: We are colleagues with and competitors with other universities. That’s the nature of higher education. In many ways we have similar missions and responsibilities, right? We need to offer undergraduate degrees in a very comprehensive set of areas because we have students interested in them in needing them from across this region.
Some other region has the same responsibility. So in some ways we do things much alike, but we also have to pay attention to our own strengths based on history and earlier investment, or maybe just the ambition of certain units that really took off. We have to look at our own strengths and we have to look at the opportunities that we seek specifically for ourselves and make sure we’re wise and take advantage of them.
Our opportunities are not the same as somebody else’s, you know. I mentioned some. We have in this region, everybody knows, an incredible hospitality and tourism business. We have this incredible modeling and simulation business. We have an incredible aerospace and defense opportunity space in particular. The industry of space privatization of the space business is a future opportunity.
Michael Johnson: So we have to look at those things and ask ourselves can we do something useful there? If we can, should we? And if we should, how should we? So that’s part of thinking about the future. There’s another aspect of thinking about the future. President Cartwright likes to describe UCF, and it’s part of our strategic plan, as the “University for the Future.”
And that really means something sometimes over the past few decades. Universities have had some desire to be like one another. So our goal ought not to be make ourselves like a university that was started 200 or 300 years ago. Our goal is to ask, “What does Florida need? What does the nation need? What does this region need? What will our students need in the next 10, 20, 50 years?” And build towards that. Part of that is influenced by where we are. We want to not just be in a place; we want to be of a place. We want to make sure we recognize our obligations, our responsibilities, but then also the opportunities that presents us as a university.
It’s a good path. We’ve been on that path for 50 years of partnership — of building together with this community. It’s carried us a very long way and I think it’s going to lead us a really great excellence in the future.
James Evans: It’s one of my favorite quotes that I heard about before I even came to UCF and now it sits on the wall downtown: “If you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together.” And I love that that principle is so ingrained into the UCF nature and you’ve name dropped it specifically and led up with some great questions to the strategic plan.
What was that process specifically like? What goes into developing a strategic plan to understanding the university for the granular details while looking at the larger identity and the brand? And putting that all together in a 22-page document?
Michael Johnson: So a university strategic plan is an interesting thing. Sometimes when I wanted to be snarky or cynical, I’ve said, “We all have the same strategic plan. It’s teach good, research good, service good. But really what a strategic plan is intended to do — what a good one does — is try to capture how you will do those things in a way which is special to your institution.
Michael Johnson: The process of getting there includes listening to lots of voices, but it’s also this iterative attempt to boil down all of those many ideas into sort of the essence of what the university is and wishes to be. And especially what it intends to do to move along the path. It’s on so many strategic plans. And I think some are like Christmas trees, where everybody with an interest hangs their ornament on the tree. So it’s not really strategic and it’s not really a plan. And that’s a common thing for people to say about strategic plans.
I think what we’ve done here by listening closely to voices by thinking carefully about our past and what it means to aim for the future is to try to spell out. What really will be our priorities over the coming five years and why and what path the steps we take will help us move along.
So it’s got this focus, that’s this strategic aspect, and it’s got this vision of where we want to be and why. And I think that’s what makes a good strategic plan has to have both of those things. Where are you going? What are you going to do in say five years to get there?
James Evans: A large part of your job is to execute on that. Everybody in the executive suite is there to execute on that plan, and set the more direct marching orders almost to accomplishing those goals, right? What does that look like in your work as the provost and the chief academic officer and the executive vice president? All of these things mean that you have a very large responsibility in pushing forward that plan and that goal. What does that look like in the day to day or even the month to month?
Michael Johnson: Universities are large and distributed organizations and they ought to be. We organize by college for good reasons. And each college, really each department [and], to some extent, each person in the university has their own ambition and their own directions.
Michael Johnson: We hire, for example, faculty for independence of thought. And by golly, what we get is independence. It’s not like many businesses where you hire to build a team. We can form teams, but we hire for independent ability and self-direction that builds terrific academic programs. It builds national level expertise. It builds highly ranked programs. It doesn’t build a lot of coordination without some help.
And the point I’m trying to make is that we want each part of the university to think about what it needs to do to become great, right? So I want the College of Business to think what it means to be terrific in educating students in business at the undergraduate and graduate level, what it means to be doing scholarly work that really matters, how to be consultants in a way which is of great value to businesses. Similarly, for each college [and] for each unit in the university, they have their ambition. They have their own set of interests, and we want them to pursue those things.
We don’t wait for marching orders from the executive suite. We mostly know what we’re trying to do in the parts of the university, butmy job as provost in part is to say, “…and, as well, we need you to focus on certain priorities, which may or may not coincide with the priorities you developed for yourself.”
For example, we’re very proud of our success with students and the social mobility that we offer. We have unbelievably strong students coming in through many different pathways: first time in college students, traditional freshmen, working adults, people who come to us as transfers. And it’s a very diverse group. We’re over a quarter Hispanic; We’re a Hispanic Serving Institution. We expect to be majority-minority in a couple of years. Half our students come as transfers. We have this ethical responsibility to that very diverse student body to make sure that — in every case where we can. We help students graduate. We help them do so in a major that suits them. We do it in a timely manner, ideally in four years, and with as little debt as possible. Nobody argues that that’s not a good responsibility for the university, but it’s a collective and central priority
And it’s my job to make sure we do all the things we need to do. And there are similar priorities in research and development of faculty. I spoke to a different university president once and my question was I was trying to think about the relationship between my priorities as a dean in my own college and a president’s responsibilities and priorities for the university and what I heard made good sense to me.
Not everybody, not everything can be a priority for the university, or you don’t have any priorities. Nonetheless, it’s your job as the leader of a subunit, whether or not you’re the apple of the president’s eye, whether or not today certain things that you care about are university priority. You know, what’s important in your college or your unit, and it’s your job to seek excellence and what you and your unit are doing. And I like that balance. We have central priorities, but they’re not the only priorities.
James Evans: That’s a really great way to put it. And I love how much you spelled out, especially the student perspective and, UCF’s identity within our demographics and our student population. And I’m very curious to understand what it looks like in this mission to enhance our research, to be innovative.
A lot of that comes from our researchers, from our faculty as well. What does it look like to empower faculty, to unleash their potential? Because we often talk about students, but I’m very curious about that population and your responsibility to them.
Michael Johnson: Interestingly, my direct life for a long time has been more with faculty than directly with students. That’s one of the curiosities about moving into administrative or leadership positions in a university. And, you know, I miss being in the classroom. I miss working with students. I miss doing my own research, but I did have the joy did as dean and I do as provost of trying to help faculty start careers and succeed in what they do.
There’s a great joy in that. A university really becomes great when it has faculty that are great. Who are able to inspire students and teach them; Who can bring them into their scholarly or creative activities — bring them into their labs or their studios. We’re a research university. Many of the faculty we hire have this dual responsibility of scholarship, research, creative activities and teaching. They’re scholar-teachers. Scientist-teachers. That’s the promise we offer our students. Your education will not be only from books, only from highly skilled people lecturing in a classroom, but you will also have the opportunity to learn from those, maybe work with those, who are at the cutting edge of their disciplines.
We have faculty who are among the best in the world and their disciplines, that is the mission of a research university from an education point of view. It’s also our mission to do work that is important in our research, scholarship and creative endeavors. Part of my job is the blocking and tackling of that. Help our departments hire good people. Help our faculty, when they come, have the resources they need to succeed. We do our best to get them more, whether it’s better equipment, better facilities, better pay. We will be the university wish to be if we manage to hire, develop and retain fantastic faculty. We’ve done so, steadily improving, for all the years that I’ve been here. Central to my job is to make sure that moves forward. Doesn’t stand still. And obviously doesn’t move backward.
And we’ve done that across this university for 50 years. It’s been this remarkable path of improvement. And it’s a real joy to watch that. It’s not always comfortable, right? We’re hiring people to be independent of thought and to push and push. Well, they’re independent and they push, but that’s what makes them good at what they do. And it’s part of what makes us a great university.
James Evans: One-hundred percent. And I find it really interesting that public institutions, especially research institutions have to be so independent themselves while hiring independent people who will have their own thoughts and their own opinions. And they’re doing research and they’re asking questions all the time.
James Evans: We’ve talked about partnerships here and we’ve talked about providing an education and providing a common good for our region for our state, et cetera. And one of our biggest partners is the state of Florida. We are an institution with our goals and our priorities, but a lot of the money and the funding that comes for empowering researchers and empowering students comes from grants from the state. How does government relations work? How does that happen?
Michael Johnson: One of the interesting tensions. It’s not a problem, but it’s an intellectual tension within a university is where to be broad and where to be focused. Our students need us to have a breadth of expertise and a breadth of understanding. If you’re going to major in history, you need historians who think different ways. You can’t just learn from people who all think one way. That’s very important. We need to be a comprehensive university where we offer engineering and business [and] hospitality and history and philosophy.
We need those things both so that we can educate people broadly, but also so that we can meet the career and intellectual interests of all the students who come. At the same time, there is a value to focus. Intellectual tension is always between intellectual breadth and focus.
One of the things that makes investing strategic is to focus resources into some areas that we know matter. For example, hire faculty with a set of common interests and our strategic plan defines some major areas that we know are important areas where we can excel and areas that are important to the state and the region. Space is one. Energy is one. Entertainment and hospitality represents another collection. And we purposefully hire independent faculty in a certain relatively narrow set of areas, so that they can form teams. They can have opportunities to [work] more together than they would able to do independently.
That’s an interesting balance in all universities. Now what’s our relationship with the state. Our mission is that of a public university. We have an obligation to work for the public good. That’s what the state funds us for. Students fund us for education. And that’s part of what the state is funding us for.
What we do is educate not just students in the upper middle class, not just students of advantage, but as many students as we can from all walks of life. And it’s our obligation to help them succeed. That’s a core of our mission. An equally important aspect of our mission is to work for the public good through our research and creative works and scholarly activities. And that often carries out in partnership. I think that’s appreciated at the state level as a characteristic of UCF in particular. I think it’s not just us. I think all of the metropolitan institutions in Florida and around the nation do the same thing because it’s clear to all of us that we best carry that mission out in partnership with our regions, with our employers, with the economic and social centers of the places we find ourselves.
And I believe that we are generally well regarded at this state level beause we recognize that aspect of our mission: our partnership with our region.
James Evans: We have several entrepreneurial and research-based locations across Orlando. We’ve talked about how we take in some of that identity and form with our community, but how are we helping shape the Central Florida identity as well? How are we giving back into that?
Michael Johnson: I think our influence on this region is twofold. It’s of course the students we graduate who become workforce. If we’re doing right by our students and right by their future employers, they’re well prepared to start the careers. But even more importantly, frankly, we’ve set them up well for career success as the years go forward.
Our obligation to our students includes helping them step out into good first jobs. Our obligation assuredly does not end there. If your only interest is in fact the first job, I think it’s better to get a quicker educational activity. Get a technical certificate. Do something that takes 18 months. Get that first job. You will be in the workforce sooner a university education promise. It’s not just a good first job, but a career arc. That is to say, “What will you do in 10 and 20 and 40 years? Will you be a leader in your business, in your community?”
We are trying to prepare adults who can be responsible citizens in a democracy. Active members of their community. We want people to know something about the great things that people have done before them. We want them to understand something about literature and art. And if they have that interest to throw themselves into it, whether it’s a vocation or just something that enriches the rest of their lives, this is part of our responsibility as well. It’s our responsibility to help our students understand that they’re part of a big and diverse world. And to appreciate the fact that someone in another country is in some ways like them and in some ways very different from them because of their lived experiences.
So our obligations to our students certainly include career and we’re in a somewhat pragmatic era where sometimes that’s the only concern people have, but our responsibilities go far beyond that. So if we’re doing right by our students, we help develop a wonderful population in this region. People who have a degree of concern for others, empathy, understanding of the world, interest in the wellbeing of their communities.
We play a role in all of that. We have faculty who work closely with, major industrial sectors and help solve their problems. We have engineering faculty working closely with energy companies, working closely with aerospace companies, solving immediate problems. They have students working with them on those problems who graduate and then go to work for those businesses, helping solve problems, develop products. So the ties can be very, very strong. Our hospitality faculty are constantly working with leaders at all levels in the hospitality and tourism industries asking what’s going on, what’s the next thing, what can we do to help you think through the next thing. When our faculty are actively engaged in important aspects of this community, they help shape the future of some of those business.
Some of those answers to societal problems, so it’s education, but it’s also this scholarly, creative and research endeavor. It can matter immensely to the success of individual businesses, communities and the region.
James Evans: That’s amazing. And it’s so interesting to understand some of the conversations we’ve had around students can have such a wide impact, Just the university being here and being a partner, being involved, doing research, contributing to all of the different industries in our locale, how we can have such an impact. And I want to zoom in a little bit on students. We’ve zoomed in on professors and research and faculty want to zoom in on students here for a second.
UCF has an identity that’s central to it, and it hits home for me, it is a first-generation college student, of social mobility and advancement. Can you speak to that aspect of our identity a little bit more and how we’re focusing on students progressing through their degree.
Michael Johnson: Traditionally I think universities were in some way, laissez-faire institutions. A university would admit a student. It was then up to that student to learn, to succeed and to graduate. And it’s true. It’s up to a student to learn and succeed and graduate, but it’s should not be only up to that student. We who work in the university, the faculty and the staff, all of us have an ethical responsibility to do the things that we can to remove barriers that we may have placed in students way inadvertently more often than not.
Once upon a time, universities were really aimed for the sons, not sons and daughters, the sons of what amounts to aristocracy or the American version of that, the upper middle class or the well-to-do. Those students had advantages and support structures. The university could just teach and demand that the students on their own find a way to succeed. And I’m not going to suggest nobody would ever help, but students had to know to ask for help, had to look for it. If we’re to fulfill our responsibility to students who don’t have family members who want to college, who are new to this country, new to this culture for whom higher education is a great unknown, we’ve got to ask ourselves, what can we do better?
I’m a faculty member at heart. And the example, for me, goes to teaching. That’s my first and best example. When I entered the profession, I taught the way that I had been taught, seemed natural to me. I’d succeeded in it. After all I learned, well, one of the senior faculty, when I was a new professor might have been the same one who told me, the very worst people to understand how students learn physics are physics professors. Because physics professors are the ones for whom this was natural. They learned it the way they were lectured, the way the material was presented, worked for them. And in the years, since then we’ve conducted good investigations into how students learn.
Researchers have strapped sensors to students’ heads and watched their brain activity during a week. This really did happen and watched. When are students’ brains engaged? So the traditional way to teach physics, for example, helped students who are say heading into engineering, learn how to solve problems. But they totally lost the concepts that were the equally important part of what we were trying to teach. They didn’t understand to say a simple example, the difference between acceleration and velocity. And that makes sense. They’re almost the same thing in normal English, but they’re extraordinarily different concepts in science.
Anyway, the point is in over these years, people have learned both their responsibility to think about what’s effective and they have learned how to conduct studies, which help determine which things that we try work well and which don’t. So we have this ethical responsibility to change how we teach, if that’s what’s needed to help students learn.
That’s part of a modern university it’s equally true in student support services in our educational policies. [It] used to be if you had a parking ticket, you might not be able to register for the next semester till you paid it off. That’s a ridiculous idea. A student who’s really hanging on economically can be knocked out of college by a policy of that sort.
We have to change them and we have changed them. So the point is we have to fulfill our ethical responsibility to both eliminate the barriers that we’ve inadvertently placed in students, ways but also ask, “How can we do better? How can we actively reach students and make sure we’re giving them what they need to learn to become part of the community to know they belong to help overcome obstacles that get in their paths?”
This is a long way from the laissez faire world that I saw as a student when I entered university. That’s the that’s part of the university for the future is to make sure we’re doing what we need to for as many students as we can.
James Evans: I couldn’t agree more. I chose UCF for a lot of the things you just discussed: The identity that we have here the culture that we’ve built around UCF, focusing on student success. Having that ethical responsibility, recognizing it and moving forward with it, right? That doesn’t happen. Student success doesn’t happen without a lot of data. And over your time as a professor, to eventually a dean, to eventually a provost, right? Things have changed technologically quite a bit, how have you used data?
What does that look like from understanding privacy and the rights around data as that’s a forming legal field right now? But also, how is it benefiting your work in engaging students? In getting students to succeed in getting faculty to succeed? What does that look like as data has transformed over the years?
Michael Johnson: Higher education is at the beginning of a new era where we’ll be able to turn data analytics onto large data sets and use it to help shape support for students. And some universities are doing this more than we are. But we are one of the universities that is learning how to look at student behavior, students records, where students have succeeded and where they’ve had problems and use them to shape individualized responses.
So advisors, for example, will look to see what students appear to have run into a problem and, in an assertive way, seek to help that student that’s different from the laissez faire approach to the past where help was available. But a student had to know to go ask for it. We now try to use data to seek out and help the students who need that help. Data’s also useful in some less intrusive fashions. Once upon a time, what you had was a catalog on paper, which would tell you what courses to take. And, at some point, that catalog was stuck on a computer and you could see the same information on the web. But it was the same static, sterile information.
You had to go look at it and figure out what to do. We’re increasingly working towards a world where the information that we have about a student will enable us even technologically to help give them advice about what they ought to do next.
I will personalize it. We can see that you had a problem in this course. We suggest you do the following things: talk to this advisor, use this tutoring service, perhaps take this course rather than that course that you’re thinking about. That is to say, even automatically be able to use the data about an individual to help shape a better path for that student [and] help them avoid a problem.
This is really interesting. You know, there is a curious new, ethical consideration about the use of data. The easy statement is we have to use that in a way, which is in the student’s interest. Well, who decides what’s the student’s interest?
We do, in some benevolent patriarchal or matriarchal fashion, I suppose. But there is a reason to think carefully about that. So you don’t end up doing harm instead of good. we don’t want to shape students into being what they don’t wish to be. We want to help them become what they wish to be and who knows how that’s going to develop.
It’ll be a really interesting, I think, couple of decades coming where we make – we in all of higher education — take some steps, correct some errors and gradually learn how to do this.
James Evans: Absolutely. And I think consumer privacy right now is such a big conversation. And eventually that conversation is going to shift even more into education as we get closer and closer to public services in those discussions. So we have some more lighthearted questions from here on out. What excites you most about UCF and its future?
Michael Johnson: It has been such a joy to be at UCF for now almost 32 years. I’ve had the opportunity to interview probably hundreds of prospective faculty and talk to thousands of students. And I think the thing that has always been exciting is that we are going places and we still are. There are places in this country where the universities know their best times are behind them and they are seeking to hold on and adapt to a harder new world with a falling population of traditionally college age students. We know at UCF that our best time is in front of us.
It is exciting to know that you’ve got the ability to take a place and make it better. Whether it’s the whole university, or your piece of it, that’s always been the excitement for me. We’re just full of ambitious people who want to do better. That’s great fun.
James Evans: What advice would you give somebody who wants to do what you do or someone who just wants to work in higher ed? What would you say to them?
Michael Johnson: Nobody wants to be a provost because nobody knows what a provost is. I guarantee you I didn’t start out, you know, working on my degrees and eventually a Ph.D. and going to a faculty job because I thought I wanted to do administrative work. That came through odd circumstances. I would say think about why, but this is the same question I would ask anybody. When you think you might want to go on a certain career path, try to figure out why it interests you. What interested me to begin with was actually relatively selfish. I liked to teach and I liked my research. I loved them both equally. I liked the fact that my research was working on what I wanted it to be. So call it [a] curiosity driven intellectual adventure, or if you wish call it selfish. It was doing what I wanted to do.
As time has gone on, I’ve recognized how fortunate I was to fall into public higher education, where our goal is to do good for the students who come to us. That’s true public and private institutions, but also we focus on the good of the society that we’re a part of. We have obligations to the state, to our region, to our nation.
That mission is such a wonderful thing. When I was new to the business, I thought about what I liked as time has gone on. I’ve started to appreciate what we are able to do as a large capable, even excellent, public institution. And, if somebody wants to think about getting into education, think about that: What is it that they like? Why do they want to do this?
That ought to be the same question for any career path. Some of it is you got an interest. You’ve got an aptitude. You see an opportunity to make a living, I would advise anybody also think about the whys after that to the extent you can. I couldn’t have thought very much about that when I was 22.
James Evans: What’s one thing you’re still hoping to do?
Michael Johnson: I would really like to learn to speak Spanish. My generation of Americans, if we were college bound, took foreign languages. I took French. There wasn’t any reason to take one language over another.
James Evans: Mm-hmm.
Michael Johnson: But there’s no opportunity in those days. Only rich people traveled abroad.
So we didn’t get to use our languages. I live in Florida for heaven sakes. My oldest daughter lives in Miami. I would like to speak Spanish when I visit Miami, where English is a minority language. And even with our own students, I would feel that it was fulfilling my sort of responsibility to them.
James Evans: It’s a goal of mine as well is to eventually be able to be conversational in Spanish.
Michael Johnson: You know, I’d like to answer one of your earlier questions you asked me the path I followed, I came to UCF as an assistant professor of physics in 1990. [I was] hired the year after they got a new Ph.D. program to help build the research faculty needed to support that.
And I taught undergraduate and graduate courses, and I developed my research program. And I really quite loved that. And I got tenured and was promoted somewhere along the way there. I started to realize I liked the service side of my job, perhaps a little too much. And I was asked to serve on a search committee for an associate or assistant dean in the college of what was that arts and sciences.
And I went and helped write the ad. And then a couple days later I was walking along and it was a little bit like a cartoon, you know, a light bulb went off over my head and I said, “Huh. I might like to do that job.” So I resigned from the search committee and talked to the people running it and applied for the job and got it.
And it was for me just a thing I’ll try. I will try doing this administrative work for a year and see if I liked it. And I liked it. And so I did it for another year and I did it for another year. And after a while I decided I was actually good at this. And it was rewarding to me in some ways I felt like I’d spent at that point some decades moving my right arm in my teaching and research in my physics training in my life as a physicist, as a faculty member.
And I was now sort of moving my left arm — doing work which was mostly for other people. My job was to help other faculty, to help other faculty students, to help students in classes that I wasn’t teaching. The job was rather than, you know, me focused on my life as a faculty member, me trying to do work for the good of others.
And there is a joy in that as well. [I found] enough of a joy in it and I ended up being thought of as good enough at it, that I ended up as a dean and later ended up in this provost job. But it’s very different from what brought me into higher education and, honestly, those of us who are faculty who’ve gone into administrative roles would all probably say the same thing.
In my case. You know, if the president decides tomorrow to get rid of me, that it’s time for somebody else’s provost, all that means is that I get to go back to what I always loved, which is the teaching and research that brought me into this business.
James Evans: That’s so spectacular because I can really relate to that story. Right now, as a student, I’m going through that same process because UCF has been so good about providing experiential opportunities. I’ve worked at the university in a couple different capacities, and I’ve been able to see what my options are beyond accounting, right? I’m an accounting major. I know that I don’t want to be an accountant forever. I may do it for a couple years, but I know that that’s not the eventual plan, but the business acumen is important.
And so right now I’m going through that process of, “Oh, I’m going to try this. I’m going to try that.” And I’m doing all these different things. And I’m falling in love. I’m looking at it from the back end of like, “Yes, the best thing I could have done was gone experiential after doing all this academic work and understanding and seeing these different sides and now being able to put them together.”
There’s this theme I’m starting to pull together with the podcast, of this interdisciplinary work, why that holistic perspective is so important for students’ development. And I am personally experiencing that, which is why it’s become such a push for me. And that’s only because UCF has done such a good job of making that a priority. I can really appreciate the story you just gave from us.
Michael Johnson: Let me make a couple comments about that. I think there are people who understand the path they want their life to take.
You know, I meet some as students [that say,] “I’m going to be pre-med. I want to go to medical school. I want to be whatever, a radiologist, a surgeon, a pediatrician.” That’s really the minority of people. I think hardly anybody knows for sure what they’re going to end up being, or really even confident about what they want to do.
And if they are confident about what they want to do, it will probably change. I certainly wasn’t a person who understood the path I was going to be on. My own take on this is life usually makes some degree of sense looking backwards, but very little looking forwards. And that’s the reason people get anxious.
“What am I going to do when I graduate? What am I going to do three years later?” It’s easy for me to say since I’ve been through it, but I think it’s true that what people should do is pay attention to what they’re good at. Pay attention to what they like [and] look at opportunities and take them.
My path was things came along and there was a fork in the road and I took it. What I mean is I had to make a choice and well, I picked one and I couldn’t have told you with any great confidence I was doing the right thing. I couldn’t tell you today that there was a right thing, but there is a joy to the path of life, especially if you’re not fearful, but kind of eager about what comes next.
You mentioned experiences and experiential learning. And all of us in the higher ed business know very well that, as important as classes, experiences outside the classroom can be at least as important in shaping what your life will become. We think about internships, undergraduate research experiences, study abroads through a lot of things, but it’s experiences that you go through, which open your eyes to what your life can be.
I had a really good fortune as an undergraduate to have a summer job in a kind of a consulting company, which these days we would describe as kind of a software consulting company. But really they had a tool which was an early version of neural networks and we helped companies and other organizations find solutions to problems that were too hard to figure out.
It was just empirical modeling. But the incredible thing about that job was they treated me like any of their engineers. So I just was given a problem and told to work on it. And I would check in with my supervisor who gave me ideas on how to do it better. It was an unbelievably important experience. It gave me the confidence to believe that I could do real work.
And I’m not sure where I would’ve gotten that otherwise, but maybe the most useful thing of all was at one point I was trying to figure something out I didn’t understand. Really, I disagreed with one of the senior guys, one of the senior engineers, and he explained something, and I told him why I didn’t understand it. I was politely trying to say I disagreed. And he said it another way and I didn’t understand it. And he said it another way. And I said, “Oh, well, you’re the Ph.D., I guess you’re right.” And he got really mad. He said, “Don’t you ever believe something just because somebody with a title or a position of authority tells you. Go figure it out for yourself.” His point of course was well taken. That actually helped shape my career. That’s what drove me back into graduate school. The decision to be a scientist was I wanted to figure things out for myself.
James Evans: That’s amazing. Thank you so much for being here today. You’ve provided so many good stories, so much good insight, and I know our listeners are really going to get a treat out of it.
Michael Johnson: Well, this has been my pleasure and I appreciate the opportunity to be here.
James Evans: Wow. I hope you all have learned as much as I have from this episode. Universities are integral to advancing the human condition, and UCF is perfectly positioned as a leading institution to meet the needs of tomorrow. I hope you’ll join us on the next episode of Knights Do That where Fernando Rivera will talk about the Puerto Rico Research Hub and how UCF is empowering the Puerto Rican community.
As always, if you’re doing something cool, whether that’s at UCF or somewhere you took UCF that we should know about send us an email [email protected], and maybe we’ll see you on an episode in the future. Go Knights, Charge on!
Fernando Rivera: More and more we’re seeing that academics are stepping out of their bubbles and sharing more of what they do and see the value of what they do and the impact that they can have in the community. And I think right now I could tell you anybody that wants to know about Puerto Ricans in Florida, they come through the hub.
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