Thursday, October 9, 2014

Brian Johnson, Tuskegee University, and the Arts & Humanities

Last week, I got a chance to speak with Brian Johnson, the president of Tuskegee University, at a UNCF/Mellon conference in Atlanta, Georgia. I met President Johnson at various conferences years ago, long before he was a college president.  Back in the day, we exchanged ideas about arts, ideas, and W. E. B. Du Bois (one of Johnson's scholarly subjects).

I have traced President Johnson's professional moves over the last several years.  So I was especially pleased last April when announcements were made that he had been elected as the seventh president of one of our most revered institutions of higher learning. Over the last few months, I've read several articles about Johnson, and I've noted his energetic reports on the happenings at Tuskegee. 

Catching up with Brian Johnson in Atlanta was the first time that I have talked to him since he has become President Brian Johnson. What an honor.

Among other things, I was most impressed with how passionate he was about advancing arts and humanities programming at Tuskegee -- a university widely known for its work and accomplishments in the sciences. Scholars at Tuskegee have long been leaders in scientific research, and they have esteemed programs in veterinary medicine. Thus, hearing President Johnson express such a high level of interest in arts and humanities programming was unusual.

And that's not only because he's at Tuskegee. STEM fields and scientific research attract major donors and funding. The arts and humanities typically bring in far, far less. College and university presidents are therefore less likely to spend considerable time highlighting engagements with literary art for example.

Yet here President Johnson was conversing with me and others about what we were reading, asking what ideas we had, and sharing what ideas he had about how students at his university might benefit from more exposure to African American literary studies and other aspects of the arts and humanities.

For years now, I have considered and implemented various public humanities programs. My interactions with President Johnson have inspired me to think on even larger scales.   

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