Dear Commons Community,
Kristina M. Johnson, an engineer who served as undersecretary in the United States Energy Department before founding a hydroelectric company, will be appointed chancellor of the State University of New York. She will succeed Nancy L. Zimpher. As reported by the New York Times:
“Kristina M. Johnson, an engineer who developed technology critical to 3-D movies and served as undersecretary in the United States Energy Department will be appointed chancellor of the State University of New York.
SUNY has 29 four-year colleges and universities and 30 community colleges, which serve a total of roughly 440,000 full- and part-time students. Assuming Dr. Johnson’s appointment is confirmed by the board of trustees on Monday afternoon, she will arrive at a time when state funding as a percentage of operating costs is down from a decade ago. At the same time, colleges are under pressure to increase access and graduation rates for low-income students.
Dr. Johnson, 59, said in an interview that, in addition to promoting excellence in research and teaching, she planned to focus on environmental sustainability and on creating an individualized model of education. That model would help students identify their interests early on in college and then take courses that would prepare them for their ideal career, she said.
“What’s important is that we help our students find their purpose and their passion,” she said.
Dr. Johnson will succeed Nancy L. Zimpher, SUNY’s first female chancellor, who is credited with having elevated the system during her eight-year tenure. Dr. Zimpher, 70, will step down in June. Dr. Johnson will begin on Sept. 5. The SUNY board will appoint an interim leader to serve from June to September.
In addition to being an entrepreneur, Dr. Johnson is also a seasoned administrator. As dean of the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke University from 1999 to 2007, she raised the school’s prestige, expanding the size of the faculty and the number of graduate students, tripling research expenditures and building a 322,000-square-foot interdisciplinary teaching and research center. She attracted a $35 million gift from Edmund T. Pratt Jr., a 1947 graduate who had been the chairman and chief executive of Pfizer. At the time, it was the second-largest financial gift in the university’s history.
She reduced the number of undergraduates who dropped out of the engineering program, in part by overhauling the curriculum to give students earlier exposure to exciting topics in the field. She created a fellowship that allowed roughly a third of undergraduates to spend 18 months doing research in faculty members’ labs.
The fellowship, she said, grew out of a concern that many students were narrowly focused on a single career path and a desire to give them “more of an introduction to the joy of engineering.”
Surveying the students when they graduated, she found that the careers they were pursuing were richer than “a single one- or two-track, which is what they were on before,” she said.
Rob Clark, the provost and senior vice president for research at the University of Rochester, who served as Dr. Johnson’s senior associate dean at the Pratt School and then succeeded her as dean, described her as an inspirational leader. When she started, he said, the engineering school lagged the university as a whole in rankings and general stature. In addition to raising $250 million and tripling the school’s teaching and research space, he said, she fostered a culture in which faculty more often pursued grants as teams, rather than individually, and encouraged entrepreneurship.
“We had many more faculty engaged in start-up activity,” Dr. Clark said. “That grew greatly when she was there and continues at the institution since her departure.”
He added, “All of the things you would have said couldn’t have been done in that length of time, she got them done.”
Dr. Johnson was born in St. Louis and grew up in Denver. An avid athlete, she wanted to play lacrosse in high school, but her school did not have a girls’ team, so she practiced with the boys. As an undergraduate at Stanford, she majored in electrical engineering, played varsity field hockey and started a women’s lacrosse club team that later became a varsity team. She also got her master’s degree and doctorate from Stanford.
From 1985 to 1999, she was an assistant professor and then a full professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and from 1994 to 1998, she directed a National Science Foundation-supported research center at the University of Colorado and Colorado State University. During this period, she also started two companies. She holds 42 United States patents. Among other things, she invented a camera that can pick up cancerous or precancerous cells on a cervical smear and technology that for the first time allowed for high contrast and faithful color in 3-D films, contributing to movies like “Chicken Little” and “Avatar.”
From 2007 to 2009, she was the provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Johns Hopkins University. In 2009, she was confirmed as under secretary of energy, overseeing a $10.5 billion program that included nuclear energy, fossil fuels, renewable energy and waste management. She stepped down at the end of 2010 and started a company that builds and modernizes hydroelectric plants.
While overseeing the design of the Fitzpatrick Center for Interdisciplinary Engineering, Medicine and Applied Sciences at Duke, Dr. Johnson said, she conducted research on how to create a culture that leads to cross-disciplinary breakthroughs.
Besides vision and financial resources, she said, “the most important thing is you’ve got to have a place with really good coffee and food.”
Dr. Johnson sounds like a winner. Good luck to her!