A whirlwind of recent changes, expanded opportunities, and encouraging successes has swept through the campus of Johnson University. The new mission statement, name, academic structure, merger with the Florida campus, expansion of online programs, extensive partnerships, record enrollment, extension of the financial campaign, and attraction of gifted new faculty are signs of a bright future but reflect important connections with Johnson’s past. As I observed in the Prologue to my centennial history book, Above Every Other Desire, there exists continuity with the past that gives any Christian educational institution its unique character and contribution to the kingdom of God. The challenge for an institution such as Johnson is to respond positively and effectively to a constantly changing context while remaining faithful to its original vision and values. Faithfulness to the original impetus, yet flexibility in response to change, seems to suggest the “formula for success” of an institution. Johnson University honors its past by evaluating every dimension of its labor in light of its original purpose. “Faithful yet flexible” seems to be the appropriate motto for Johnson’s response to the current opportunities.
Ashley Johnson was a person of vision who clearly saw the needs of his own generation and was dedicated to use any means available and necessary to meet those needs. I believe he was open to change and attentive to new opportunities; he was a risk-taker with a clear goal in mind. He was not one to rest upon his laurels or be satisfied with the status quo. His “one conclusion” was that everything must be subject to the all-consuming mission of the School of the Evangelists: preparing students to preach the Gospel to their generation. Dr. Johnson wrote: Faithfulness to this vision and accompanying values is embodied in the new mission statement: Johnson University exists first and foremost to “extend the kingdom of God among the nations.” Johnson’s current educational approach, new academic programs, faculty appointments, and educational partnerships must be evaluated in light of the stated mission. This is exemplified in the merger with Florida Christian College. When the Florida campus was acquired, some questioned, “What are Johnson’s interests?” This is the wrong question to ask. The key issue is, “What are the Kingdom interests?” In response to the death of President Emma E. Johnson, future president Alva Ross Brown asked the following questions: “Will their work live on? Will the institution hold faith with their ideals and beliefs? Will its doors remain open to the man of purpose to preach? Is this a selfish enterprise?” When Robert M. Bell became president of Johnson, he announced his own faithfulness to an important aspect of this original vision: “When I accepted the presidency of Johnson Bible College, I did so with the definite understanding that the College belongs to the Church and is a servant of the Church.” It was clear to Presidents Brown and Bell—and to their successors—that Johnson did not exist to simply seek and maintain its own interests; Johnson must fulfill its purpose as a servant of the Church of Jesus Christ. The president and Board of Trustees of Johnson University believed that the Christian churches and churches of Christ in the state of Florida needed a strong Christian university to continue to educate students for congregational ministry and other strategic vocations to extend the kingdom of God among the nations and thus pursued the merger of the two schools. Dr. Johnson’s vision of an “unselfish” school that makes the mission of God the priority and Dr. Bell’s application of this principle are clearly embodied in this new venture.
An educational institution such as Johnson, however, must not remain faithful only to its original vision; it must also develop flexibility in responding to new contexts and challenges. An institution that is reluctant to adapt its methods, structures, and processes in light of the inevitable contextual changes will soon be left behind. Pauline Kezer expressed it this way: “Continuity gives us roots; change gives us branches, letting us stretch and grow and reach new heights.” Harold Wilson put it a bit more bluntly: “He who rejects change is the architect of decay. The only human institution which rejects progress is the cemetery.” Examples of this flexibility are evident throughout Johnson’s history. The Academy was established in the early years to provide remedial work for students who had little opportunity for a high school education; as secondary education became more widely available by the 1940s, the Academy was disbanded. Another example is the establishment of the ministry specialties (and, later, double-majors) in the 1980s and 90s in response to a widening definition of Christian ministry. Two current examples of flexibility in the transitions at Johnson University are the new academic structure and the expansion of online education.
NEW ACADEMIC STRUCTURE
Johnson University is now organized into eight schools: the “hub” which includes the School of Arts and Sciences and the School of Bible and Theology, and the “spokes” which include the Schools of Business and Professional Leadership, Congregational Ministry, Creative Arts, Education, Intercultural Studies, and Social and Behavioral Sciences. The deans of these schools serve under the leadership of the provost to administrate the academic programs of the University. The Academic Council, Plenary Faculty, and Strategic Planning Committee also play important roles in this process. This new academic structure is much more decentralized than the previous one; decision-making related to the specific academic programs is much more the task of those faculty members who are subject-experts in the various fields of study. The new structure more easily and quickly accommodates the introduction of new programs or revisions of existing ones.
EXPANSION OF ONLINE EDUCATION
The Johnson University System now includes an online campus with bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees available completely online. Many of the online courses are available to traditional students along with hybrid courses for adult studies students, thus enabling Johnson to offer its courses of study in a variety of formats. The expansion of online education is an excellent example of the “faithful yet flexible” motto, reflecting a method of education that reaches to the very beginning of the School. Ashley Johnson began his educational ventures with the Correspondence Bible College, a “course of Bible study by mail” he established in the 1880s and the predecessor to the School of the Evangelists. Johnson has offered correspondence-type courses throughout most of its history; many students took “correspondence courses” in the 1970s and 80s, which evolved into the Distance Learning
Department (1990s-2000s) and culminated in the current Department of Online Education. These online courses are academically rigorous and meet the strict standards for all academic offerings established by the Johnson faculty and approved by our accrediting bodies. In light of global opportunities to extend Johnson’s influence, online education has emerged to answer the important question, “How can we maximize our impact on students around the world?”
How can a 120-year-old educational institution effectively respond to changing contexts, global opportunities, and challenging financial realities? How can its current administration, faculty, and staff persist in being good stewards of the resources with which God has blessed us? How can the alumni, friends, and new members of the Johnson family remain confident that Johnson University will continue to do its best to uphold its tradition of faith, prayer, and work? Johnson must persevere in its faithfulness to its founding vision and values yet develop flexibility in response to change.
Dr. L. Thomas "Tommy" Smith serves as the dean of the School of Arts and Sciences and professor of history and theology at Johnson University. In addition to his duties as dean, Dr. Smith teaches courses in church history, historical theology, history of philosophy, leadership, and ethics.