Johnston named new provost

Leonardo Gonzalez

James Johnston, provost and vice president of academic affairs, gathers papers together for a guest speaking event. “I’m sure this won’t be my last guest lecture. I have to get used to this now,” Johnston said. Photo by Kara McIntyre

From department chair and program director, to director of interdisciplinary education, to interim dean, to actual dean. University President Suzanne Shipley named James Johnston the new provost and vice president of academic affairs on April 21. Johnston replaced Betty Stewart, who held the provost position for more than four years. Stewart accepted the offer as the new provost for the University of North Texas at Dallas.

“We are a public liberal arts university, sometimes that’s misunderstood or not fully understood by people,” Johnston said. “Maybe I was classically educated, it was closer to something that in that end of region would understand but it provides a very strong foundation.”

Johnston carries the university’s history with him as he’s earned two degrees from MSU. He said said the campus is like home to him and feels strongly about MSU’s [standard]. His passion and vision for the university as a liberal arts school comes from his foundation.

“I’ve always felt that if we prepare students strictly for their major or area of interest, we grossly under prepare them for a career, a life of being engaged and a productive citizen,” he said. “We have different passions as far as what we discipline and what we pursue in our scholarly creative activities, but what we do or what we are alike is our greatest strength and something I need to build on [to] move us forward with.”

The provost and vice president of academic affairs position is not a single member effort.  This position consists of cooperative endeavors from academic deans, other vice presidents, and the university’s president.

“In terms of management and leadership [subjects], the management part is the faster piece to get down and that’s paperwork with day-to-day over side of things,” he said. “The leadership and visioning part is something that grows; it takes a little longer. It’s a learning curve and it’s not just my decision.”

Johnston said he desires to strengthen the university’s identity as a liberal arts school with everyone involved at this campus. He also said while there are other components that contribute to this school, he sees the academic perspective as the core element of why a student is at MSU. The education provided to exceed is what makes his job significant.

He said, “The subject that [students] study, the first year experiences a student has in or outside the classroom like Enhancing Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities or the Study Abroad Program all tie back to [my] office. The continuous progress and improvement of the curriculum and creating new subject areas, new majors, new minors all track back here also.”

There are four vice presidents at the university, and Johnston will oversee all academic related issues. The provost part of his title designates a second person in charge of the university in case the president is absent.

“It’s a great responsibility, don’t get me wrong, but it’s still exciting,” he said. “You feel like you understand how broadly you need to think and consider all the groups. When you step in it’s like a freedom to pursue this. That’s the exciting part for me that you have the authority to move forward, to be creative and have the support.”

Johnston said he hopes to work with faculty, department chairs and deans to specifically guide the curriculum and experiences for students. He also said he hopes students and others see what they have done as a unit at the end of the day.

“Each step forward really  pushes you think broader to consider an ever-larger group of course. The responsibility is greater, but the opportunity to find the connections and help grow the university is enjoyable,” he said. “I miss being in the classroom but being in the administration to guide and direct the curriculum and mission of the school is just as great.”

During his career he taught a variety of science classes throughout the years and serving as a dean was one step removed from his home of radiologic science. He said he loved being in the classroom, but the opportunities kept connecting to him. An opportunity is one of the reasons he came to MSU.

“I wanted to come to MSU because of the opportunity to research and teach which reminded my interest,” he said. “The community college doesn’t discourage research and scholarly creative activities but nor do they give you a lot of time for it.”

He said coming to the university gave him those opportunities.

“I’d enjoyed the administrative part as the department chair, it’d been the opportunity to grow in more than just one classroom or one group of students, which I truly enjoy,” he said.

Then the position as provost was offered to Johnston.

“I certainly believe that the committee and the president brought very strong finalists to campus, each of them were capable to get the job done,” he said. “Fortunately, the university saw that I was the fit for where we are today with faculty and administration.”

While at first Johnston said he felt a little nervous, he said he was also very excited about having to be in an office at the same time with Shipley for official business.

“There’s a negotiation process with the president prior to the formal announcements,” he said. “When it’s  announced to the world then it’s an element where it’s real now.”

He said he was at a meeting in the health and sciences department when he received an overwhelming response from faculty, staff, and friends.

“Beginning with that formal announcement at the academic honors banquet, being a part of it, others congratulating me, wishing me well – it was a great day.”

Get to know the provost

  • Favorite color: “Shades of blue.”
  • Favorite food: “I’m addicted to the steak that I cook.”
  • Favorite movie(s): “Dancing with Wolves, and for my hopeless romantic side, The Notebook.”
  • Favorite music: “I appreciate all music, it just depends – I can go from Zac Brown Band to Dr. Martin Camacho’s classical music.”
  • Hobby: “Raise and breed Arabian horses, also been riding competitively for six years, my wife introduced it to me when we got married and she’s been raising and breeding horses since she was about eight years old.”
  • Favorite MSU tradition: “I try not to miss the fish fry and the boat race, but tailgates and homecoming overall just reminds me of the social part when I was a student.”
  • Favorite place on campus: “I love the serenity and feeling around the fountain, it represents so much of MSU’s history.”
  • If you were stranded in an island what thing would you bring: “It’s one of those where social media and stuff I can live without, I don’t consider my horses a ‘thing’ either, it’s not a thing but I’d bring my wife.”

Additional reporting by Kara McIntyre