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March 30, 2000

ONE ON ONE: Sharon Johnson

Sharon L. Johnson has been appointed to the newly restructured position of Pitt vice provost and dean of students, effective July 1. She will replace Robert Gallagher, vice chancellor for Student Affairs, who is retiring at the end of June.

Since 1989, Johnson has been vice president for student affairs and dean of students at Slippery Rock University. For eight years prior to that, she was assistant vice president for student affairs at Wichita State University.

Johnson also has been a financial aid counselor at the University of Northern Colorado, associate dean for student affairs at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, and assistant director of student services at Ottumwa Heights Junior College in Ottumwa, Iowa.

Johnson says she didn't know that Pitt was looking for a new Student Affairs administrator until the search committee told her she had been nominated.

"The executive vice president at Wichita State nominated me," Johnson says. "He suggested I might be interested because Wichita State is similar to the University of Pittsburgh in that they're both located in urban areas and they both have diverse student populations, with lots of evening, part-time and graduate students. Combining that with my Slippery Rock experience, I took a look at the University of Pittsburgh job and thought: 'Goodness, this would be a nice match.'"

In a March 20 letter announcing Johnson's appointment, Provost James Maher wrote: "Her many accomplishments at Slippery Rock University include facilitating the construction of a student apartment complex and a new student recreation center; encouraging the extension of honors programs into the residence halls; implementing a faculty-in-residence program; establishing academic resource laboratories and English writing laboratories within residence halls; involving faculty in the selection of student activity programs, such as lectures, arts performances, etc., which the faculty then incorporate into their class curricula. She has demonstrated commitment to involving faculty in student affairs activities and student affairs personnel in academic endeavors."

Joan Snyder, president of Pitt's Student Government Board, acknowledged that Johnson was not SGB's recommended pick among the six candidates brought to campus for interviews, but added: "They were all great candidates. One of the things that stood out about Dr. Johnson was her extensive experience in working with student government groups.

"We've had a close working relationship with Dr. Gallagher," Snyder said, "and we're looking forward to continuing this with Dr. Johnson."

The first woman to serve as a vice president in 100 years at Slippery Rock, Johnson has won a slew of honors there, including a 1999 Town-Gown Award for commitment to excellence in university-community relations; a Women of Distinction Award, one of three given to Slippery Rock women administrators and faculty in 1997; a Minority Student Affairs Service to Students Award; an Organization Advisor of the Year Award, and the Apple Polishing Award given by Slippery Rock's Panhellenic and Interfraternity Councils.

Johnson received her bachelor and master of science degrees from the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse in 1971 and 1972, respectively. She earned her doctorate in college student personnel administration in 1981 at the University of Northern Colorado.

Last week, Johnson was interviewed by University Times Assistant Editor Bruce Steele.

UNIVERSITY TIMES: How would you characterize the quality of life for Pitt students in terms of housing, recreation or any other categories?

JOHNSON: It's hard for me to tell at this point. I must say that I was impressed with the student leaders I met when I was interviewed. They certainly were excellent advocates and representatives of the student body. They were very articulate in expressing ideas and issues. However, it was hard for me, having only been there [at Pitt] for a short period of time, to have a handle on the exact situation regarding food service or housing or whatever. There were some concerns expressed, but I would need to take time, take a look at the students, the faculty, staff and programs and then move in appropriate directions.

What will be your chief priorities when you begin work here?

Immediately, it will be to meet with students, student organizations, the Student Affairs staff, the other vice provosts and the academic deans, just to get a feel for what their thoughts and expectations are for the University and for the Division of Student Affairs. It's such a large university, it will take a little time to do that. Until I have a feel for what people believe is needed at the University, I wouldn't want to jump in and make immediate changes.

Based on what you have heard so far from people at Pitt, what do they consider to be the major Student Affairs issues here?

My general impression is that they are looking for some leadership in the division. I think sometimes Student Affairs people know what they do, but they don't tell the story very well to the rest of the campus. So, part of it will be better communication with the rest of the University about the excellent programs, opportunities and services that are currently provided by Student Affairs, and then getting feedback on what we could do better.

What was your impression of the climate at Pitt for minority students? Is it a welcoming environment, in your opinion? Do you have any plans for minority student initiatives?

Gosh, it's really hard to say at this point. A couple of people mentioned to me that they would like to see a cultural center or minorities center on the campus. Again, as I said, I would need to take some time to study the situation. At Slippery Rock, we have a minority student affairs office that works very well for us, and the students seem to be pleased with the programs and services that that office provides. But what works for us may or may not work for universities such as the University of Pittsburgh.

Could you say more about your minority student affairs office?

Basically, when I came to Slippery Rock, there was no such office. The attitude was that minority students should just use the regular services that everyone else uses. But unfortunately, our minority students weren't doing that. They were going to our minority faculty, which was a natural thing for them to do. However, our faculty are busy, as I'm sure faculty are at the University of Pittsburgh. Although they care a great deal about our students, they have a limited amount of time, knowing that they need to work on tenure and promotion and research. I thought we needed an office and staff who could devote more time to those special student concerns.

It's often the case that someone with a job like yours ends up being, in effect, just the dean of on-campus undergraduates. What will you do for students who live off campus, including graduate students?

Well, we certainly can't ignore graduate and commuting students. They have special needs for services and programs as well. It would be my expectation that we should, in the Division of Student Affairs, spend some time with these students and find out what we can do to help them to be academically successful.

Whether it's special hours for tutoring or a family recreation program or evening hours for offices where they can get special assistance, I think we need to address those needs of the commuting and graduate students. Their focus is a little bit different, their time on campus is different, they're looking for different kinds of services, sometimes, than traditional undergraduate students. My plan would be, probably, to get some focus groups going and work with existing groups representing graduate students and commuter students to find out what more we can do for them.

Pitt, like a lot of other schools, is admitting growing numbers of disabled students, including some with so-called "invisible" learning disabilities like Attention Deficit Disorder. Do you have any plans in this area?

The provost has said that he wants me to look at the needs of students at the University of Pittsburgh and talk with him about where we need to go. Having assessed the needs of students with disabilities, if there appears to be a greater need there, he seemed to be open to addressing this.

Another trend is mixing academic and non-academic activities — presenting lectures in dorms, for example. Do you see that trend increasing?

Oh, definitely. Students benefit tremendously from the out-of-classroom experience. When we can involve faculty in that experience as well, it's another plus. One program we have at Slippery Rock is an adopt-a-professor program, where a residence hall floor "adopts" a faculty member. The students might invite that faculty member to dinner in the cafeteria, or they might invite them to give a special lecture.

We have specialty floors in our residence halls, as the University of Pittsburgh does. Our honors program is actually located in one of our residence halls. We have an education floor, a fine arts floor, a wellness floor, a quiet hours floor. For some special occasions or lectures, we try to involve commuter students. Those students may not want to live in the residence halls, but they might want to come for a special occasion.

The University of Pittsburgh has some 5,000 students in residence. Where else would it be easier to reach those students who might be academically in trouble than to bring tutors or writing labs to the residence halls?

National surveys show that binge drinking is still on the rise among undergraduates. How do you combat it?

It's a difficult situation, because 90 percent of the students who come to us have consumed alcohol before they get to college. It's not as if binge drinking just starts on college and university campuses.

I think we need to continue education programs on our campuses. And it can't be just every other year. It has to be every year, several times a year, because we have new freshmen and transfer students every year. Often, it's new students who are just beginning to experience life away from home who get into alcohol and other drugs.

I would expect to continue with alcohol education programs throughout the [Pitt] campus and, hopefully, to include faculty in that process. Faculty are the ones who have to deal with students who come to class hung over. Faculty are the ones who can tell if their students are still drunk from the night before. If we can work with faculty in helping to deal with those situations, maybe we can make a difference.

Providing alternative activities [to drinking] is also important. Here at Slippery Rock, we've established a programming board. One of its major responsibilities is to work on weekend activities that don't involve alcohol. There are many students who don't drink at all. Sometimes, it's these students who end up in the residence halls by themselves on the weekend because everybody else has gone out to a party.

Some Pitt students have suggested creating a non-alcoholic, under-21 nightclub on campus. Would you consider that?

Absolutely. Here at Slippery Rock, we use a grill area in our university union for a non-alcoholic area on weekends. It's been very popular. We have also bused our students to local nightclubs for evenings when those clubs agreed they would have a band but not serve alcohol. That has been very popular as well. We may be able to form cooperative agreements with some of the establishments in Pittsburgh to provide entertainment without serving alcohol.

In making decisions and accomplishing goals, how do you plan to seek and incorporate student input?

I understand that Dr. [Jack] Daniel [vice provost for Academic Affairs] has been holding student forums, and I'm told that they have been very successful in terms of [eliciting] student input. I would also hope to meet regularly with student leaders. That's what I do now. At Slippery Rock, I go to all of the student government meetings.

It would be my expectation to have an open door policy. If, say, the Black Action Society leadership wanted to come and talk with me, I would be happy to talk with them. I would also like to set up regular times when we can communicate, not just haphazardly.

In his letter announcing your appointment, Provost Maher said he will work closely with you "to revitalize our current Office of Student Affairs to optimize its management, formulate its goals in better alignment with those of the University, foster a service culture in all of its activities, and adopt the improvement-through-reallocation approach which has served us so well in addressing problems in other areas of the University." That paragraph raises several questions, one being: In what ways does the Student Affairs office need to be revitalized?

Again, that's something I will need to explore. When I interviewed, I thought that the Student Affairs staff were very enthusiastic about their work and were very supportive of the academic mission of the University. At this moment, I can't tell you exactly where these areas are that need to be revitalized. I want to learn more about each of the programs and spend more time with the provost to see what his thoughts are about the direction in which he would like to see these services go.

People who met you during your visits to Pitt all described you as being a very nice person, and they were impressed by what you've accomplished. But some have also wondered aloud: Does this woman know what she's getting into? She's leaving a pleasant, rural campus to come to a big, urban, research university where crime, administrative power struggles and political squabbles with the local community are not, let's say, entirely unknown.

I can understand their concern, knowing the rural area of Slippery Rock (laughing). However, I have lived in the big city and have worked at an urban institution, and I'm aware of the crime that borders the campus.

Slippery Rock is one campus among 14 in the State System of Higher Education, but I must tell you that in terms of politics and paperwork and administrative work, I don't think it's any less difficult to make things happen here. One example that I cited during my interviews involved a plan to build an apartment complex on our campus. We did surveys, we did research studies, we did market analysis and we had a great financial plan. I went to someone in the State System office and was told that our campus was not in the housing business, it was in the education business. And we were not going to build an apartment complex. It's important for me to be able to articulate to other university administrators what the students' needs are, as it is for me to communicate those needs to people outside the university. I was able to do that with the State System of Higher Education, so that we now have apartments on our campus. It was no easy task.

One of the other points I made during my interviews in Pittsburgh is that I have a passion. Some people have a passion for sport. I have a passion to do what's right for students.

With your hiring, the job title for your position has been changed from "vice chancellor for student affairs" to "vice provost and dean of students." What difference, if any, will that change make for you?

My title right now is vice president for student affairs and dean of students. I think the "dean of students" part is important because it helps students understand who they can best relate to. Sometimes, they don't know where to go for help, but when they see that "dean of students" part they say, "Ah, that person is there to help me."

I think being a vice provost and having the opportunity to work closely with the other vice provosts and the provost is only going to help to bring academic affairs and Student Affairs closer together. In working together, we can move in the direction to continue to contribute to the excellence and the opportunities that are already provided.

Last year, you received the Town-Gown Award for excellence in university and community relations, given by the Slippery Rock Town-Gown Association. What did you do to promote better community relations at Slippery Rock?

I'm the university's liaison with the Borough Council, who are the elected officials for the borough [of Slippery Rock]. I attend their monthly meetings. This gives me an opportunity to talk about what's happening at the university. It's also a great opportunity for me to get to know those officials even better, so that if there is a concern in the community I feel very comfortable calling one of the council members or the mayor, and they feel comfortable calling me.

In addition, I work on the borough's economic development and revitalization committee. We're putting together a strategic plan and applying for federal grants as well as foundation monies to bring more economic development to the area.

It's a matter of being involved in the community, being involved with community leaders. It's a matter of maintaining good communication with the community and knowing the people we need to work with.

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