Onward and Upward

At the end of a decade of leadership, President Emeritus John P. Johnson looks back on an era of innovation and discovery.

John P. Johnson stands at the quad on his last day in office as President of  Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
John P. Johnson stands at the quad on his last day in office as President of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Photos by David Massey.

When John P. Johnson took the helm as the fifth President and CEO of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University 10 years ago, it marked the beginning of a vision for the university that would place it on a course for growth for many years to come.

Under his guidance, Embry-Riddle has made historic progress developing a solid foundation of growth in student enrollment and degree programs (from 35 to 80), recruiting internationally recognized faculty, expanding facilities and establishing first-of-their kind colleges and academic programs. On Johnson’s watch, Embry-Riddle has risen in academic reputation, national rankings, research and scholarly activity, and global outreach.

In light of his retirement in May, we sat down with Johnson to talk about one of the most memorable and innovative eras in Embry-Riddle’s history.

If you could sum up your administration in one word, what would it be? Why?

Transformative. Working with the outstanding faculty, staff and students, we have taken the university to another level. Embry-Riddle is truly on a positive course as an entrepreneurial university.

When I came to Embry-Riddle in 2003, it was already an excellent institution with a focus on teaching and excellence in the classroom, preparing individuals to enter the aerospace industry. We have not lost those noble attributes, but have expanded on them in an exponential way. Embry-Riddle has moved from a Level IV, SACS-accredited institution to a Level VI, multi-doctoral granting, research-intensive university. We began to hire world-class faculty who had an inherent expectation to conduct research, discover new knowledge, publish and receive grants that would allow them to develop and create unique and innovative startup companies.

“From the outset it was important to strike a balance on the “three legs of the stool” that make up the mission of any great academy: teaching, research and service.”

These research opportunities have a positive, direct effect on student success. A large percentage of our students are engaged in research projects with our talented faculty. This early opportunity, along with internship placements with major aerospace companies, is responsible for 96 percent of our students obtaining employment within one year of graduation.

Obviously, there have been many significant physical changes to all of the campuses in the past 10 years. But how has the culture of Embry-Riddle changed?

From the outset it was important to strike a balance on the “three legs of the stool” that make up the mission of any great academy: teaching, research and service. For me it was important not to move away from teaching and service—because both are critically important—but to strengthen research so that the university could stand strong in all three areas and raise its academic reputation. During the time I served as provost (2003-05), I met with each academic department to establish goals that would strengthen scholarly productivity.

We worked to establish mutual respect, collegiality, civility and good faith consultation that led to positive changes in the criteria for promotion and tenure. Upon discovering that I loved and cared for the institution as much as they did, everything clicked, and the evolution process began.

What has been your proudest achievement at Embry-Riddle?

The growth of the reputation of the university. Higher education recognizes Embry-Riddle as a strong academic institution with a commitment to excellence in the classroom, public service and the research environment. If you mention Embry-Riddle at any university in the United States, or to colleagues in the global aerospace industry, they know us. When we offer colloquia or workshops, individuals attend from all over the world.

You and your wife, Maurie, have become ingrained in the Embry-Riddle community. What is your fondest memory of your time here?

All of our best memories have to do with “the Embry-Riddle family”—faculty, staff, students, good friends of the university. Commencements have always been fond moments for us because they remind us what Embry-Riddle is all about. And of course, listening to the AcaFellas sing the alma mater.

What are your plans for retirement?

We love Embry-Riddle. After many years of interaction with the university, we were blessed to develop a lot of friends in the Daytona Beach area. We will be retiring nearby.

We enjoy the President’s Speaker Series that was developed under my direction. My busy work and travel schedule limited our athletic event attendance. Embry-Riddle has over 17 athletic sports programs, with more on the way. Now we will have time to watch the Riddle NCAA Division II transition.

The real decision in our minds for staying in this area is the fact that we will remain close to the university that I had a part in growing.

What message would you like to convey to the more than 120,000 Embry-Riddle Alumni?

This is an outstanding university. Your diploma and Embry-Riddle’s stellar reputation will take you far toward your career goals. Use your degree and represent the university well. We expect great things from you and we know you will be successful. We have no doubt about that. And never forget to “come back home” to visit your campus or to “reach back” to pull up future students with your success.