By Lynette Carrington / Photos by Claudia Johnstone
Phoenix College just appointed its new president, Dr. Larry D. Johnson, Jr. The incoming president brings a multifaceted approach to higher education that incorporates an inclusive leadership style with the refreshing viewpoint of a millennial. He also recently moved to Phoenix and is discovering the cultural and recreational opportunities in the Valley.
The Florida native is a graduate of Florida A&M University where he majored in English literature. Johnson also earned a master’s degree from Florida State University in medieval to baroque studies and holds a Ph.D. in English literature from Clark Atlanta University.
Immediately prior to moving to Phoenix, Johnson was campus provost and campus chief academic officer at St. Louis Community College in Missouri. In 2015, he learned about the Valley when he was a candidate for president of academic affairs at Mesa Community College.
“I was one of the final three candidates and I’ve known about this district,” Johnson recalls.
Prior to his position at St. Louis Community College, Johnson was an associate dean of academic affairs at Broward College – South Campus in Pembroke Pines, Florida and prior to that, he taught at Georgia Piedmont Technical College and Tallahassee Community College. Johnson now becomes one of the youngest presidents to lead a community college in the United States and the first African-American to lead Phoenix College since it was founded in 1920.
Johnson’s journey was not easy. At age 11, he lost his mother.
“That transformed my outlook on life,” he explains of losing his mother, who had divorced his father and was raising three young children. “Where data would suggest that I would go into different avenues like drug abuse, I looked at the experience and I used the experience of my mother’s gift to be empowered to make her proud.”
He made sure his siblings finished school and went to college. His sister is now a doctor of internal medicine and his brother holds an MBA and is a consultant for a German company. Johnson shares his story of loss and poverty to inspire students to show that they can overcome adversity to achieve great things. He also credits his mother for instilling values of being a servant and empathetic leader.
It was in high school that Johnson really became focused.
“I always tested well in reading and English and I was a critical child,” he explains. “I thought I’d be an attorney. I always wanted to engage in critical inquiry and I questioned everything. Then, I began to love English.”
He realized his teachers from middle school through college were not male and not black. He wanted to be the change.
“I wanted to be an English teacher, so I could give back and show other young men and women of color that this is something that they could aspire to.”
He abandoned the idea of a legal career and embraced a career that was perhaps unexpected.
Johnson recently moved to the Biltmore area and is in the process of discovering the community.
“It is close to the college and I can get there quickly,” says Johnson. “I also moved here at the tail end of Arizona Restaurant Week. I’ve had the opportunity to visit a lot of restaurants. My favorite top three restaurants are The Henry, Seasons 52 and Steak 44 for five-star dining. But, I’ve also fallen in love with Flower Child and Snooze.”
Outside of work, Johnson has eclectic hobbies and interests, including theater, travel and cultural experiences.
“I love museums,” says Johnson who has taught Western civilization. “I am fascinated by art, music, literature and philosophy. I always like to look at how different time periods are personified through those lenses.”
He is enthusiastic about leading Phoenix College and has a distinct interest in social justice, and his goal is to be the catalyst for remarkable social justice.
“I am really big on diversity, inclusion and equity,” he explains. “At the time, when I looked at the website, Phoenix College presented just a menial ‘all social justice’ programming. It was very important for me to connect the dots in my career because I don’t believe in just applying for a position for the title. I wanted a position where I had a great interest and great passion, and I could help move the needle.”
Being the first African-American president of the college is a major milestone, but Johnson feels a responsibility toward all his students.
“Although I am the African-American president, I am not the president just to African-American students,” says Johnson. “I am the president to and for all students and for the community.”
As president, he will be seeking opportunities that do not currently exist for students and looking for gaps that need to be closed for minority students.
“I made sure to look at my strategic plan for life and every benchmark along the way,” finishes Johnson. “At the heart of this, I want to advocate for the students who have gone through some of the similar traumas as me.”