WILLMAR—Craig Johnson feels his blue collar, first-generation college student background will inform his work as the new president at Ridgewater College.
Johnson, 62, joined the college July 1. He came from the University Center in Sioux Falls, where he was director.
Johnson said his first few weeks have involved finding his way around the school’s campuses in Willmar and Hutchinson. He admitted he still gets lost occasionally on the larger Willmar campus.
He’s met people at both campuses and in both communities. He’ll continue that effort throughout the summer. Classes start Aug. 27.
Some of his early goals include finding ways to build relationships on both campuses, he said. During the search for a new president, the Hutchinson Leader newspaper published an editorial criticizing the college for not being more involved in that community.
“It’s up to us to find a way to give attention to both sites,” he said. The communities are not the same and shouldn’t be treated the same, he added.
Johnson said he’s enjoyed learning more about west central Minnesota. “I wasn’t as aware of the manufacturing in the area, … or the diversity,” he said. He is aware, however, of a shortage in building trades and other industrial occupations.
The college has several challenges in its future, Johnson said.
Enrollment continues to be a challenge. With unemployment low, employers may not require training beyond high school for some jobs, he said.
However, while that job straight out of high school may look good, he added, it might not in a few years.
Johnson knows about that issue. In high school he wasn’t that interested in more education, even though “college was expected.”
He worked in manufacturing after high school. He continued to do that work when he did go to college, studying art and art history.
He was a first-generation college student, coming from a line of hard-working loggers and farmers. He said he wants Ridgewater to help first-generation students navigate the unfamiliar territory.
Johnson said he was working at the University of Minnesota when his supervisor suggested he look into opportunities in college administration. He took a few courses and found he enjoyed the work.
“There’s a creative side to running an organization,” he said, which appealed to the artist in him. He also enjoys working with people.
Over time, he said, he’s found that his views and interests make him a good fit for a community college environment.
His background has made him appreciate the position he’s in, he said, because his family members “risked their lives at work.”
Another challenge will be improving the relationship between the faculty and administration. In recent years, the tension resulted in a no-confidence vote for former president Douglas Allen.
“It comes down to communication,” he said.
The administration needs to be transparent and work to build trust, he said, and both sides need to remember they are there for the students.
Johnson and his wife, Sally, are in the process of moving to Willmar, where the college’s administrative offices are located. They have two grown sons, one works in Rochester, and one is attending Iowa State University.
Before directing the University Center in Sioux Falls, Johnson worked at the Winona State University Rochester campus from 2007 to 2014, the West Bend campus at Moraine Park Technical College in Wisconsin from 2000 to 2007, and the University of Minnesota College of Design from 1988 to 2000.
He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, a master’s degree from Tulane University in New Orleans, and master’s and doctorate degrees from the University of Minnesota.
West Central Tribune by Linda Vanderwerf