Joe Johnson

Joe Johnson: A University Icon

The spirit that University of Tennessee President Emeritus Joe Johnson (’60, ’68) found when he first walked into Ayres Hall on January 3, 1956, still pervades the Knoxville campus, and he hopes it will continue to guide the university into its future.

At the time, Johnson was working on a master’s in public administration, which included time studying at the University of Alabama, the University of Kentucky, UT, and the Oak Ridge Institute of Nuclear Studies (now Oak Ridge Associated Universities). When it came time to select where he wanted to finish his master’s degree, the southern Alabama boy chose to return to Knoxville, where a young woman named Pat lived in the space enfolded in the natural beauty of the Appalachian Mountains.

He married Pat, and his life soon became intertwined with the Knoxville campus and the University of Tennessee System.

Johnson also became part of the spirit that imbued the Knoxville campus, a camaraderie between the students and faculty that he first found when he stepped into Ayres Hall. After a stint in the US Army and working for the State of Tennessee, he returned to the university as executive assistant to President Andy Holt in 1963. He worked in development and as  chancellor of the UT Health Science Center before becoming president of UT in 1990. He retired in 1999 and returned as interim president from 2003 to 2004.

Through his years at UT, he helped usher in the transformation of the Knoxville campus as the university bought house after house surrounding it, shifting its boundaries out to the Tennessee River and the railroad tracks to accommodate the growth of the student population from 10,000 to 30,000.

But one thing remained the same.

“UT Knoxville still maintains an interest in individuals,” Johnson said. “There’s still a family atmosphere.”

Johnson points to another significant change in UT’s history when Senator Lamar Alexander, who was then governor, challenged UT leaders in the early 1980s to examine the university’s admission policies.

“He challenged us to become a campus that was selecting a class instead of admitting a class,” Johnson said.

Johnson on the phoneThat involved setting minimum test scores and required high school courses. Some parents pushed back on the changes, but university and state leaders held firm. UT began keeping high-achieving students in the state and attracting nationally known faculty.

“We began earning national recognition,” Johnson said. “That took courage. I admire Ed Boling [then UT president], who stuck with that.”

During his own presidency, Johnson was part of establishing an element that continues to grow with the university. Five people came together to convince him that UT needed to find a partner and compete for the management of Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

“Those five had a vision—and they twisted my arm until I had the vision, too,” Johnson said with a laugh.

UT-Battelle was awarded the contract a month after Johnson retired in 1999 and has kept it ever since.

Johnson at workThe contract has spawned joint appointments by researchers to the lab and UT, helped win research grants, and attracted graduate students from all over the world. In June, the UT Board of Trustees approved the creation of the Oak Ridge Institute, which moves five joint UT-ORNL programs under a single administrative umbrella. UT is one of only nine universities that co-manage a national lab.

“It puts us in a rare position,” Johnson said.

As the university’s leaders of today prepare for the future, Johnson recalls a recent dinner he and his wife shared with two freshmen. When asked what impressed them about UT, the students cited the beauty of the campus. They also mentioned the spirit that Johnson had found himself as a student.

“They said there was the acceptance of the individual and that their roommates and faculty wouldn’t let them get lost,” he said.

As president emeritus, with more than five decades of life lived with the university, Johnson thinks UT’s future success and growth continue to be related to its past. As the campus grows in student enrollment and number of faculty, he hopes that it retains the ability to relate to individuals.

Photos courtesy of the UT System

UT 225th anniversaryThis story is part of the University of Tennessee’s 225th anniversary celebration. Volunteers light the way for others across Tennessee and throughout the world.

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Ted Land October 7, 2019 - 4:19 pm

To me, there are three people who represent what the University of tennessee means to me:
Andy Holt, Joe Johnson, General Robert Neyland’

Ted Land Class of 1968.

Nancy Benziger Brown, ‘72, ‘75, ‘99 October 8, 2019 - 1:29 am

I totally agree with Ted Land. I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Holt, and knowing Pat and Joe Johnson through many years at the same church. Neyland was not only a football coach but also an icon off of the field.

Elizabeth DeGeorge February 3, 2020 - 4:40 pm

Joe Johnson has always been a special person. For several years I worked in the same building. We would pass or ride the elevator together. He always spoke, or rather, conversed. We talked about crossword puzzles or sports, children or weather. He undoubtedly made the people in his circle of contact feel like they were important. A person like Joe Johnson is never just an icon, he is a friend.

Bill Hodges December 14, 2023 - 1:23 pm

During my senior year in’65, Joe and I would travel to small towns near Knoxville to speak to civic groups about UT. He was so relatable people would stay after the meeting to shake his hand and thank him for coming. He was special. During the next year, Joe and I were taking a graduate school statistics course. He was a bit rusty on some of the math involved, so he would come by my apartment to get up to speed on assignments and test prep. In no time, he was explaining that stuff to me. I still enjoy telling people that I helped a future UT President get through a course in grad school.

TOM V GLASS,'62 December 14, 2023 - 4:51 pm

My wife, Mary Neal, and I are both U.T. graduates and proud of that fact. We had the opportunity to know Joe and Pat and considered them friends. The University is a better place because of Joe Johnson. He also always had a good Auburn joke.


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