Regent Chair Johnson builds coalitions, in legislature and at U

Johnson was a chaplain in the U.S. National Guard, as well as a legislator for numerous years

Kevin Beckman

When Dean Johnson ran for a seat on the University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents, he was no stranger to elections.

Johnson was elected twice to the Minnesota House of Representatives and eight times to the state Senate where he served as both majority and minority leader.

Still, Johnson said the election process for the Board of Regents was a difficult trial.

“It’s a grueling process, of applications, the [Regent Candidate Advisory Council] … House and Senate higher education committee and ultimately a vote,” he said. “Two to three months of your life are dedicated to walking the halls of the Capitol and talking with legislators.”

On the Board, Johnson said he wanted to bring differing viewpoints together — a skill he honed in the legislature.

“We’re a state of 5.2 million people and there [are] 5.2 million ideas about how state government ought to operate or function,” he said. “It goes back to the principle of trying to find commonality and bringing people together.”

In the Senate, Johnson served on numerous committees, including the Education Finance Committee and the Ethics and Campaign Reform Committee. He also provided guidance to younger legislators such as former state senator, Terri Bonoff.

As a freshman senator, Bonoff said Johnson was a mentor to her and helped her attain important roles in the transportation and education committees — two areas Bonoff said were important to her.

She said Johnson would listen to issues from both sides of the aisle and would help lawmakers come to an agreement.

“He was a consensus builder,” she said. “When emotions ran high, he had the ability to bring calm.”

Johnson said he learned the importance of inclusivity as a pastor at Calvary Lutheran church in Willmar, Minn. and as a chaplain in the United States Army National Guard where he was awarded several commendations, including the Legion of Merit.

“The chaplaincy in the military is based on a very fundamental principle,” he said. “All men and women who wear the uniform of the United States military forces have the right to freely exercise their religious beliefs.”

While serving as ceputy chief of chaplains in the Guard’s Washington D.C. bureau, Johnson worked with guardsmen and soldiers from 180 different denominations of faith.

As chaplain, Johnson listened to soldiers and their families and officiated baptisms and weddings. He also presided over memorial services and funerals in Minnesota and at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

He was elected to the Board of Regents as an at-large representative in 2007 and was elected as chair of the board last year. He said his priority is making sure everyone’s voice is heard.

“Everyone’s opinion is worth listening to and trying to find some commonality of thought and direction forward,” he said. “Whether that’s teaching a 10th grade confirmation class or chairing the Board of Regents or being in the state senate or being in the military, it’s being respectful of people and their ideas and trying to bring some consensus moving forward.”

The Daily sat down with Johnson to discuss his priorities on the board and the tough issue of navigating the University’s relationship with the Minnesota Legislature.

Editor’s Note: “D” denotes Daily; “J” denotes Johnson.

D: What have been your priorities on the Board?

J: The University exists firstly for students and faculty. If we lose sight of that as regents or administration, I think we’ve lost our way. Students, student experience, student academics, the cost of tuition, the cost of attendance, has been a high priority. We’ve been able to keep tuition at a low rate of yearly increase …

… We have 29 million square feet of real estate. We’re forever trying to figure out how to update and make sure that our facilities are in good shape and … usable.

We’re a forever changing culture and society … I think it’s a challenge and an opportunity in a University setting — as regents and administration allow the students, faculty, and staff to have a place of diverse opinions but a respectful place …

The University’s agricultural emphasis is extremely important. We talk about the tenants of the land-grant institution, and agriculture is one of those tenants.

I think we do OK in agriculture promotion and working with the ag community … I think going forward that we as regents will pay more attention to agriculture … and working with the farmers of this state.

D: Sometimes the U and the legislature butt heads. How has being on both sides of the issue helped you navigate the relationship between the school and the state?

J: The University makes its case quite well in the budgetary process, but we have a lot of competition in health and human service, transportation, tax reform and K-12 education. The requests are enormous…

As a University, what we need to do is be more compelling in explaining why investment in the University of Minnesota, its students and programs, is a great economic value to this state … But all things being equal, a dollar spent in higher education at the University of Minnesota has great returns: In economics, in jobs, in entrepreneurial areas and that’s the challenge that we have.