In 1984, Becky Johnson began her tenure at Oregon State University as an assistant forestry professor.
Thirty-seven years and many career advancements later, Johnson — currently serving as the vice president of Oregon State University-Cascades in Bend — will become the first woman to lead OSU in the university’s 156-year history.
The OSU board of trustees named Johnson, 65, the interim president of OSU during a Friday afternoon meeting.
This caps a long career at the university for Johnson, who has led OSU-Cascades since 2008. During those 13 years, she transformed a tiny branch school into Oregon’s fastest-growing university, and the first four-year university in Central Oregon.
Johnson said after the meeting that her experience working with local legislators and business leaders, fundraising and leading research efforts at OSU-Cascades greatly prepared her for her new role in Corvallis.
“This campus has all the same research expectations as the larger Corvallis campus,” Johnson told The Bulletin. “I’ll be working with our faculty to make sure they have the resources they need to be able to be effective in their research, because that’s important for solving really pressing problems.”
In 2016, Johnson oversaw the opening of OSU-Cascades’ new campus in southwest Bend, complete with a dorm building, cafeteria and an entire classroom building.
The university’s enrollment also tripled under Johnson’s tenure, and new students continued to flock to the Bend campus, even during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic this fall.
“Becky is the perfect leader for this role at this time,” board Chair Rani Borkar said during the trustees meeting. “She’s an extremely seasoned, capable leader, a thoughtful listener, a strong communicator and a good-decision maker with deep institutional credibility.”
Ten different public commenters, from inside and outside OSU, also had nothing but support for Johnson.
Katy Brooks, CEO of the Bend Chamber of Commerce, told the board that Johnson helped develop a strong workforce for the Bend area.
“It’s a great loss for Central Oregon, and a great gain … for the rest of the state and the country,” Brooks said of Johnson’s appointment.
Starting May 1, Johnson will serve as interim president for a year while the university finds a permanent new president to replace F. King Alexander. Alexander resigned on March 23 after reports showed he mishandled sexual misconduct cases during his time as the president of Louisiana State University, where he worked before coming to Corvallis.
Johnson will earn a base salary of $320,076 from the university, plus $229,932 from the Oregon State University Foundation, resulting in a combined annual salary of $550,008, according to a draft employment agreement from OSU.
At the time of his departure, Alexander’s combined salary from the university and foundation was $630,000, according to OSU spokesperson Steve Clark.
Johnson told The Bulletin that rebuilding community trust after Alexander’s abrupt departure will be one of her first goals in leading OSU.
“This presidential transition has been difficult, and I know there were people across the university who felt they weren’t heard,” she said. “My first job is to go out … listen authentically and develop relationships with people across campus.”
The other major transition Johnson will oversee during her tenure is how the university handles the COVID-19 pandemic as more and more people get vaccinated.
Although it’s too early to say what classroom capacity will look like, or whether vaccines will be mandated for students and staff on campus, Johnson said she still expects mask wearing to be mandatory at the university.
“It’s likely we’ll still have to be wearing masks when we’re in classrooms or in shared office spaces,” Johnson told The Bulletin. “But we’re hoping we can increase the density on campus, whether that means on campus or in classrooms, so we’re able to bring everybody back and have the classes face-to-face.”
Johnson was born in Racine, Wisconsin, but spent much of her childhood in the state’s second-largest city, Madison. Her summer weekends spent at her family’s lake house in northern Wisconsin instilled a love of outdoor activities that she still has to this day. And like most Wisconsinites, Johnson is a die-hard fan of the Green Bay Packers football team.
After earning her bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1977, Johnson remained in the Midwest and earned her master’s and doctorate degrees in agricultural economics at Michigan State University. Five years later, she began teaching at OSU.
Johnson currently lives in Bend, with her partner, Lori Elkins, two cats, and a chocolate Labrador retriever named Dally.
Jane Reynolds — OSU-Cascades’ director of enrollment services and student success — has worked alongside Johnson since 2008 and says she’s a great choice.
“She’s a visionary leader,” she said. “It’s been a pleasure to work with her all these years.”
Johnson’s strengths are collaborating well with other university staff, having big goals and being able to easily convince potential fundraisers to contribute to those goals, Reynolds told The Bulletin.
“She’s fantastic at sharing her vision (with outsiders) — here’s where we’re going, here’s how we’re going to get there, and here’s how you can support these plans,” Reynolds said.
Since 2008, Johnson has raised $74.3 million in funding to build OSU-Cascades’ campus, according to university data.
Johnson’s proposed employment agreement with OSU states that once her year-long tenure as interim president ends, she may return to OSU-Cascades as a professor in the forest ecosystems and society department.
Johnson said she hasn’t decided yet if she’ll have a second act on the Bend campus in 2022 — but don’t count her out.
“You never say never,” she told The Bulletin.
Regardless of whether she returns, Johnson said she expects OSU-Cascades to continue growing even as she leaves for Corvallis.
“I’m not worried about OSU-Cascades’ momentum, because I know we have a great team in place,” she said.
Article was originally published by The Oregonian.