Babson Magazine

Winter 2017

What We Learned About Michael Johnson

The new provost talks about his life and vision for the College.

Michael Johnson, provost

Photo: Webb Chappell
Michael Johnson, provost

Michael Johnson considered becoming a doctor. His father was a general practitioner in the small farm town of Bottineau, North Dakota, where Johnson was born. When Johnson was less than 2 years old, his family—father, mother, three brothers, and a sister—moved to Madison, Wisconsin. His father joined the medical school faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he had been a medical student and had met his wife, a surgical operating-room nurse, and he became a professor of surgery and oncology. Admiring his father’s lead, Johnson took courses for medical school as a freshman at UW-Madison. “But I must admit, I hated it—all the zoology, biology, all of those chemistry classes,” he says. “Then I started taking classes in psychology and economics, and I loved them both.”

He taught for 24 years at the University of Michigan. After earning a Ph.D. in behavioral science and marketing and an MBA from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, Johnson joined the teaching staff of the Ross School of Business at Michigan. “I had a chance to go to some really good places. I had offers from Columbia, Washington University, and Dartmouth,” says Johnson. “Before my father died—he wouldn’t tell me what to do. He let me make my own decisions. He just said, ‘Michigan is a class act.’ He couldn’t have been more right.”

He’s not a micromanager. Before joining Babson, Johnson was dean of the Cornell School of Hotel Administration for 10 years. “My philosophy in leadership was hire good people, help them, but let them do their jobs,” he says. “We accomplished a lot. We grew the budget of the college from the low $40-plus millions to almost $100 million. We grew the school’s global platform. We grew the centers and institutes. We basically quadrupled the fundraising levels. And it was completely a team effort.”

He thrives on problem-solving. As Babson’s provost, Johnson is continually presented with new issues to tackle, from advancing an intellectual property policy to driving revenue sources to addressing the challenges of technology and online education to developing a more comprehensive strategy for diversity and inclusion on campus. But that’s what attracted him to the job. “I can use the entire skill set that I’ve developed through the course of my career,” he says. “I’m helping people who are in the positions I used to be in to navigate issues and manage their areas so that they are effective and continue to grow and apply Entrepreneurial Thought & Action and create and innovate.”

Johnson loves bicycling. Two close friends from Cornell immediately bought him a new mountain bike after Johnson arrived in New England, bringing his total to seven bicycles. “Another friend has a theory about people who like bicycles,” he says. “You need to own N-plus-one bicycles, where N is the number you already own.”

His Big Ten allegiance is to the Badgers. No matter that he spent 24 years at Michigan, and met his wife, a Michigan grad, while working there, and had all three of his sons while in Ann Arbor. “Once a Badger, always a Badger,” says Johnson. “I grew up in the shadows of Camp Randall Stadium. I had a season ticket when I was 8 years old. So I will always be a Wisconsin fan.” And now, of course, a Beavers fan, too.—DC