Recognizing Dr. Tonja Johnson

In recognition of Black History Month, IPS HR and Operations Manager Tomi Rogers sat down with UT Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Tonja Johnson to discuss challenges she faced as an African-American woman and her accomplishments in higher education.

Tonjanita (Tonja) L. Johnson was appointed executive vice president and chief operating officer for the University of Tennessee System in October 2016. In this capacity, she has primary responsibility for assisting the president in maximizing the System’s operating performance and achieving its strategic goals and objectives.

Having joined the UT System in June 2013 as vice president for communications and marketing, over the last 17 years, Johnson has served as a cabinet-level administrator, working directly with and reporting to the institution’s president and serving as a trusted advisor. Her professional experiences have been focused on high-level organizational and operational activities and broad-based strategic communications and marketing efforts.

Prior to coming to the UT System, Johnson served as chief deputy to the president at the State University of New York at Stony Brook from 2010-2013. In this capacity, she served as the chief advisor for the university president and was engaged at the highest level in the development and implementation of several transformational strategic and operational initiatives. She also held a faculty appointment in the SBU School of Professional Development.

Johnson, who has held other professional positions in Alabama and Louisiana, began her college career at the University of Alabama (UA) in the summer of 1987 as a New York Times Scholar. She earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UA in mass communication in 1991 and 1996, respectively. In 2006, she also earned a Ph.D., in urban higher education from Jackson State University in Jackson, Miss., where she was an Ayers Fellow in the Jake Ayers Institute for Urban Research. In 2008, she completed the Institute for Education Management at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and completed post-baccalaureate certification in construction management through the College of Engineering at Louisiana State University in October 2017.

Johnson, who maintains an active speaking and presentation schedule, serves on several boards, including: The Historic Tennessee Theatre Foundation Board of Directors, the Executive Board of the Great Smoky Mountain Council of the Boy Scouts of America, the West High School Foundation Board of Directors, the University of Tennessee Graduate School of Medicine Board of Visitors, and the University of Alabama Library Leadership Board.

A native of Butler, Ala., she and her husband, Tony, live in Knoxville with their daughter, T’Anna Gabrielle; orange tabby cat, Matlock; and Portuguese waterdog, Tess.

What types of challenges or hardships have you faced as you’ve navigated to this point in your career?

When I consider the challenges and hardships of the African-American men and women upon whose shoulders I now stand, the difficulties that I have experienced in my career seem minimal at best. Over the years, however, I have encountered what I consider the typical stereotypes some people have of women and African Americans in the workplace; I’ve come across individuals who clearly thought I wasn’t “old enough” to do the work that I do; and more recently, I’ve encountered the perspectives of individuals who still feel that some people are “less than” because of the color of their skin. I’ve never been discouraged by these challenges, but they have made me stronger and a greater advocate for inclusive excellence and cultural competence.

Please share one of your greatest professional accomplishments and one of your personal accomplishments.

My greatest professional accomplishment continues to be using the experience and knowledge that I’ve gained to mentor and encourage others, especially women, who aspire to do great things. On a personal level, I’m pretty proud of the phenomenal young woman that I see developing in my 17-year-old daughter, T’Anna. She sees a world that has her name written all over it and has a kind of strength, adaptability and joy for life that I could only dream about at her age.

What was the most influential factor that helped you achieve your accomplishments and who would you accredit in helping you achieve success?

My family has always been the source of my personal drive to succeed. I was a third-generation college student, and my family believed in the transformational power of education. Advancing academically was never presented to me as an option but rather a necessity, and I credit my education for providing countless opportunities for success. Helping me along the way was a very supportive husband and a host of exceptional leaders who saw qualities in me that I sometimes didn’t even see in myself. They were the people who encouraged and inspired me to do and be more than I thought possible.

Who would you consider to be the most iconic, pivotal or inspirational figure in black history & why?

Having been blessed to personally meet several key figures in black history and recognizing the unique contributions of each of them and that our history continues to be made, it’s difficult for me to identify a single figure that is or was the most iconic or inspirational. Right now, I am intensely inspired by the work of Marian Wright Edelman, who has devoted so much of her professional life to being an activist and advocate for the rights of children and disadvantaged people across America. She is at the top of my list of modern-day icons, and I’m in awe of her strength, courage and compassion for people.

One of IPS’ strategic planning goals is to increase the number of diverse hires to reflect the demographics of Tennessee by 2022. Please share your suggestion of at least one way we could tackle our goal.

Continue to focus on building and showcasing a genuinely inclusive environment where diverse people, talents and perspectives are intensely valued and clearly a part of the fabric of IPS. It’s not about numbers. It’s about creating and maintaining an environment that is attractive to individuals with diverse backgrounds and experiences and affords them the opportunity to make meaningful contributions to a worthwhile and shared mission and vision.