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For Johnson, Taking Reins Is Chance to Give Back

Brian K. Johnson has taken the helm of Montgomery College from former president Charlene R. Nunley, left, who retired after eight years.
Brian K. Johnson has taken the helm of Montgomery College from former president Charlene R. Nunley, left, who retired after eight years. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)

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Thursday, March 8, 2007

Last month, Brian K. Johnson became the seventh president of Montgomery College, replacing Charlene R. Nunley, who retired after eight years at the helm of the nearly 23,000-student college.

Johnson, 50, has more than 20 years of experience working with community colleges and was formerly chief executive of the Allegheny campus of the Community College of Allegheny County in Pittsburgh. He was selected for the job after a nationwide six-month search.

He is married and has five children -- two daughters and three sons -- ranging in age from 9 to 20.

Washington Post staff writer Lori Aratani recently sat down with Johnson for a question-and-answer session about the challenges facing him in his new job.

Q Tell me a little bit about your background growing up.

AI was born and raised in Jersey City, one of 10 children. I'm number seven of 10. I have four older brothers, and there are five boys and five girls in the family. It was a very, very nice mix, a very fun family. At the very tender age of 15, I transferred from my high school experience to attend a high school in rural New Hampshire that was a Dartmouth College-sponsored program called A Better Chance.

So when I talk about my own personal educational journey, that is a cornerstone event for me because I am someone who moved from a pretty low-performing high school to an achievement-oriented high school, and that was significant because it really placed me on the path to pursuing higher education in a way that I may not have if I had stayed in my original environment.

In education there are many places you can go -- elementary, middle, high school, university, community college. What was it that drew you to adult learners and the community college experience?

I think that the mission of community colleges, which centers on community enrichment and student development, issues like adult literacy, were again themes that had resonated in my own past -- and it was just a natural sort of fit for me to work with students who had either missed an opportunity or had a life circumstance that made the acquisition of quality education just a littler harder to reach.

So again my initial inner voice was saying I really do want to help my local community, and I do want to contribute something of significance to the lives of others. [Community colleges were] places where all of those things come together and converge, and it's one of those things I think [is] magical about the community college movement in America. It's a natural environment where people can do what Montgomery College says it lives to do, and that is: Help change people's lives.

What drew you to Montgomery College?

I'll tell you, this is an exceptional institution. There's something like 1,200 community colleges in the country, and this one is far and above right at the top of the list. . . . This is an institution that has award-winning faculty. It is a college that is supported in an unparalleled way when you look at the financial involvement of the county. . . .

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