Jim Johnson leaves impressive IT legacy

Photo of Jim Johnson

Jim Johnson, Vice Provost of Information Technology and Chief Information Officer from 1988 to 1998.

The Emory community was saddened by the passing of Jim Johnson last week. He was 73 years old. Jim, who served as Emory’s Vice Provost of Information Technology and Chief Information Officer from 1988 to 1998, was an IT pioneer in higher education.

Jim helped build Emory’s fiber optic network, established supercomputer and biological science computer centers for research, and transformed Emory into a top university for student computing. He was also instrumental in combining the computing departments of the university and hospital.

During his tenure, Jim merged Emory Telecom with central computing and called it the Information Technology Division (ITD). He changed the emphasis from administrative computing to academic computing and gave grants to departments to further the use of IT in research and teaching.

A proponent of empowering students through computing, Jim believed that computers needed to be accessible to all students, not just for faculty in “back rooms.” To accomplish this goal, he initiated a computer technology fee to be paid each semester by the students and allowed faculty to write grants to use the money for classroom purposes. He also funded a computer lab for the English department enabling students to practice writing by making it easier to rewrite their papers.

“He brought Emory into the age of desktop computers and computers in the classroom,” said Ron Foust, of Business and Administration.

Under Jim’s leadership, he had voicemail installed for the first time and published a newsletter that emphasized the use of IT in research and teaching, with articles written by Emory faculty as well as by then ITD newsletter editor, Laura Moriarty.

Jim began his career in IT at the University of Iowa. Later, at the University of Houston, Jim became the first Vice President for computing at a United States university. He was also a two-term Chair of EDUCOM (now EDUCAUSE). After leaving Emory, Jim took his IT leadership skills to Wayne State University.

“Jim was an extraordinary person and an inspirational visionary,” said Susan Ament, an application integrator who retired from Emory in 2011. “His accomplishments in technology were many but his organizational achievements were truly transformational. We changed from being heavily focused on technology alone to a more mature organization of real teams excited about advancing the use of technology to support the mission of the University.”

Francene Mangham, who managed programming during the ITD years at Emory, said, “when I think of the words ‘paradigm shift,’ ‘stakeholders,’ ‘Apple,’ ‘NeXT,’ ‘the Fifth Discipline,’ and many others, I always think of Jim.” According to Francene, Jim embraced executive coaching to improve his own leadership style and that of his leadership team, aligned the organization via his close working relationship with stakeholders, the Provost’s Office and the academic side of the university, and predicted the merging, changing balance and eventual dominance of Emory Healthcare.

One of Francene’s favorite things about Jim was that he had a New Yorker cartoon in his office of a dog typing on a keyboard that read, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

In 1995, Jim was a featured speaker at EDUCAUSE in which he presented, “The Future is Now – What Do You Do When Dreams Come True?” In that speech, he said, “Many of us have dreamed of a future when everyone would have a powerful networked computer available to them. As we get close to realizing this dream, we are faced with the challenge of delivering on the promise. To see our dream come true is both a blessing and a curse because the future is now.”

Jim continued, “To deliver on the promise we must change the way most of us have thought and operated in the past. Organizational hierarchies no longer work. Adversarial relationships are replaced by partnerships, and the economics we learned in school are turned upside down. Above all we must embrace technologies that transcend organizational boundaries. We are at the point where information technology can no longer be put on top of existing practice, but must transform and change those processes.”

One of the best tributes to Jim comes from Nyta Richardson, who was Jim’s administrative assistant at Emory.  “All of this was possible because of his breadth of interest in art, music, poetry, literature and the political world, which helped make Jim the whole person who cared about the professional and personal lives of all who worked for him.”

Jim Johnson clearly left an indelible mark on Emory information technology and the lives of many across the campus. He was a true leader and will be missed.

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