Since beginning her job as Green River College president on July 1, Suzanne Johnson has been learning as much about the institution as she can.
“There is not enough time in the day,” she said. “I can’t learn fast enough, can’t read enough. The phrase I have been using recently is I hit the ground listening. I think that is the most important thing for me to do. I have been meeting with all the leadership of the college. I have been reaching out to various leaders from the faculty side. … I have been trying to get around campus as often as I can. I can’t wait for the fall term to begin because I know that faculty will be back in force and the students in volume will be back in force.”
Even in the few weeks she’s been on campus, Johnson said it’s apparent she shares in the college’s mission of student success.
“We are all here to support the students. I think we are all on the same page. I wouldn’t have applied to the institution if I thought I wouldn’t fit in. This is an already existing culture. I am the newest Gator until the students come this fall,” she said, referring to the college’s nickname of Gators. “There are so many good things about Green River College. I just wanted to be a part of it.”
Johnson, 56, spent the majority of her 30 years in higher education as a teacher. She got her first teaching job while working on her doctorate degree in psychology at Stony Brook University. She taught introductory and developmental psychology classes at nearby Dowling College in Oakdale, N.Y.
“I fell in love with the classroom. I fell in love with the students, and I loved being able to introduce them to worlds that maybe they had not considered before,” she said.
Throughout her career, Johnson served as department, academic and committee chair and president of the faculty union before making the jump to administration. While at Dowling College, Johnson was asked to become dean of the college during a financial and enrollment crisis.
“I didn’t leave the classroom because I didn’t want to be in the classroom,” she said. “I left the classroom because I thought I could be, for a time, more helpful to the institution if I took that position. It was really out of a motivation and desire to help in a different or more broad way than I could have within the classroom. I said I will do this for a year or so, and then I want to return to the faculty. The person who asked me to do this said, ‘I think you are going to find this much more rewarding than you think,’ and it was.”
Right time, right place
Johnson took an interim position as campus president of the Sylvania Campus of Portland Community College in Portland, Oregon, where she found a passion for community colleges and the Pacific Northwest.
“One of the perks about being at Green River is it got me back to the Pacific Northwest,” Johnson said. “When my family and I had that one year in Portland … we fell in love with this area. We said if there were ever an opportunity that would be the right time and the right place, wouldn’t it be great to be able to have the rest our lives be in the Pacific Northwest?”
Johnson was vice president of academic affairs at Suffolk County Community College in Long Island when the position opened at Green River.
“I wasn’t really thinking about applying for jobs or I wasn’t on the job market, but I would always be looking for what would be the right place to move to in terms of a work environment,” Johnson said. “When Green River posted, I was first drawn to the institution and what I was learning about the institution and what they seemed to be looking for in terms of their next president. Then I saw it’s in Washington state. We love this area.”
Johnson was hired in April following a nationwide search to replace Eileen Ely, who resigned from the college’s top post in June 2016 after months of unrest on campus. Scott Morgan, a former president of Spokane Community College, served as interim president during the search.
“It is important to acknowledge this is not a broken institution,” Johnson said. “This is not an institution that needs to be fixed. Absolutely not. It is an institution that needs to find our common voice and just harness our energies in a future-oriented way. I recognize there have been some recent difficult times, and I never dare to assume that I know what those times were because I wasn’t here. … This is an extraordinarily strong institution. Every institution has its challenges at different points in time.”
Green River has a lot to offer, Johnson said.
“We are going to move forward with all those things which we do well and will continue to do well and better, and the things that people identify through our inclusive conversations and process that are things that we need to improve, we will do that,” she said. “If there are things that we need to change, we can do that, too, but it’s the collective wisdom of Green River that writes this. I am one person. I know I have unique roles. … Here on this campus my presence matters, and I know that I play a key part to that. But, I am a member of a team. That means listening to the students, listening to the staff, listening to the faculty and helping us collectively identify and map our future together.”
Johnson and her spouse, Elizabeth O’Connor, have two children, Bailey, 22, who plans to take a couple of classes at Green River in the fall before pursuing a master’s degree in museum studies, and Emory, 20, who is a junior at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y., studying English and creative writing.