Q & A: LeMoyne-Owen's Dr. Carol Johnson-Dean on leadership and the school's response to COVID-19

Dr. Carol Johnson-Dean is currently the Interim President of LeMoyne-Owen College, the only historically-black college or university in Memphis. A longtime educator, she formerly served as the superintendent of Memphis City Schools and Boston Public Schools.

Johnson-Dean grew up in Brownsville, TN about 50 miles from Memphis. The third oldest of nine children, growing up in a large family taught her to appreciate diversity and value the different assets people bring to the table.

A deep believer in and advocate for historically black colleges and universities, she attended Fisk University, an HBCU in Nashville. The pastor at her church took her to the admission office and helped her enroll and apply for scholarships.

High Ground News talked with Dr. Johnson-Dean about the college, its response to COVID-19, and how to lead during challenging times.

How is LeMoyne-Owen adapting in the wake of COVID-19?
Let me just say that it has been very impressive the way our faculty and the alumni community have stepped forward to help us during this difficult time. March 30th, we initiated complete online learning for students across the campus. The week prior, the faculty individually reached out to the students to make sure that whatever needs they had were being met.

How is the school assessing and addressing student needs?
We have fabulous students. One of the things I have been most impressed with has been the leadership by the students and by the student government association. We found that sometimes students will share things with other students that we might not hear about and the student leaders have been good at communicating that information back to us.

Our concern is that students remain with us. That this traumatic event doesn’t overload them to where they decide not to return to college. We need to figure out how to support them ... but I think our faculty is very sensitive to this issue.

What makes LeMoyne-Owen special?
We provide an intimate setting where we know our students. We can respond to individual challenges in a way other colleges can’t. I can’t tell you how many students and parents I have talked to since COVID-19 began. In addition, we have such a strong alumni base right here in Memphis. It allows us to provide a safety net at a time when our students need us the most.

As a educational and city leader, what kind of impacts are you seeing from COVID-19 ?
When we are, as we are now, in a moment of significant health crisis, all of the inequities that already existed in our community become exacerbated. All of the social supports and mental health supports, whether it’s housing in our dorms or the meals that we serve or one-on-one tutoring support with a faculty member, all of these supports get tested at a higher level.

I think that everybody is working very hard to try to shelter in place and yet, students or families without transportation or without immediate access to certain resources are going to be disadvantaged in a way that we may not actually realize.

When you took the position as interim president, you said one of our biggest goals was to build trust and a sense of community. How do you keep that alive in a difficult time?
Trust has to be earned. You can’t wait until a difficult time to build it, you have to be building trust all the way along. I always say that it is important to hit the ground listening. If you listen to a lot of people and their perspectives, you can go a long way into building trust and community.

Leadership is important, the role of the president is important, but real leadership is when you have a team of people who work collectively and will do whatever it takes to build the kind of community and growth-oriented institution that is required of us in the 21st century.

Any thoughts on your role as a historically black college?
There are people in our community who ask why we need historically black colleges when students can go anywhere. I wish I could say we had solved all of the critical challenges around equity, but we have not. We need leadership and programs that not only develop the academic acumen but also develop the social consciousness of what has to change in our community.

I cannot emphasize enough the important role LeMoyne-Owen plays in our community and the importance of not only sustaining the school but seeing it thrive at a new level.

What thoughts or advice do you have for aspiring leaders?
The advice I would give is to listen a lot and work hard. There is no substitute for hard work. You have to model for other people what is expected from them.

It's also important to develop a network of other leaders you can talk to and get advice from. I have been fortunate to have so many wonderful female leaders in Memphis that inspire me, including Beverly Robertson, Reverend Sonia Walker, Gail Rose, and Reverend Dr. Gina Stewart.

Lastly, leadership is not a solo activity. It requires someone who can sing with the choir. There are times when we need people to sing their own unique role, but for the most part, I can’t emphasize enough the importance of every person doing their best work in the role they are in while at the same time seeing themselves as part of a team. That means you were willing to do whatever it takes whether it is in your job description or not.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.