DARTMOUTH — For Robert Johnson, everything about this week was new: new job, new campus, new region.

The Detroit native started as UMass Dartmouth chancellor on July 1. He’s commuting from the Hopkinton area, but he and Michelle, his wife of 20 years, are on the hunt for a condo closer to the university.

As he wrapped up his first week on the job, Johnson, whose salary is $335,000 annually, sat down with The Standard-Times to discuss his vision for the campus, community outreach, enrollment and diversity. 

THE VISION

To put it simply, Johnson wants to find the “tallest building, loudest drum with the biggest bullhorn and make sure that the world knows about the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.”

In a year, he plans to “have determined how to best position our institution as a national research university and how that fits into the future of work.” U.S. News & World Report has ranked UMD as a “Tier 1 National University” for its doctoral research.

Johnson said while many jobs are at risk of being done by robots in the not so distant future, different industries are being created.

“What does that mean for us as a university?

“We have to give it some very, very considerate thought and debate and pick a strategic direction,” he said.

 

PARTNERSHIPS

“We’re all in this together,” Johnson said, sitting in his new office in the Foster Administration Building. “UMass Dartmouth can play a very critical role in working with businesses along the SouthCoast to figure out what makes the best sense for us.”

Fall River, Dartmouth and New Bedford are important to the university, he said. The region offers opportunity for economic development, entrepreneurship and job creation.

“It is equally important that the business community reaches out to UMass for the benefit of the region,” said Rick Kidder, president and CEO of the SouthCoast Chamber of Commerce.

The chamber is in the beginning stages of hosting a meet and greet with Johnson and Laura L. Douglas, new president of Bristol Community College.

“Local business is eager to embrace the new chancellor and to do the things that help the university and businesses thrive,” he said.

“He has a real understanding of chambers and their role in the community,” Kidder said, noting Johnson's experience as board chairman of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce.

New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell said he’s looking forward to working with Johnson, too.

“As the only university in Greater New Bedford, UMass Dartmouth plays a vital role in the region’s economy and civic life,” Mitchell said in an email. “More than ever, an effective partnership between the city and the university is necessary to bring new opportunity to our residents. I met recently with the chancellor, and I left confident that he is the right man at the right time for UMD.”

 

ENROLLMENT

When asked about his plan for fundraising to avoid increasing tuition amidst the state cutting back funding, he said, “for us, it’s really about enrollment growth.”

At Becker, Johnson helped increase enrollment by 23 percent by focusing on “building a brand that had a valued proposition.” The private college has more than 2,000 students, while UMD has more than 8,000.

His plan at Becker included building geographical diversity. For example, more students came from California than Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont combined, he said.

As far as branding goes, UMD’s brutalist architecture could come into play, he said.

“How do we take this unique architecture and make it part of our brand and value proposition?”

Johnson said he would like to challenge engineering and art students to come up with ideas for something more contemporary on campus, whether that’s a building or a mural.

“How to add a bit of color to the concrete?” he wondered.

 

DIVERSITY

As he is the university’s first African-American chancellor, the NAACP College Chapter at UMD calls Johnson’s appointment “historic and groundbreaking.”

“Chancellor Johnson mirrors the history of our organization as we are the first NAACP College Chapter established at UMass Dartmouth and the only active College Chapter in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts,” said the chapter’s co-advisers, Peggy Dias and David Gomes, in a joint statement. “We look forward to collaborating with and supporting Chancellor Johnson as he begins his transition to effectively lead our campus into the future."

The chapter, which collaborates with the New Bedford Branch NAACP and New Bedford NAACP Youth Council, was approved in February.

Johnson said he hopes to foster an open environment on campus that allows people to agree to disagree.

“For me, it’s about elevating the conversation for discourse,” he said. “We’re all part of the biggest race on the planet and that’s the human race.”

Follow Aimee Chiavaroli on Twitter @AimeeC_SCT.