GW’s first nursing dean gathered wide praise throughout tenure

Media Credit: Photo courtesy of Jean Johnson

This is the second in a series of profiles on GW’s 10 deans.

Just six months after she formed a committee to explore whether GW should open its School of Nursing, Jean Johnson took charge of turning a department into a full-fledged college.

Four years later, she has led the small school to higher rankings, new online programs and a bigger faculty, becoming a rarity among GW’s deans: widely praised.

Johnson, who announced last summer she would step down from the post this spring,has earned the trust of faculty members at a time when several other deans have struggled.

Tense faculty-dean relationships have led to four dean departures or firings in just three years.

Provost Steven Lerman pointed to how she rallied faculty around the idea of basing the school on the Virginia Campus for Science and Technology to maximize the chances for its growth, adding that she worked well with campus leaders to move the school there.

“Great deans try to build a consensus, try to continue to talk it through and persuade people. She’s been able to persuade most of faculty,” Lerman said.

The move could have been contentious because of the campus’ separation from GW’s hub on Foggy Bottom. But Johnson said she’s tried to help faculty feel connected to decision-making.

“I talk with them. The magic is just communication,” she said. “I think it would have been a really bad idea to have announced that everybody who’s at Foggy Bottom will in one month be at the Virginia campus.”

Nursing professor Marjorie Graziano said the school’s faculty always feels as if they have a say in decision-making, like when determining the school’s qualifications for admission. Faculty also feel comfortable referring students to her for guidance, Graziano said.

“She gives us a say, we have input. We all feel part of the decision-making process. We can agree to disagree and she doesn’t harbor any ill will to that,” Graziano said.

Deborah Chapa, an assistant professor of nursing, said Johnson has served as her mentor, taking time to guide her through tasks like grant-writing.

Chapa and Johnson also worked together on developing the school’s curriculum, and she called Johnson a “visionary” in the field.

She said Johnson’s well-known international presence also helped propel the school forward. After she leaves her deanship, Johnson plans to spend much of the next year in South Africa working with a children’s hospital in Capetown.

The school is in the process of hiring a search firm help recruit and select Johnson’s replacement. It will mark GW’s third dean this year, in addition to the law school and business school. Paul Berman left the law school deanship after 18 months to lead online learning last year, while Doug Guthrie was abruptly fired in August.

GW also hired Ben Vinson as dean of the Columbian College last year after Peg Barratt resigned weeks after faculty said they did not think she had a clear vision for the school.

After the unanticipated departures, top administrators are piloting an orientation to GW for deans this year, carefully planning how Vinson is acclimated to the University. He said this fall that he would spend most of his first year listening and learning about the school, unlike Guthrie and Berman, who came in with ambitious agendas.

Nancy Falk, an assistant professor of nursing, said Johnson was the ideal person to start the college because of her willingness to look to new educational models like distance learning and simulation learning.

“Starting a school requires an unusual mix of skills, including a high level understanding of academia, knowledge of the nursing profession, and institutional knowledge,” Falk said.

Ellen Dawson, senior adviser to the dean who chaired the nursing department when it was part of the School of Medicine and Health Sciences, worked closely with Johnson to form the school. She said Johnson was a successful dean because she lets faculty work together and reaches out to people across the University.

“She is a bridge-builder both across the University and outside the University, and that has given the school really very quick recognition from other schools of nursing. It received national recognition a year after its opening, and that’s an incredible accomplishment,” Dawson said.

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