After 14 Years, the End of an Era
Provost Alex F. Johnson retires, leaving behind a legacy of innovation and expansion.
By Sean Hennessey
Office of Strategic Communications
Slowly and fully aware of the significance, he put on his Commencement regalia: the blue gown, black tam, and dark blue hood. On this day, there was celebration - and some solemnity - for Dr. Alex F. Johnson because this would be his last opportunity to ever wear this wardrobe. After 14 years at the MGH Institute of Health Professions, the Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs is retiring.
Well-wishers greeted Johnson in the holding room as he held court with Board of Trustees members and Institute leaders, telling stories and sharing that ready smile and hearty laugh so familiar to those who know him.
“I’m the luckiest person in the world,” said Johnson. “I’ve had an amazing career in that I could do all the things that I had hoped, more than I had hoped for.”
The Institute certainly recognized his contributions. During today’s Commencement ceremony in which 612 students graduated, Johnson was honored as Provost Emeritus, a title reserved for the Institute’s distinguished individuals “who have contributed a substantial portion of their career and who have made extraordinary contributions to the Institute during their tenure.”
Appointed the Institute’s inaugural provost in 2008, Dr. Johnson’s contributions help change the direction of the IHP and set it on its course of rapid growth and expansion. During Dr. Johnson’s 14-year tenure, the MGH Institute established three schools (Nursing, Health & Rehabilitation Sciences, Health Care Leadership), doubled enrollment, added new programs (including the recently added master’s degrees in Health Administration, Healthcare Data Analytics, and two nursing programs expected to begin as well), and a saw dramatic expansion in research dollars - from a $750,000 portfolio in 2011 to almost $30 million in grants today.
President Milone-Nuzzo told the Commencement crowd of 3,000 that Johnson’s ability to think strategically positioned the IHP as an exemplary health professions educational program.
“Provost Johnson worked with former President Jan Bellack and the faculty to set a course for change of the IHP from a small, undifferentiated academic program to a reorganized small college that had the infrastructure to support advancing both the education of health professionals at the highest levels of practice and developing the science that undergirds that practice,” she said.
After receiving the Provost Emeritus medal, Dr. Johnson took to the podium, thanked the president and Board of Trustees for the honor, then turned his attention to the graduates – people he called heroes.
“You are gifted in both intellect and spirit. You made a choice - a brilliant choice - to come to the IHP for your education, and hopefully, you are leaving having learned what it is you need to know for your next chapter. My hope is that you also leave with the imprint of our key values- in leadership, interprofessionalism, and a deep sense of commitment to social and health justice.
“But I called you heroes. Why is that? Because you made the deeply mature choice to take your talents and knowledge and direct them toward other persons. You are clinicians and researchers who will continue to do what is right. You will rarely get recognition for the contributions you make, and yet your gifts will shine through the thousands, perhaps millions, of lives you will touch and enhance. Thank you for your heroic commitments to healthcare and to the vital disciplines you represent. Like me, I hope that you leave the MGH Institute with a sense of gratitude and commitment. I am proud to call you my colleagues and my heroes.”
Dr. Johnson returned to his seat amidst a standing ovation. It was apparent among the Institute’s faculty, staff, and students that this was a goodbye and a thank you to one of the most impactful figures in the Institute’s history. “It’s very humbling when people say that,” he said. “It’s just been so much fun to see the Institute grow and change and be what it is today.”
The only provost the MGH Institute has had will wrap up his work over the next six weeks, depart on June 30, and move back to his native Ohio. Several goodbye and celebrations are no doubt in the works between now and then. But today was the first goodbye from a grateful educational community well-aware of Alex Johnson’s impact.
“I’m looking forward to the next chapter,” said Johnson. “People say retirement is such a bittersweet time, but I really don’t feel that. It’s hard to say goodbye to friends and experience that kind of change but I’m really looking forward to the next thing.”
Back in the holding room after Commencement, with wife Linda by his side, Johnson talked about his last official Commencement act – individually congratulating graduates as they crossed the stage - with elbow bumps in these COVID times. He also spoke of the challenges the past two years had posed for the IHP’s graduates, and how today was a proper payoff.
“The nice thing is seeing just the joy that radiates from these students,” said Johnson. “To really see those happy faces – knowing these past two years have been hell for them – it was a joy and so inspiring.”