By Elizabeth Jenkins
Eric Johnson never planned on becoming an academic, much less a dean. He describes himself as “a perennial student who over consumed education.” He earned 2 different undergraduate degrees—a BS in Industrial Engineering with honors and a BS in Economics with honors—and an MS in Industrial Engineering and Operations Research, all from The Pennsylvania State University, where his father was a professor. Johnson, whose 10-year term as Ralph Owen Dean ends this summer, also earned his PhD in Industrial Engineering and Engineering Management at Stanford University. His thesis was focused on autonomous vehicles, which is what landed him a job at Hewlett-Packard.
The direction of Johnson’s career completely changed when, in 1991, he was introduced to Gary Scudder, a beloved member of the Owen faculty, who passed away in 2018. “Gary and I became very quick friends,” explains Johnson. “And he convinced me that it would be an interesting lark to come try teaching in a business school.” Other than serving as an instructor for a couple of engineering classes at Stanford, Johnson had no experience at the front of a classroom.
He and his wife had never lived in the South and thought it would be a great place to start a family. They bought a 4-bedroom house on more than an acre of land, complete with a barn, just 10 minutes from campus.
In his first role as assistant professor, Johnson taught Operations Management. He valued the different perspectives students brought to his class and quickly discovered they were more interested in having a conversation than listening to a lecture. “I don’t think I was ever a particularly great lecturer to begin with,” he says, laughing. “As a pied piper of a conversation, that was really fun and exciting.”
After 8 years at Vanderbilt, Dartmouth College stole Johnson away. He and his wife relocated with their 2 young children to Hanover, New Hampshire, where they would spend the next 14 years.
While at Dartmouth, Johnson founded the Center for Digital Strategies, which focused on how technology enables operations. Later, he became associate dean of the MBA program. When Jim Bradford was ready to retire as dean of Owen, he emailed Johnson and encouraged him to consider putting his name in for the role.
The Owen faculty was thrilled to have Johnson back as Ralph Owen Dean. “Eric returned with an incredible record of scholarship, substantial leadership experience, and personal knowledge of the Owen school,” says Nancy Hyer who has known Johnson for 30 years and who recently retired as associate dean.
When Johnson came back to Nashville in May 2013, the city had already begun a massive transformation. But Owen had been challenged by the financial crisis of 2008-09. The school’s long-time dream to renovate the building, or expand upon it, had been shelved. Owen seemed poised to move ahead, but something was holding it back.
Making improvements to the school’s buildings became top priority. First, Johnson oversaw a $5 million renovation of the school’s library. After that, he worked with architects to reimagine the courtyard, which had become overgrown and was not used much. “Now, it’s the outdoor patio of the school,” he says proudly. “We did those 2 projects first, as we worked our way toward a campaign to raise money for the new building.”
When the pandemic began in March 2020, Johnson worried that the project might stall. “We were in the middle of fundraising when COVID hit,” he explains, “and there was a moment when it wasn’t quite clear if we were going to be able to move forward.” In the end, however, the $55 million, donor-led Management Hall construction began the following March.
Fourteen months later, half of the building was reopened. Four months after that, it was fully operational. Perhaps what Johnson is most proud of is that the original building had 3 named spaces—the library, auditorium, and courtyard—and each one had a single donor. “The reality is that there were 3 donors beyond Ralph Owen who got the original building going,” he explains. Going forward, Owen will have more than 40 named spaces, including every classroom in the new building.
Another notable element is that Management Hall is designed to invite Nashville into Vanderbilt’s campus, whereas in the past, Owen essentially had its back to the city. “When Owen was built in 1980, the back side was a monolithic, 3-story brick wall with very few windows,” he explains. “We had that magnolia curtain we were kind of hiding behind, and the building and courtyard were both inwardly focused into campus.” Now, the idea is to draw the eye of someone driving down 21st Avenue and give them a glimpse of the activity and excitement inside Owen.
Though the completion of Management Hall is a major milestone, Johnson has made numerous other contributions to Owen during the past 10 years, beginning with the school’s breadth of offerings. “For the first three-quarters of the school’s life, we were basically just an MBA program,” Johnson explains. “What we’ve been building over the last decade are other graduate programs: Master of Science in Finance; Master of Accountancy; Master of Marketing; Master of Management in Health Care and so on.” Today, more than one-third of Owen students are enrolled in these other programs.
“Dean Johnson was outstanding and visionary throughout the ideation and creation of the Master of Marketing program and fostered an environment where the program could thrive,” says Steven S. Posavac, E. Bronson Ingram Professor of Marketing and Faculty Director, Master of Marketing. “The program allowed us to meet firms’ desire to hire individuals who were early in their careers, but ready to hit the ground running,” Posavac explains.
Johnson was also instrumental in the formation of a trans-institutional undergraduate business minor at Vanderbilt, which is now the most popular minor on campus.
With the growth of Owen and the development of the undergraduate business minor, it was of utmost importance to Johnson that more women join the faculty. When he first came to Owen in 1991, only 5 out of 45 faculty members were women. To change that trajectory, Johnson says, “We made a really concerted effort to attract what we would call rookies—people straight out of MBA programs—and also women who were just out there killing it somewhere else, who we wanted to get to Vanderbilt.” Now, out of 53 full-time faculty members, 20 are women. “That number still doesn’t feel like it should, but we are above the average for our peer group,” he says. “Of the top 25 business schools, we are at the top now.”
The trickle-down effect of these new hires can be felt throughout Owen. “Both our outgoing and incoming student body presidents are women this year,” Johnson says, “and we have really strong programs for women in business through our partnership with the Forté Foundation.”
Diversity, not just of gender, but of race, nationality, and socioeconomics, is critical for a school like Owen. “Business schools—as much as any place on campus—have a pedagogical reason to diversify,” he explains. This year, 47 countries are represented in the building, and one quarter of the students are international students. The value in bringing students from all over the world is the unique perspectives each one brings to case studies and class discussions.
Three other developments that occurred during Johnson’s run as dean are the introduction of the Turner Family Center for Social Ventures, Center for Entrepreneurship, and Center for Healthcare Innovation. “The origination of 3 centers is a significant achievement,” says Mario Avila, Director of the Turner Family Center for Social Ventures. “Dean Johnson reminds us often that leadership is a contact sport, and he made that a reality in the creation of the TFC, allowing students to roll up their sleeves to be the leaders and doers of this work.”
When Johnson begins his sabbatical this summer, there will be zero doubt he is leaving Owen better than he found it, having achieved school-high rankings in U.S. News & World Report and The Economist. “Under Dean Johnson, the Owen School has enjoyed its best-ever run in the major measures of business school reputation,” Posavac says. “Moreover, our faculty is much stronger and more diverse than it was when he began his deanship.”
Unlike when he left Vanderbilt for Dartmouth in 1999, the Owen community can take comfort in knowing that Johnson will be back in a faculty role in August 2024. Between now and then, Johnson plans to do a lot of learning. He will visit other universities and study 2 areas of great interest to him: impact investing and technology as it is applied to healthcare. A perennial student, indeed.
“I have known Dean Johnson since he was Professor Johnson when I was a student in his first core class in Operations Management at Owen. I remember vividly how enthusiastic he was and how engaging he made the curriculum. As an alum, I stayed deeply connected to Vanderbilt and saw how, as dean, Eric shifted his enthusiasm and passion from teaching to growing and developing Owen. More recently, as a Board of Trust member, it has been truly inspiring to be a part of Dean Johnson’s vision for the school that supports Owen’s commitment to world-class education.” –Adena Friedman, Chair and CEO, Nasdaq Inc.