Dr. Lennor Johnson, vice president of student services and equity at Imperial Valley College and a member of the Imperial Valley Social Justice Committee, speaks at the dedication for the committee’s new office in downtown El Centro on May 15. Johnson was appointed as interim president/superintendent by the Imperial Community College District Board of Trustees on Aug. 18. | PAUL VALDIVIA PHOTO
IMPERIAL — Throughout his 24-year career in higher education, newly appointed Imperial Valley College interim Superintendent/President Dr. Lennor Johnson had been employed mostly in large metropolitan areas like Chicago and Milwaukee.
In such sprawling locales, it was not uncommon for Johnson to occasionally encounter a student or alumni who would provide an update about their ongoing successes. But such off-campus interactions were hardly the norm.
In contrast, those types of chance encounters have become something of a common occurrence for him in the Valley. Because of its small rural character, Johnson said he is more apt while away from campus to run into a current or former IVC student who has good news to share.
“That’s one of the things that is really attractive about IVC,” Johnson said during an Aug. 19 phone interview. “You just can’t get that in a big city, not to that level.”
Now, with Johnson’s unanimous appointment by the Imperial Community College District board on Aug. 18 to serve as the interim superintendent/president, those encounters are likely to increase with the raising of his profile on campus and the community.
Prior to his appointment, Johnson was serving as IVC’s vice president of student services and equity. In his current role, he said he will continue to build on the campus’ strong leadership and sound financial position that his predecessor, Dr. Martha Garcia, had built during her tenure.
“My hopes and vision is to bring staff, faculty and students back on campus safely, eliminate barriers to students’ success, expand and strengthen community partnerships and increase enrollment,” Johnson said in a written statement IVC provided following his appointment by the board.
He will also be contending with the unique challenges of eventually resuming in-person instruction and welcoming faculty, staff, and students back to campus amid the pandemic, and ongoing and pending contract negotiations with the unions representing full- and part-time faculty.
Another concern that Johnson has inherited is the campus’ decreasing enrollment.
“Students are not coming back as they used to in the past,” he said. “(IVC) was a beacon of hope, and if they’re not coming back to school, they are losing hope.”
Johnson, who grew up in Chicago’s Southside, said that during his formative years he had never envisioned pursuing a career in higher education.
“It was never in my plan,” he said. “Education found me, I didn’t find it.”
After being discharged in 1997 from the U.S. Marine Corps, where he attained the rank of corporal, Johnson earned an undergraduate and graduate degree in business administration from Robert Morris University and Governors State University, respectively.
In 2005, he was hired by Robert Morris University as director of high school relations and communication, where he enhanced outreach and communications efforts that in turn helped increase enrollment at the private university in Chicago.
Within two years he was promoted to dean of admissions, then served as a graduate curriculum lead and adjunct professor, according to his LinkedIn profile. While dean at Robert Morris University, he helped increase access for first-generation, veterans, athletes, out-of-state and international students, IVC reported.
From there he went on to become senior director of admissions at DeVry University, followed by a stint as campus director at Bryant & Stratton College in Glendale, Wisc. At Bryant & Stratton College, he served as the chief executive officer over its Bayshore and Milwaukee campuses. His doctorate in education was earned from Argosy University, in Atlanta.
Once he found himself immersed in the field of higher education, Johnson said he became captivated by the ability of educators and administrators to help students change their lives for the better.
A highlight of his career has been watching students develop into mature and independent individuals who have mapped out their life’s goals and have the determination to follow through.
“It’s almost like the manifestation of a totally different person,” he said.
In September 2016, Johnson arrived at Imperial Valley College to serve as its dean of student services and special projects. He continued in that role until July 2018, when he was appointed vice president of student services and equity.
Over the past five years, Johnson has helped secure millions of dollars in grant funding to expand services for IVC students, the campus reported.
Additionally, he has played an integral role in the growth and development of the campus’ prison and dual enrollment programs, the food pantry, student housing and other programs targeting students who are considered foster youth, disabled, formerly-incarcerated, homeless and other disproportionately impacted populations.
One such program he was instrumental is implementing at IVC is the A2MEND (African American Male Education Network & Development) program. The program dates to the early 2000s and was created by leaders within the California community college system who had noticed the education gap for African American males continued to grow.
Typically, people of color in California are overrepresented at the community college level in comparison to the percentage of the overall population they represent within their respective communities, Johnson said.
One exception is at Imperial Valley College, where African American students account for about 1 to 2 percent of the student body, but about 3 to 4 percent of the county’s population, Johnson said at IVC during a May 12 presentation of the program to members of the Imperial Valley Social Justice Community.
“That was something I was really pushing for,” he said at the time. “We thought it would be important to bring here.”
The campus recently hired a counselor to take the lead on A2MEND, allowing Johnson to take a step back from his prior commitment to the program. The local charter is one of about 25 found across the state.
While still in its initial phase, plans call for the program to conduct outreach to high school students to promote institutions of higher education, organize workshops and field trips to nearby universities and colleges, establish mentorships and a support network, help students develop life and study skills, encourage students’ active participation on campus and in student government, and select students from across the state to get the opportunity to travel to Africa.
“It’s open to everyone of course but it’s really designed for African Americans in education,” Johnson said on Aug. 19.
Johnson has two children and resides in Imperial, where he is also a member of the Imperial Rotary Club. He is participant in the Imperial Valley Social Justice Committee, where he advocates for education reform and economic development, particularly for marginalized community members.
He was a founding board member of Elevation Foundation, a non-profit organization designed to help at-risk youth obtain the education, skills, employment and community connections necessary to lead successful lives, IVC reported.
California Education Code requires that an administrative appointment like Johnson’s must not exceed two years and that the district must be actively recruiting to eventually fill the position on a permanent basis, the campus reported.
The campus is currently receiving proposals from executive search firms to conduct a search for its next superintendent/president and expects to fill the position by July 1, stated Elizabeth Espinoza, communications and governmental relations officer.
Johnson said he has yet to decide whether he will apply for the permanent position once it becomes advertised. The interim position has an annual salary of $210,000 and provides $59,000 in related benefits.
As it is, Johnson is among the 9 percent of African American employees that the college reported out of a total of 467 employees in fall 2020. Though not enumerated, the number of African American administrators on campus also reportedly increased from about 6 to 11 percent between the 2017-18 and the 2019-20 school years, according to the 2018-2021 Equal Employment Opportunity Plan that was adopted by the district board on May 19.
“In regards to diversity we have very few number of Black/African American, Native American, and Asian/Pacific Islander employees. Although this is representative of the student body and community, we need to increase these numbers in building true diversity on campus,” the report stated. “The (longitudinal) trend has not shifted significantly in regard to ethnicity and diversity, however, there has been some progress in increasing the Black/African American and Asian/Pacific Islander demographics.”
(This article was updated at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 2, to correctly state that IVC Communications and Governmental Relations Officer Elizabeth Espinoza is no longer employed on an interim basis.)