When Craig Johnson accepted his appointment to become president of Ridgewater College in April 2018, he knew he had to combine the skills of an administrative executive and a politician. And in this particular case, his skillset might also have to include that of a therapist.

Johnson arrived with a portfolio of 30-plus years of relevant experience. An art history student, he earned an Ed.D. in higher education from the University of Minnesota. He gained executive-level experience at the University of Minnesota’s College of Architecture & Landscape Architecture, Moraine Park Technical College, Winona State University-Rochester and most recently as executive director at the University Center-South Dakota Public Universities & Research Center.

Johnson’s new role would involve overseeing a public community and technical college where 4,500 students studied on two campuses—one located in Willmar and another in Hutchinson, about an hour east. He would have to operate under the same constraints that the presidents of Minnesota State’s other 36 colleges and universities face. Strict caps imposed by the legislature controlled the revenue side of his budget, and the spending side was dominated by contracts that the state system negotiated, over which he would have little influence.

Closer to home, his school would have to accommodate demographic shifts in the numbers and makeup of upcoming student populations. Analysts were predicting a sharp drop in the number of high school graduates over the coming decade, and the cultural composition of those upcoming classes would change as well. Nearly two-thirds of the students in Willmar’s public school system, for example, are minority students.

He’d hear the clamor from local employers, especially manufacturers, about the urgent need for Ridgewater to churn out more graduates with specialized skills. They also would likely be looking for more informal and nontraditional kinds of training.

Plus, he’d still have to fight to reverse the stubborn stigma against community colleges believed by parents and high school educators and counselors: that a four-year college track is the only pathway to a satisfying and well-paying career.

Wait a minute, you ask, he wanted this job?

Hold on. There’s more.

Like college presidents everywhere, Johnson would have to contend with the sometimes-competing demands from powerful unions. However, Johnson’s new purview would be even more complicated than that. He was inheriting a workplace environment that had become higher ed’s version of the Hatfields and McCoys. His most urgent challenge was to heal a large and ugly rupture between Ridgewater’s faculty union and Douglas Allen, Johnson’s predecessor. The faculty union had become bitter and demoralized over what it considered Allen’s heavy-handed and autocratic management style, according to Mary Gruis, the school’s faculty union president. The faculty had overwhelmingly passed a vote of no confidence against Allen and had refused to participate in Faculty Shared Governance.

Johnson decided to use the process of creating a system-required strategic plan to help address this environment. To facilitate that process, he stepped out of the typical academic planning process and recruited Steve Haarstad and Patrice O’Malley, two veteran consultants from Enterprise Minnesota, who traditionally work with manufacturing executives. The two worked under the guidance of Ellen Roster, Ridgewater’s executive director of institutional planning and effectiveness.

Describe your path to bridgewater

My focus early on was pursuing my interests, art and art history, not on being a president of an institution or a community college. But I did have some strong mentors at the U of M who gave me reason to think more seriously about administrative studies and moving into administrative roles. Many of our presidents typically come up through the academic ranks, but I didn’t. Mine was more of a generalist path.

What attracted you to this position

I have come to love and respect the mission, the open access, and the boots-on-the-ground nature of the comprehensive community college. Ridgewater just resonated with me. I was interested in the structure of the state system, and the respect for education that we have, and of course the people here, the region, and the geography.