Joe Johnson

UT Knoxville, ’60, ’68


Part of the Tennessee Alumnus’ 100 Distinguished Alumni feature.

Joe Johnson—right up there with Andy Holt and Ed Boling—is synonymous with the University of Tennessee.

His career is a progression of leadership posts that took him from the classroom to the governor’s cabinet to the UT president’s office. When I took office in 2011, in fact, the year marked both the 20th anniversary since Dr. Johnson first became president and his 50th year as a UT employee. In addition to his lifetime of honors, the inaugural “Joe Johnson Award” for 50 years of UT service was named for and given to him that year. I don’t expect many other UT employees to qualify for that recognition.

It’s a testament to his leadership and lasting influence that Dr. Johnson’s name is on streets and buildings on UT property across the state. For me, Dr. Johnson’s influence is more personal. In his current role as UT president emeritus, he is an invaluable source of wisdom, advice and insight to me.

I routinely seek his counsel on difficulties I face in this job, and I no doubt benefit from his sage advice. More importantly, most of the time, despite the weight of the circumstances or concern, he reassures me that the problem may have a few new wrinkles but otherwise is not new. Invariably, he provides his perspective and never second guesses me if I choose to go a different direction.

Dr. Johnson tried retiring in 1999 but stepped back in when asked to help steady the ship as the university faced budget cuts and severe criticism over his short-lived successor. Of course, Dr. Johnson restored credibility and rebuilt critical relationships. You don’t spend years alongside Andy Holt and Ed Boling unless you have integrity and political savvy.

I can’t imagine, after serving UT so well as its president, how torn he must have been, after gaining the retirement he so well deserves, that he agreed to come back and serve as president a second time. On the other hand, his love and commitment to the institution are palpable, and he is selfless in thinking of it first. Even today, as president emeritus, he puts in long hours and days in support of UT. Few, if any, have done more!

This job is both demanding and a privilege. If I can do it only half as well as Joe Johnson, that’ll be a tall order and a great success.

—Joe DiPietro is the 25th president of the University of Tennessee.