A career of more than 25 years in higher education has led Brad Johnson to his first job at College of the Ozarks, which also happens to be the top spot.
He’s the 18th president of the 116-year-old college that’s on a 1,000-acre campus overlooking Lake Taneycomo at Point Lookout, roughly 40 miles south of Springfield.
Johnson started June 1, succeeding longtime president Jerry C. Davis, who served 34 years in the position and is now the college’s chancellor. As the new campus leader, Johnson said he’s not intimidated by the challenge to follow Davis.
“President Davis has done a remarkable job for 34 years. You don’t stay in these jobs for 34 years if you’re not really, really good at what you do,” Johnson says. “I look forward to following in his footsteps. He’s laid tremendous groundwork for us to be able to launch into the future.”
During Davis’ tenure, C of O conducted more than $50 million worth of construction and boosted the college’s Hard Work U. focus on student workers who attend courses for free and remain debt free, according to school officials. The college ranked No. 6 last year on Springfield Business Journal’s list of the area’s largest higher learning institutions. C of O reported local spring 2022 enrollment of 1,414 students, a 4.5% decrease over 2021, and 372 local employees.
The institution started as School of the Ozarks and adopted the current name in 1990.
Johnson comes to C of O from Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, where he worked since 2012 as vice president for institutional advancement. At SBU, he also served 10 months as interim president between the administrations of Eric Turner and Rick Melson, who started in September 2021 as the private Christian college’s new president. Prior to his time at SBU, Johnson had administrative positions at McMurry University, Hardin-Simmons University and two stints at Howard Payne University, all in Texas. At SBU and Howard Payne, he raised more than $57 million in cash gifts and managed $41 million in estate gifts.
“As things played out, I’m very thankful that we are at C of O now,” Johnson says, referring to his family, wife Laura and their children, Evan, 16, and Ellie, 14. “I talk about how things just come together. As a person of faith, I believe the Lord has a lot to do with that. We feel like this is a great fit for me personally and my experience, but also a great fit for my family.”
Shawn McKenzie, who became chair of the C of O Board of Trustees in April, served on the presidential search committee. Johnson was one of 17 applicants and among five finalists interviewed, says McKenzie, a retired AT&T executive.
“We were incredibly blessed,” he says. “My sense was any one of the five could have made a very good president for the college.”
However, McKenzie says Johnson’s experience and past success, particularly in raising funds, helped him stand out from the pack.
“He was up against very good candidates but probably one of his strongest characteristics is he seems to have a God-given humility despite the incredible success and experience that he’s had,” he says, noting that character trait carried over in his lack of intimidation to succeed Davis.
Johnson started his higher education career at Howard Payne, where he began as director of university counseling services before being promoted to associate dean of students.
“That’s really important to me to have student time and I look forward to getting to know the students here and building a program that continues to foster their success,” he says, noting financial aid is foundational to the success of C of O. “So many of our students wouldn’t be here without the support of scholarships from the generosity of our donors.”
Johnson says involvement in fundraising and development programs has been central to his past work at McMurry, Howard Payne and Southwest Baptist. While he says it’s a bit too early for goal setting at C of O, Johnson eyes growing the university’s $665 million endowment. Conducting listening sessions with all the college’s departments and assembling what he dubs a presidential learning network team comprising senior leadership and campus experts to help guide first-year decisions also are in the works.
Johnson’s transition to work in financial aid at McMurry University wasn’t a career shift he was sure he wanted to make. He took the job after his wife got a reporter job for the ABC television affiliate in Abilene.
“I had been in the student development area and didn’t know if I’d like financial aid or not,” he says. “It turned out I liked it and was pretty good at it. It’s funny how all those pieces in life fit together sometimes.
“Little did I know how instrumental that would be to my career, moving forward.”
While he’s never worked on the Point Lookout campus prior to this month, Johnson says he first became familiar with it when he and his family moved to Bolivar a decade ago. His children went on a field trip to the Ralph Foster Museum at C of O and he and Laura later enrolled them in etiquette classes taught at the Keeter Center.
“From that point forward, we have always admired College of the Ozarks and really appreciate what it represents. And the students are just amazing,” he says.
Coincidentally, Johnson says he and Laura have a personal connection with his predecessor at C of O. Davis’ oldest daughter, Julie, and her husband are both SBU graduates and friends – another example Johnson notes as serendipitous. The Johnsons’ children are set to start in the fall at Branson High School, as the family finishes its move to the president’s house at Point Lookout campus this month. This summer, the Johnsons plan to build relationships with current and prospective donors.
“Laura and I have made it a priority to get involved in the community wherever we go,” he says, adding the two have past service on chamber of commerce boards.
Leading a university is a far cry from Johnson’s early years growing up in the small farming community of Lazbuddie in the Texas panhandle. He stayed in the town of roughly 300 residents through 12th grade, where his 1988 graduating class was three people at First Baptist High School, which no longer exits.
“Full disclosure here, I was in the middle third of my class,” he says with a laugh.
Johnson then traveled across Texas to Baylor University in Waco, but expected he’d return to Lazbuddie after graduation.
“When I started at Baylor, I had planned on getting a business degree and then going back and running our family farm, but the Lord had other plans,” he says. “So, I went on to pursue a master’s degree in counseling and that opened up a door to serve at Howard Payne University.”
Johnson graduated from Baylor in 1993 with a bachelor’s degree in education. In 1996, he earned master’s degrees in religious education and marriage and family counseling from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, prior to returning to Baylor, where he received his doctorate in educational administration in 2005.
As he prepares for his first semester at the C of O helm, Johnson says he’s hopeful to also get in some fly fishing when free time allows.
“I like to play golf, too, and tell everyone I get my money’s worth because I hit the ball a lot,” he says with a chuckle.
For most, winter offers a break from gardening. But there’s plenty of action at Amanda Belle’s Farm on East Primrose Street, a Springfield Community Gardens project at the edge of the Cox Medical Center South campus.