Johnson wants to retire as president if given the chance
May 2, 2022
By Leticia Luna, Editor in Chief
As a small child, David Johnson used to play ball at the Merritt College campus. Born and raised in Oakland, Johnson’s earliest memories are a source of pride as he now returned to serve as president at the same place he was so fond of as a five-year-old.
Whether by being on campus with his father, who brought him to play, or seeing his mother receive her degree from Merritt, a degree that helped her professional career take off, the Johnson family has a strong connection with Merritt College.
“I’m very, very appreciative of this school because, in a meaningful way, it changed the economic circumstances of my family once she [mother] was able to earn her degree and become a manager,” Johnson said
Johnson has a noteworthy list of academic qualifications, including a Bachelor’s Degree in Mass Communication/Media Studies and a Ph.D. in History from the University of California, Berkeley. He also received a Master’s in Communication from the University of Washington, in Seattle. Johnson explained that from the time he started working as an admissions officer at the University of Washington – after he received his master’s degree – he knew that he wanted to “have a career in education.”
“I didn’t want to work anywhere else. I mean, to me, being on campus is just a magical experience: the energy, students, excitement, watching people work toward a worthy goal,” Johnson said. “There’s no better day than commencement, when you see people’s families, you know, ‘look, I did it, people!’ it’s the culmination of all that hard work.”
Johnson began teaching in Berkeley City College’s History department in 2005, taking on classes in African American Studies as he also worked for the Program for Adult College Education (PACE), a program geared toward working adults to guide them towards getting the most from community college.
“We did phenomenal things. Our graduation rate for those students was amazing, the transfer rate was amazing,” Johnson remembered.
The incentive to become an administrator came from the former Peralta Chancellor Wise E. Allen, whose encouragement took Johnson’s already existing interest to the next level, and pushed him to apply for a Dean’s position at Cañada College, where he stayed for seven years.
Before coming back to Peralta Community Colleges (PCCD), Johnson held the position of Interim Vice President of Academic Services at Las Positas College for about a year. In January 2019, Johnson took the opportunity to return to Oakland and Peralta, only this time as an administrator, taking the position of Vice President of Instruction at Merritt College. In November of the same year, he served as acting president until he was officially hired for the permanent position in the Spring of 2020.
Johnson affirmed that managing the college during a pandemic is challenging. He stressed that during this time, serving students’ needs and supporting them is a priority for him.
“You don’t work at Merritt College, you don’t work in Peralta unless you really care. Because a lot of times we’re trying to change lives, in spite of the things, or the obstacles that we face.”
Johnson says he is proud and honored to work alongside his colleagues at Merritt College and points out the positive report the Accreditation Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) gave the college in January.
“I’m very proud and honored to work alongside folks. I think that us, the college, having a very glowing accreditation report is a testament to the good things that we have going on here,” Johnson said.
The PCCD colleges were issued a warning status in January, a step up from the “probation status” that the colleges received in January 2020. A PCCD press release states “The Peralta Colleges have indicated the expectation to meet all standards of accreditation by June 2022 and remains on sanction by ACCJC, but with the status elevated from Probation to Warning.”
The commission is scheduled to follow up with the district colleges by October 1, 2022.
In the future, Johnson plans to incorporate the entire Oakland Community into Merritt College. “This is your college, too. You can come up, and say get away from what’s going on your day-to-day and have something different for yourself,” Johnson said.
Making Merritt College the “community’s college” is a mantra Johnson mentioned in his hiring interview.
He explained that the college has worked on outreach programs in East Oakland high schools and with “Grab & Go” giveaways, which include free lunches.
“The purpose of these events is to service our students’ basic needs. This is also an opportunity to provide outreach and in-reach and remain visible and accessible for our students,” Tauheeda Anderson, Merritt College Umoja/Sankofa Project Manager echoed Johnson’s sentiment in an email to the Citizen.
Johnson’s strategy toward making Merritt College part of the community is to possibly create satellite centers for the college to offer classes and services, in a project similar to the Fruitvale unit that today serves the Fruitvale community with language and child development classes.
An ambitious goal that Johnson envisions one day bringing student housing to Merritt College. According to Johnson, Merritt has the space to build community housing and be one of the only community colleges in an “urban center” that provides housing to students. While the goal is to start with students, Johnson hopes to one day provide housing for classified staff and faculty as well.
“That’s a long, long-term goal,” Johnson said.
Johnson has been working from campus since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and expressed that he would not ask for people to come back to campus if he was not there.
“As president, my philosophy is, I’m not going to ask anybody to do something that I’m not willing to do,” Johnson said.
“So if I’m asking you to come, be at work, I’m going to be here. If I’m asking you to see students, I’m going to see students. Whatever I’m asking you to do, you can trust and believe that I’m willing to do it too.”
As the Colleges continue to transition to in-person, the Merritt campus seems to be more vibrant than last semester. With Johnson’s ambitious goals for the Merritt Community front and center, his visible dedication has the potential to shape the future of the college.
“I promise you [Merritt community] that no one’s gonna work harder, no one’s gonna care more, no one’s gonna be more invested in serving this college and serving you all, than me – the president of the college – because that’s the responsibility I have. That’s the love I have.”