DEBORA JOHNSON-ROSS: ‘I WILL NOT WIN THE NOBEL PEACE PRIZE, ONE OF MY STUDENTS WILL’

SILVIA OAKLAND, TRUMPET EDITOR-IN- CHIEF

Dr. Debora Johnson-Ross joined Wartburg College at the start of Winter Term as the new dean of faculty. She is the first black woman to hold this job at Wartburg. Johnson-Ross spoke with the Trumpet on Tuesday, February 9 about her background and what her goals are for Wartburg.

Can you start with a background of your life prior to Wartburg?  

I’m originally from South Carolina. My father was in the military, and we moved around quite a bit. I think by the time I was about 15 or 16 I had lived in 24 different houses. We spent five years in Germany, but that was over two different visits, so I went to kindergarten in Germany and then we moved back to Germany when I was in middle school for middle school age. I graduated from high school in Columbia, South Carolina. And I did my undergraduate degree at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, which is very similar to Wartburg. 

I have an undergraduate degree in government. My first master’s degree is in contract and acquisition management. I worked for the Army in several different times. Although I was a civilian employee, I worked at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. While I was at Fort Huachuca, I worked on contracts about research and development, and military intelligence kinds of things at Fort Huachuca. I had the opportunity to work on contracts that supported the development of what we now call the drone.  

 That was the rise of CNN. This is when CNN first started and they were on 24 hours a day, showing what was going on in the Gulf War. My office happened to be just off the vestibule, where a television was going pretty much all day long. It was the first opportunity I had had to connect the work I was doing to war and to death. Two things that did not sit well with my psyche. That’s when I realized that and what I basically to my family was, “I don’t think this is supposed to be my legacy. I think I need a different legacy.” 

How did you get into teaching and academics?  

I had figured out that I really enjoyed teaching law for my undergraduate institution, and much like Wartburg they struggled to diversify their faculty. What they put in place was a program where they would help alumni of color earn their doctorates in return for several years teaching at the institution.  They paid for everything to help underwrite my graduate studies, so I had already earned one master’s degree, and this was now my opportunity to go and earn another that was on a track to a doctorate.  

I got accepted to the program at the University of South Carolina. I moved back to South Carolina worked on my master’s and an EPhD., everybody in the world helped to take care of my son. I was very fortunate at the time my parents still owned a home in Columbia, so one of my sisters and I moved in together. 

When I finished my coursework, I went to teach at Wofford, and that was my first teaching experience after finishing my doctoral coursework. I taught there for three years. And then I went to McDaniel College, which is in Westminster, Maryland. … The International Studies program I was in was very much grounded in political science. … I still love Cameroon; I have a curriculum to finish reviewing for one of the universities there in governance and regional integration. 

DEBORA JOHNSON-ROSS WITH THE FIRST GROUP SHE TOOK TO CAMBODIA. PHOTO PROVIDED BY JOHNSON-ROSS.

I do the work that I do because I know, and I said this so many times that I’m sincere when I say it, I will not win the Nobel Peace Prize, but one of my students will. I’m very confident about that. I used to always tell them I’m going to be sitting in my rocking chair with the TV on and they’re going to announce the Nobel Peace Prize and I’m going to say, “Oh my God, I knew her when she was 18.” 

South Carolina is a ways from here, so what brought you to Wartburg? 

You know sometimes there are forces greater than yourself at work. I wasn’t seriously looking for a job. But a couple of people reached out to me to tell me about this opportunity. 

 I don’t understand the specifics of work culture at Wartburg yet, I have to learn that, but I understand this type of institution. It really was not a difficult decision to make. I liked everyone I met here. People were very friendly, and I like the fact that it’s affiliated with the church. I like the fact that students are encouraged to seek their vocation, and not necessarily pushed in any particular direction, but that it is a process that you undergo yourself. I was not expecting the offer, so when it came in, it was by Zoom. I had to mute myself for a minute so I could just let go. And then I unmuted myself and continued and pretended like I was very composed. I was really thrilled to get that offer. And I do think this is the beginning of my fifth week, so I think, aside from the subzero temperatures, this is where I’m supposed to be. 

What are your goals for the faculty and students of campus? 

The purpose of the faculty is to support the students. So even though there is Student Life, student academic life falls under Academic Affairs. Students are very much at the center of what I think about every day. Because in supporting the faculty, the goal is ultimately to support students. It’s my job to make sure faculty have the resources, the facilities and everything they need so that we can reach our teaching objectives.  

We are taking a look at the general education curriculum, it’s time to evaluate it and see what where there are maybe gaps and other things that we need to do to maybe streamline it. I’m also looking at faculty and staff in terms of diversity. I do think, much like for me, I had no women faculty members, no faculty of color in during my undergraduate days. And even in graduate school I had a few women faculty. I had no African American faculty. When I was in graduate school, I had several faculty who were African, who had immigrated to the United States, but no domestic faculty of color. And I think those things make, they make a huge difference [in student education]. 

What do you hope to bring into Wartburg’s campus about diversity and inclusion? 

I want to make a distinction, about diversity among students and diversity among faculty and staff. The faculty and staff are still not very diverse. I think those are gaps. I think having male role models is a big deal, also. So, the inclusion piece is very difficult, because people just say you know I feel this politics of identity. Any ethnicity and nationalism and things like that. So, just the nature of human beings, is to be more comfortable with people who look like you. Right. And so, when we begin to talk about inclusion. It’s easy to talk about inclusion and what should be, but it’s difficult to do it and put it in place. 

To quote a scholar I follow: “You can’t legislate hearts and minds, that has to come about because people really want to do it.” 

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