Michele Johnson: chancellor, criminal justice instructor and world traveler

Armani JacksonManaging Editor

Michele Johnson has been the chancellor of Pierce College for 11 years, but started her career teaching criminal justice and sociology part-time at what was then the Fort Steilacoom Community College on the military base.

When people think about a probation officer or criminal justice instructor, they tend to think of a large, intimidating ruffion and even though Johnson doesn’t seem to share that attitude, she’s accomplished a lot in the field.

After one year of teaching part-time, she was hired as full-time faculty. She then began taking administrative positions and was eventually hired as the Fort Steilacoom campus president in 1999 when the Puyallup campus officially became a formal college. Six years later, with the retirement of former dean and the Puyallup and district president Steve Wall, the Board of Trustees decided to create a chancellor and CEO position with two separate presidents. There was a nationwide search, so Johnson applied and was selected.

“I was really nervous (when I applied),” Johnson said. “I had to think about it for a long time because I was the Fort Steilacoom president. So a couple of things I asked myself were ‘So what if I don’t get it?’ And so if I don’t get it, there’s going to be a person who comes in and now’s going to be a chancellor.”

She was also concerned about how the new person was going to feel about her, so she was prepared to leave her job.

Johnson grew up in Tacoma and graduated from Lincoln High School. She then transferred to Washington State University to study social justice. Johnson was the first member in her family to attend college.

“I’ve always been very interested in social justice,” Johnson said. “As a kid, I was a person who’s always asking questions and trying to figure out what was fair and what wasn’t fair. When I got to WSU, I took a class in that area and I was interested in systems, how things work and how people come together. There was a natural fit to talk about social justice.”

She completed her bachelor’s degree in three years and was encouraged by a faculty member to continue her education.

“I had a professor who really saw potential in me,” Johnson said. “He asked me to teach a course with him on women in the criminal justice system. He thought it wasn’t appropriate that he do that alone so I went in there and together we developed this seminar. And he just said to me, ‘You have a knack for this. Have you thought about college-level teaching?’”

The professor brought Johnson a job listing for a full-time position at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, and she got the job.

“I went to Texas, taught at this university and then, you know, I was from the northwest so I decided to come back,” Johnson said. “I came back here and did some work in the justice system. I worked in probation and then started teaching part-time for Pierce College. The next year, I was hired full time and I’ve been here ever since. I’ve done some other things, but I’ve (always) been here doing one thing or another.”

Johnson took some time off from teaching at Pierce in 1984 and went to the University of Oregon to complete her doctorate.

“At that time, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with it,” Johnson said. “Most of my doctoral work was again in kind of systems theory. So I did some organizational psychology as well as public policy and then higher ed policy. When I was there, I was teaching for Lane Community College so I taught criminal justice for them while I was working on my doctorate.”

Pierce administration went to Oregon to visit her. They offered her a job running the business and industry training program and developing the continuing education. She came back to Washington to do that work as well as teach again.

“I taught for a long time and I was a faculty member known with very high standards,” Johnson said. “I think it was my job to help students realize those possibilities (because) that’s how they’re going to succeed. I help them by helping them create plans and identify resources.”

Johnson attributes the skills she’s applied in her various positions to coaching women’s basketball and fastpitch.

“I coached women’s basketball and fastpitch and had a very successful team,” Johnson said. “In coaching, as an athlete myself, it taught me to prepare, to win, to lose, to be part of a team, to follow, to lead, to develop discipline and skills and I think that’s what life is.”

Outside Pierce, Johnson enjoys yard and garden work and home remodeling.

“I like to do things that I can work really hard on and then see it,” Johnson said. “A lot of what I do in this job, I don’t get to see. I can be here long hours and go ‘What did I accomplish today?’ But when I’m outside and I’m with nature, and I come back in and I’ve been sweaty and I look out and see what’s happened, I go ‘I like that.’”

Johnson has also done a lot of traveling throughout her lifetime. Some of the places she’s been to include England, France, Germany, Italy, Holland, South Africa, Brazil, Mexico, Turkey and Belize. She’s yet to venture to Australia and New Zealand, but hopes to do so one day.

One of her starkest memories is from her time in Italy.

“I was on a train in Italy and there was a nun on the train,” Johnson said. “She needed some assistance in lifting something up and so I had this eye contact with her. She reminded me so much of my aunt, my mother’s sister. So I had this sense that this was where I was from. So there was this real familiar piece like yeah, you know I know that this is where, at least part of, my mother’s family was from. It just gave me this sense of roots of kind of grounded going that this is kind of part of me. I just think about a memory that stuck with me that gave me this sense of my own stock. I could feel it, I could sense that this was part of me.”

Another favorite memory was of her time in Dominica, a small Caribbean island, where she visited a poor community that was rich in color and culture. She was on the river in a small raft, with a few drops of rain coming down. As Johnson headed down into the water, she saw the greenery and thought about how she wanted to come back to the place.

“I’m a kind of person that’s really very, very active and both of those (memories) gave me a grounding, sort of a sense of being,” Johnson said. “You know, kind of one with who I am and with the earth. I know that sounds kind of funny, but it was just sort of these cool things.”

Even though she almost always has to be reached 24/7, remembering the college’s mission keeps Johnson motivated.

“We have our struggles,” Johnson said. “It’s hard (and) it hasn’t always been easy. There’s been challenges along the way, (but) we have such a compelling mission. How many people get to get up every day and go work at a job where you change people’s lives? Not a lot, and that has been such a gift for me. So when it’s hard and I kind of go, ‘This is like crazy making’ then I have to continue to focus on commitment to student success.”

The Puyallup Post is the award-winning news media of Pierce College Puyallup in Puyallup, Washington. Copyright The Puyallup Post 2018. Find us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Youtube @thepuyalluppost

Armani Jackson

Michele Johnson: chancellor, criminal justice instructor and world traveler

by Armani Jackson time to read: 5 min