School of Nursing’s Founding Dean Leaves Lasting Legacy

The university bids farewell to Jean Johnson after her 33-year career at George Washington University.

Jean Johnson
School of Nursing Dean Jean Johnson thanks colleagues, friends and family at her farewell reception last Thursday.
November 03, 2014

By Lauren Ingeno

A risk-taker, a pragmatist, a mentor, a scholar—colleagues attributed those descriptions to Jean Johnson, the George Washington University School of Nursing’s founding dean, during her farewell celebration on Thursday evening.

“In short, Jean is an inspirational leader in every sense of the word,” School of Nursing Senior Associate Dean Mary Jean Schumann said to more than 150 of Dr. Johnson’s friends, colleagues and family members. “She shares openly her passion for nursing, for education and for all of our nursing students.”

When Dr. Johnson steps down as dean at the end of 2014, she leaves a lasting legacy behind her.

Since its establishment in May 2010, the School of Nursing’s enrollment has doubled to more than 750 students. It is now recognized in the top 50 schools of nursing in the country with a fourth-ranked online Master of Science in Nursing program in the U.S. News & World Report. Under Dr. Johnson’s leadership, the school served as an early adopter of online programs, increasing educational access for military service members, parents and working professionals.

Dr. Johnson also has found ways to draw motivated students to careers in nursing. Last year, for example, the school signed an innovative statewide agreement with the Commonwealth of Virginia that guarantees admission into GW’s nursing programs to students with associate’s degrees from community college nursing programs across the state.

Though Dr. Johnson has spent more than 30 years in nursing, her path to the health care profession took a number of detours before she ended up at GW.

“I never really had much direction in my life, to be honest,” Dr. Johnson said with a laugh on Thursday. “I never aspired to be a nurse or an educator. I certainly never aspired to be dean. And yet, the opportunities came, and they have been wonderful.”

After graduating with an economics degree from the University of Illinois, she joined the Job Corps in Chicago where she counseled young women to be successful in job training. She also worked with the VISTA program to open a preschool in the U.S. Virgin Islands. She then spent a year studying concert violin at a music conservatory in Chicago

But her “moment of clarity” came when she came down with a serious illness while living in Greece. While she waited for days for a physician to come to the island, she decided she wanted to follow the path of her sister and her aunt, both nurses. She enrolled in a bachelor of science in nursing program, went on to earn a master’s degree and became a certified nurse practitioner.

Dr. Johnson joined GW in 1981 as a geriatric nurse practitioner. Soon after, she became director of GW’s nurse practitioner (NP) program, which then was housed within the Health Sciences Division in the School of Medicine and Health Sciences. Dr. Johnson eventually served as the associate dean of health sciences and helped to build its programs from the ground up.

“At a time when most health sciences programs were focusing on traditional clinical skills, Jean injected our curriculums with broader programs that provided our students with an understanding of health systems and health policy, research skills and evidence-based practice,” said Kristin Williams, associate provost for graduate enrollment management, who worked in the Health Sciences Division with Dr. Johnson in the ‘90s.

Dr. Johnson helped establish a Department of Nursing Education in 2005, which was among the first to offer graduate programs in nursing that could be taken entirely online. She also earned her Ph.D. while working full time at GW.

Then in 2010, her longtime vision to open a nursing school at GW finally came to fruition. Now, as she parts from that role, George Washington President Steven Knapp said he is confident that Dr. Johnson has built a strong foundation for the school.

“For decades, Jean Johnson has been the driving force behind nursing education at GW,” Dr. Knapp said. “When we started the School of Nursing four years ago, who knew what it was going to amount to? What you have led is truly remarkable. And the future could not be brighter.”

Dr. Johnson is taking a year-long sabbatical during which she plans to pursue a project with colleagues at the University of Cape Town in South Africa as well as complete a program to become an executive coach. But she promised that she will return to the university in some capacity.

“I’m looking forward to coming back,” she said.

Friends, colleagues and administrators praised Dr. Johnson, not only for her fearless leadership, but also for her humor, her kind heart and her “can do” attitude. 

Dr. Williams recalled when Dr. Johnson first interviewed her for an administrative director position in health sciences. She had been working in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, and she admitted she didn’t know how long she could commit to the job. Dr. Johnson assured Dr. Williams that they’d soon be “having so much fun,” she wouldn’t want to leave.

“I am sad that she’s stepping down as dean, but because I know her commitment to health care and to GW is not only acute but chronic, I’m sure she’ll stay connected,” Dr. Williams said. “After all, we’re having so much fun.”

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