Breaking barriers: Remembering Dana Johnson, Lerner’s first female dean

As the University of Delaware’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics celebrates the 100-year anniversary of business education at UD, the Breaking Barriers blog series tells the stories of the first individuals from underrepresented groups to join the Lerner College in key roles.

One such trailblazer, Dana J. Johnson, was the Lerner College’s first-ever female dean. Johnson came to the Lerner College (then named the College of Business) from Wake Forest University, where she was Wake Forest’s first permanently appointed woman academic dean. Prior to that, Johnson was a professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, where she received a number of teaching awards.

“UD and the College of Business are both excellent and that’s what’s attractive about the place,” Johnson said at the time of her hiring. “My role would be to build on its excellence and help it gain the national recognition it deserves.”

According to UD accounting professor Scott Jones, during her three and a half years at the Lerner College, Johnson did just that, with a “forward-looking capability” that impacted the college in ways that are still benefiting students, faculty and staff today.

One such project, Jones said, was Delaware’s state IT initiative, which Johnson worked with UD’s provost and the state legislature to bring to fruition. This allowed the college to add a significant amount of technology infrastructure and substantially increase the number of faculty with information systems backgrounds in multiple departments.

“She had the vision that it should intersect multiple departments,” said Jones, adding that this “highly valued” cross-disciplinary effort enabled the college to expand the number of students that it served, including more than tripling the number of MIS major students and creating the MIS minor and graduate program in information systems and technology management.

The college still receives ongoing funding in support of the IT initiative, which Jones said “drastically expands the capability of the college.”

Jones also described Johnson’s instrumental role in developing the college’s relationship with JPMorgan Chase.

“She really is the one that kicked off that relationship that today has resulted in what we have,” Jones said. Today, JPMorgan Chase provides a number of opportunities to Lerner College students and faculty members, including internship and research opportunities at the JPMorgan Chase Innovation Center, a recently constructed 9,900 square-foot addition to Purnell Hall.

“She had the forethought to see how financial institutions were going to be so dependent on information technology going forward,” Jones said of Johnson’s early work in establishing this partnership and other “distinctive” programs.

“That’s the legacy that she left to all the future students of UD,” Jones said.

These and other accomplishments of Johnson’s during her time at Lerner are a reflection of what Jones called her “strong scholarship,” and “administrative talent.” Jones also described her as “very pleasant, very personable, very wise… well-liked, well-respected… a good person.”

Sadly, Johnson left her position as dean after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She passed away in 1999.

At the time, UD President David P. Roselle said, “In her three and a half years at the University of Delaware, Dana Johnson contributed greatly to the University and the College of Business and Economics through her unique combination of knowledge, leadership, professionalism and enthusiasm.

“Her forthright manner and her commitment to education won the University–and her College–many friends and supporters and increased the visibility of both in professional circles. She will be greatly missed.”

Upon Johnson’s passing, Jones said, UD friend and benefactor Chaplin Tyler “respected her so much that he insisted that one of his named professorships be renamed in her name.”

Today, Erwin Saniga is the Dana J. Johnson Professor of Information Technology at the Lerner College. He remembers his time working with Johnson fondly.

“From a faculty perspective, I can say that Dana emphasized quality in teaching, research and service here in the Lerner College,” Saniga said. “And she was very open to new ideas regarding the use of technology in areas one would expect, such as teaching, but also in innovative areas such as corporate and alumni networking.

“I think she would be happy to see where we are now,” Saniga continued, “because there is a match between what her vision of the college was and where we are now.”

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