BAR Awards Profile – James H. Johnson

2005 Outstanding Faculty Staff Award
James H. Johnson

When he was growing up, Jim Johnson could misbehave at the far end of rural Pitt County, and his parents would know about it before he got home—and his family didn’t own a phone.

That was the power of a strong, inter-dependent community that expected children to do right and to succeed, even in the segregated North Carolina in which Jim grew up. He cherishes that strong foundation—and a succession of inspiring mentors who modeled success and nudged him along the path to his doctorate degree in social geography.

As the William Rand Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor of Entrepreneurship at Carolina’s Kenan-FlaglerBusinessSchool, Jim embodies that which he so admires. And he is using his stature to re-create a sense of community and a network of mentors for those born without them.

Jim developed and oversees the Durham Scholars program for disadvantaged middle school through high school students. The late Frank H. Kenan ’35 suggested and funded the idea 10 years ago. Morehead scholars and Kenan-Flagler MBA mentors from Carolina work with the kids to help them graduate high school—and enter college, something otherwise unthinkable for many.

“He embodies a level of commitment that is unusual if not unique in academia,” says University Entrepreneur-in-Residence Buck Goldstein ’70, who works closely with Johnson on a social entrepreneurship curriculum. “He has really made a life commitment to the issues he’s interested in. They aren’t just academic issues to him. He embodies and addresses them 24/7.”

With Jim’s scholarly credentials, he could enjoy an air-conditioned career behind his desk. Yet he chooses to spend his energy in society’s least-comfortable places. As a professor at UCLA, that meant South-Central Los Angeles. Today, it means Northeast Central Durham. And Jim Johnson doesn’t just study poverty there; he works to solve the problems he identifies.

“I don’t think universities can just be these ivory towers where we sit in our nice offices and write these wonderful articles that our five friends read,” Jim says. “I think that in the future, universities are going to die if they don’t become more relevant in society.”

An entrepreneur measures performance. So check out these metrics: Forty-eight former Durham Scholars are now in college. A dozen early scholars already have their bachelor’s degrees. Another 70 are Durham Scholars now. And Jim is working to start a private school for them.

One young man from the program applied for a job at a local store. On his application, he listed three references, an executive at The Boston Consulting Group, an executive at J.P. Morgan Chase, and an executive at Bangkok Bank in Thailand. After Jim Johnson verified the impressive references as former MBA students whom the young man knew well as a Durham Scholar, he got the job.

Yet perhaps a Durham Scholar’s most valuable contact is Jim. Robyn Hadley ’85, vice chair of the UNC Black Alumni Reunion Committee, puts it this way:

“He is a walking, talking, breathing model of what he is telling these kids they can be and do and become.”