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Posted August 9, 2007

After Minnesota Deanship, Johnson Returns to Virginia

Alex Johnson

After serving four years as dean at the University of Minnesota Law School, Professor Alex Johnson will begin the next phase of his career when he returns to Virginia this fall.

“I’m looking forward to basically being a full-time teacher for the first time since 1995,” Johnson said. “It’s going to be great.” He left his position as vice provost and law professor at Virginia in 2002 to become dean at Minnesota. Johnson began his teaching career at Minnesota in the 1980s and was eager to take his experiences as vice provost from Virginia back to Minnesota in a leadership role.

“Alex Johnson's decision to return to the Law School was a coup for us,” said Professor Anne Coughlin. “He had many, many options in the academy both before and after serving as dean, and we were incredibly fortunate that he chose to rejoin our faculty. Alex is a leading scholar in the area of critical race theory, and he is a superb classroom teacher. He also is a visionary, yet pragmatic, administrator. For these qualities, Minnesota recruited him away, and these qualities made him irreplaceable for us. Now, we don't have to try to look for a replacement, for we have Alex Johnson himself, back among us, doing the things he does best.”

As dean, Johnson tried to “import” the Virginia culture to improve the law school experience at Minnesota. The urban, commuter atmosphere was not conducive to a community feel and students were not very engaged with the institution, Johnson recalled. “I wanted to change that and I think I did in four years,” he said. He accomplished it by instituting activities like a “fun run” and the “Theatre for the Relatively Talentless,” Minnesota’s equivalent of the Libel Show. Johnson is also proud of his success in attracting faculty. He recruited and hired 19 faculty members to “reinvigorate the faculty and the enterprise.”

His successes were not without challenges. During his first meeting as dean he learned that his budget had been slashed and it was his job to come up with the money to fill in the holes and make up for the shortages created by the decrease in funds. Each year thereafter the budget and state support was cut even further.

“One of the things that I learned being here at Virginia was that you can’t count on tax dollars; you need alumni support. We revamped the alumni relations office. We ramped up on our annual giving campaign. We were actually able to not only cover the shortfalls, we were able to increase the budget and hire all those faculty members.”

Another of Johnson’s challenges was diversity. Although Minneapolis is in an urban setting, it was difficult to attract students who were not familiar with Minneapolis or the Midwest, he explained.

Johnson enjoyed being an administrator, but he couldn’t devote as much time as he would have liked to teaching. He looks forward to focusing on teaching and writing again and is currently finishing up some of his articles so he can devote all of his efforts to teaching when classes start back up in the fall. He is eager to try a new style of instruction for him that includes interactive media. “I’ve got some ideas of some things I’d like to try, things I haven’t had time to do, like be more interactive with the Internet and some of the technical devices that have been developed in the last decade that can be used in the classroom.”

In addition to teaching Modern Real Estate, Trusts and Estates, and Property this year, Johnson will continue to serve as president of the executive committee for the Order of the Coif. Over the years, he has taught courses in property, modern real estate transactions, trusts and estates, and critical race theory. He is currently a member of the American Law Institute and the American College of Real Estate Lawyers.

On the research side, Johnson is interested in critical race theory, examining the social construction of race and ethnicity and its impact on law and legal issues, and the application of relational contract theories to interest in real property.

Johnson’s zeal for the law began as a child. “From a very early age I knew I wanted to become a lawyer,” he said. But he never dreamed he would become a law professor. After law school at the University of California at Los Angeles, Johnson went into private practice with Latham & Watkins in Los Angeles for two years before being courted to teach at the University of Minnesota. After two years of teaching, he returned to Latham & Watkins, where he quickly realized that he preferred being a professor. Following another two short years back at the firm, he accepted a faculty position at Virginia.

Johnson has served as a visiting professor at Stanford University, the University of Texas, and Washington University law schools. All of his teaching and administrative service away from Virginia has strengthened his affection for the Law School. “One of the things that caused me to return to Virginia and really look forward to my return to Virginia is the culture. I think the culture at Virginia is very unique. The faculty, the students, and the alums, and even the staff, they are all part of a joint venture to produce the best, most ethical lawyers. That culture is very rare and may be unique to Virginia."
• Reported by Emily Williams