Students in field

Johnson wraps up 15 years as Finlandia president

June 30, 2022

Philip Johnson

As 15 years in the president’s office at Finlandia University draw to a close, Dr. Philip Johnson will remember most the times his job took him elsewhere on campus.

“The most rewarding aspects of my work are those that take me away from my desk,” he said, “(such as) having lunch with students and asking them to give me ‘the good, the bad, and the ugly’; sitting with parents and grandparents to cheer on their student … mingling with students, community members and artists at receptions … you get the picture.

“The reward has always been the people. My life has been so enriched by those who have come into my life while serving as president.”

Johnson, who announced his departure from Finlandia last fall, first came to the university as the spouse of the newly-hired director of the school’s servant leadership program — his wife Rene – in 2005. He met his predecessor, Bob Ubbelohde, at a campus picnic later that year, and Bob eventually hired Philip as campus pastor and assistant to the president in January 2006. Ubbelohde announced his intent to retire later that year, and while the search for a new president was under way, Johnson was encouraged to apply.

On July 1, 2007, he began his tenure as Finlandia University’s 16th president in its 125-year history, taking the reins of a school that has never veered far from its Finnish roots, and the personality traits and sensibilities that are ingrained in folks of that ethnicity.

“My experiences as Finlandia’s president left me with a deep conviction that Finns and Finnish Americans know how to do hospitality!” Johnson said. “Over 15 years I have been on the receiving end of an overwhelming outpouring of hospitality in so many forms. I still remember well the kind and warm hospitality I received early in my presidency when visiting President Halonen at the presidential palace in Helsinki.

“Yet, this experience and others like it … pale in comparison to the kindnesses and gracious hospitality I have received in the kitchens, living and dining rooms, patios, gardens and saunas of Finlandia’s friends and alumni. Meals, coffee, nisu … and so much more were the regular expressions of hospitality that I received. I simply loved this aspect of my presidency; Finnish-American hospitality has, perhaps, been the greatest source of joy during my presidency.”

There are plenty of other sources of joy, Johnson said, noting that language in the university’s visioning document is intentional:

“Finlandia’s distinct contribution to higher education is linked to and shaped by her distinct story: an institution in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, planted by Finnish Lutheran immigrants, deeply committed to preparing graduates for meaningful work and responsible citizenship,” the document reads. Johnson has remained committed to this philosophy since his inauguration.

“Earlier in my presidency I worked with academic leadership to require for graduation at least one three-credit course in Finnish or religious studies,” he noted. “Finlandia’s Sisu Seminar is also a clear expression of Finlandia’s continued commitment to embed Finnish-American and Finnish ideas and ideals into our curriculum.”

Other ways Johnson has strived to “keep the Finn in Finlandia” include the evolution of the Paloheimo Fellows program, the Finnish American Folk School, and regular collaboration with the local business development organization FinnZone. While doing this, it seems that Johnson – himself a full-blooded Norwegian – has exemplified that famed Finnish tenacity, which the Finns call sisu.

“I was drawn in by Finlandia’s story, its people, its mission, the students it served and, yes, the challenges,” he explained. “I was impressed by the board’s unyielding commitment to see Finlandia thrive. As a product of Lutheran higher education myself, I carried a deep affinity for the distinct contribution that our 26 colleges and university offer to North American higher education. It’s been a deep privilege to serve the smallest and northernmost campus among them.

“The idea of sisu so permeates all things Finnish and Finnish American that it just seems unacceptable to not mention it. It functions, for so many Finnish Americans, as an all-pervasive life philosophy as much as something I observe in the everyday speech, actions and behaviors of Finnish Americans and Finns. The Finnish Americans who have come to be so much a part of my life over the past 15 years identify deeply and genuinely with their Finnish-Americanness.”

It’s people like those Finnish Americans that Johnson will miss the most, he admits. Along with more public expressions of camaraderie like pancake breakfasts and spaghetti dinners on campus, festivals like Heikinpäivä and campus initiatives like the MLK Day of Service, he’ll miss the simpler, more interpersonal exchanges.

“I will miss early-morning greetings from housekeeping colleagues, and later evening chats with security staff,” he said. “I’ll miss my work with the board of trustees, leading along with my senior team, faculty interactions, and the uncountable serendipitous encounters with administrators and staff. I’ll eventually, perhaps, miss the daunting challenges.

“There’s so, so much that I will miss.”

While his next steps aren’t yet fully defined – “the next chapter does not have a title as yet,” he said – his last thoughts focused in the same direction his leadership style has been for the past decade and a half – forward.

“Those who love and support Finlandia can rest assured that there is good and strong leadership on the way,” he said. “I’m very excited about what president-elect Tim Pinnow is bringing to our learning community. I hope the readers and all of us will welcome Tim and his wife Amber as warmly as Rene and I were 15 years ago.

“Finlandia is in good hands.”

Philip Johnson

Article provided by David Maki, Director of Finnish American Heritage Center and Managing Editor of Finnish American Reporter.

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