Former University of Tennessee President Joe Johnson dead at age 90

September 30, 2023

Dr. Joseph "Joe" Johnson, a president emeritus of the University of Tennessee System, reportedly passed away on Friday at the age of 90, according to Knox News.

Among the many achievements of the well-respected former president are most notably his creation of the structure of the current UT System itself as well as the longstanding partnership formed decades ago between the university and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

A long record of service for the university system

Johnson served as president of the UT System from 1990-1999 and then retired only to return as interim president from 2003-2004, a culmination of his decades-long career with the university that began in 1958 when he was hired as a research assistant and political science instructor at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville.

His more than 50 years of service to UT -- he remained involved even after his retirement -- led the university to create the Joe Johnson Lifetime Service Award in 2013 to honor any other UT employees who could match his longevity in service to the school.

Born and raised in Alabama, Johnson earned in 1955 a bachelor's degree in history from Birmingham-Southern College and then obtained a certificate in public administration the following year, after which he joined the U.S. Army in 1956 and served in Korea before being honorably discharged as a sergeant in 1958.

Upon his return, he began to work at UT-Knoxville while also pursuing a master's degree in public administration that he achieved in 1960, followed by a doctorate in higher education and industrial management from the same school in 1968.

Johnson briefly left the UT System after earning his master's in 1960 to work in various positions in the state government for a few years but returned in 1963 to serve as an executive assistant to then-President Andy Holt and continued to climb the ranks within the system over the years until he himself became the president.

Praised by his colleagues in UT leadership

Current UT System President Randy Boyd said, "It is with a heavy heart that we mourn President Emeritus Joe Johnson. His legacy as a tireless advocate for higher education will continue to inspire generations to come. His memory will forever be etched in the history of our institution."

In a more formal statement, Boyd said, "Dr. Johnson was the embodiment of the University of Tennessee. UT would not be the great institution it is today without the leadership, vision, and compassion for people that Dr. Johnson so eloquently had. This is a tremendous loss for our university system, but an even greater loss to the state of Tennessee."

"Dr. Johnson committed his life to the University of Tennessee and made this great University a better place for all of us. I consulted with him frequently, and he remained very involved out front and behind the scenes," fellow UT President Emeritus Joe DiPietro said. "I valued his counsel and have always felt he left big shoes to fill in the president’s office. The entire University will miss his leadership and dedication, and I know those of us who knew him well will miss his quick wit and straight talk."

According to WATE, UT Chancellor Donde Plowman said of Johnson, "He has been the mentor for each one of us who has followed him in leadership positions at the university. So cheerful, so interested in others, so inspiring, such a courageous leader. The stories of Joe Johnson and the type of leader he was will live on and on."

Also weighing in, per WBIR, was UT-Battelle CEO and Interim President Jeff Smith, who lauded Johnson as "the individual who brought together the University of Tennessee and Battelle Memorial Institute to operate Oak Ridge National Laboratory. His vision began a partnership that enriched the university, modernized the lab, and ensured its continued positive impact for Tennessee and the nation. He was a great leader and great friend."

More details to come soon

Knox News reported that the UT System said it would soon release more details about Johnson's death and funeral arrangements.

Johnson was preceded in death by his son Kent in 2020 and is survived by his wife of 64 years, Pat, along with their daughter Kelly and son-in-law Bill Hardin, plus two beloved grandchildren.

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