President's Blog

Mason’s longest-serving president, George Johnson, passes away

Dear Colleague,

I am sad to report that George Johnson, our university’s fourth and longest-serving president, died today.

It is hard to exaggerate the impact that Dr. Johnson had on this university. As Til Hazel, the rector who recruited him to Mason in 1978, just told me, “George created the foundation for this university. Without him, Mason would simply not be what it is today.” I couldn’t agree more.

Dr. Johnson had the vision to turn the fledgling regional college he encountered into a great national research university. He was determined that George Mason would not imitate other schools. He imagined a new kind of university, one that relied on innovation, experimentation, partnerships with regional business and community leaders, and technology. By all accounts, he succeeded.

When Dr. Johnson took over in 1978, Mason served about 10,000 students. By the time he retired in 1996, enrollment had more than doubled and Mason had a national and international profile.

Under his leadership, Mason acquired doctoral status; established a law school; started 34 new programs; launched six academic institutes; and opened campuses in Arlington and Prince William counties.

The College of Visual and Performing Arts, the Volgenau School of Engineering, the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, the Schar School of Policy and Government, the Early Identification Program, the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study – all owe their existence to President Johnson’s leadership.

More than anything, Dr. Johnson believed that universities thrive on talent, and he devoted much of his time to building a top-flight faculty. This includes creating the Robinson Professors program and recruiting world-class professors like James Buchanan, who won Virginia’s first-ever Nobel Prize while here.

Anyone familiar with our campus at the time of Dr. Johnson’s arrival would not have recognized it by the time he retired in 1996. The Center for the Arts, EagleBank Arena, the Hub, six new classroom buildings, and student residence halls all sprouted up at Mason under his watch. He also believed the university needed a central anchor. That led to the construction of a new university student affairs and academic facility that was eventually named the Johnson Center in his honor.

His leadership extended well beyond Mason. He helped found the Northern Virginia Roundtable and the 123 Club, which brought together business and civic leaders and gave the university and the region clout in Richmond. He also chaired Virginia’s Council of Public Colleges and Universities and twice served as president of the Association of Virginia Colleges and Universities. He was a four-year Virginia representative to the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

The university honored Dr. Johnson with the Mason Medal in 2004, and his legacy lives on today in everything we accomplish. I know he took great pride in the work his faculty and staff members did here, and in where we are today as an institution.

At this time, we send our deepest thoughts and condolences to Dr. Johnson’s family and his many friends at Mason and beyond. Most of all, we send our love to Joanne, his wife of 64 years, a pillar of our community, and an unwavering supporter of our university.

George Johnson’s work here – and the spirit in which he performed it – will forever serve as inspiration for those of us who follow in his footsteps.


–Ángel Cabrera