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Longtime UT President Dr. Joe Johnson dies

Joe Johnson
Dr. Joe Johnson

Joe Johnson, long-time system president of the University of Tennessee, died Sept. 29, 2023, at the age of 90. 

Johnson served as president from 1990 to 1999 and then again as interim president from 2003 to 2004. A UT employee of more than 50 years, Johnson was instrumental in the creation of the UT System structure and the partnership between UT and Oak Ridge National Laboratory. 

After stepping down as interim president in 2004, he continued to serve as president emeritus, sitting on numerous boards including the UT Medical Center, UT Graduate School of Medicine, and more. In 2012, he received the Silver Antelope Award, which UT officials said is the highest award the national council gives to volunteers. 

“Through his vision, leadership and passion, Dr. Johnson provided years of service to the people of Tennessee and to the University of Tennessee that forged a positive direction for our state,” said Ron Williams, Farragut mayor and TML president. “We have lost a great leader. We are indebted to President Joe and his lovely wife Pat for their many years of service to all Tennesseans,”  

Anthony and JOhnson
TML Executive Director Anthony Haynes, left, and former UT System President Joe Johnson

TML Executive Director Anthony Haynes recalled working with Johnson at the university and the influence Johnson had on both him and UT.  

“Dr. Johnson always made time for others, especially those seeking his counsel,” Haynes said. “He was a man that mentored mentors. University students, staff, presidents and trustees all sought his advice. And if you were smart, you’d take it. Dr. Johnson was one of the early architects of what the University of Tennessee has been able to achieve today. He understood the critical role of a land grant university in serving its state and people. One expects a university president to be keenly focused on advancing academics and research. But few maintain the same focus and commitment, as did Dr. Johnson, to outreach areas of the university such as assisting state and local governments, and industries such as agriculture. For more than 50 years, he lived every day to advance that relationship and role. As a result, Tennessee is better for it.” 

UT System President Randy Boyd said 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,” Boyd said. “This is a tremendous loss for our university system, but an even greater loss to the state of Tennessee.” 

Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon said Johnson’s death was a loss for all of Knoxville.  

“Knoxville mourns the passing of Dr. Joe Johnson who gave so much to UT and the community. Condolences to all his friends and family,” she said.  

U.S. Congressman Tim Burchett said he and his wife would be praying for the Johnson family. 

"I've known him my entire life, and I know he cared deeply about the students at UT and his community,” Burchett said. “He'll be truly missed in East Tennessee.” 

Herb Byrd III, vice president of public service at the University of Tennessee, said Johnson helped make IPS possible.  

“I am saddened to hear of Dr. Johnson's passing,” Byrd said. “He was a tremendous leader for the University of Tennessee, as well as a visionary for and supporter of IPS. We've lost a great man and advocate, and our thoughts are with his family.” 

A native of Alabama, Johnson attended Birmingham-Southern College where he earned a bachelor’s degree in history in 1955. He would go on to earn a certificate in public administration, a master’s degree in public administration, and an Ed.D. in higher education and industrial management. 

Johnson came to UT in 1958 after serving as a sergeant in the U.S. Army, including two years spent stationed in Korea. He served as a research associate and lecturer in UT’s political science department while earning his master’s degree.  

He then worked as an executive assistant to Gov. Buford Ellington in Nashville from 1960 to 1963 and then in the Tennessee Department of Finance and Administration as a senior budget analyst, director of the budget division, and deputy commissioner.  

He returned to UT in 1963 as an executive assistant for then-System President Andy Holt. Johnson was then named vice president for development and chancellor for the health sciences center in 1969, where he served until he became vice president for development and executive vice presidents in 1973. He served in both positions until ultimately becoming president of the university system I 1990.  

During his tenure, UT saw several significant milestones, including the university’s bicentennial in 1994, the Vols first national football championship since 1951, and the partnership between the university and ORNL.  

Johnson is survived by Pat, his wife of 64 years, and daughter and son-in-law, Kelly and Bill Harlin, and two grandchildren, Luke Harlin and Tucker Harlin. He was preceded in death by his son, Kent Johnson, in 2020. 

He was involved in many community organizations, including Imagination Library of Knox County, the Pat Summitt Foundation, McNabb Center and more.