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UT System President Emeritus Joe Johnson Mourned, Leaves Lasting Legacy

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Joseph E. Johnson


Sept. 29, 2023

UT System President Emeritus Joe Johnson Mourned, Leaves Lasting Legacy

KNOXVILLE — Former University of Tennessee President Joseph E. “Joe” Johnson passed away today at the age of 90.

Johnson was UT system president from 1990 to 1999 and returned to serve as interim president from 2003 to 2004. After retiring as president in 1999, he has served as president emeritus and remained active in building and maintaining relationships with alumni and donors, serving on community boards and consulting with University leaders.

Johnson worked more than 50 years at the University of Tennessee and was known for his popularity with the UT Alumni Association and his acumen as a fundraiser and advocate for the University. He was groomed as president of the University while working for long-time presidents Andy Holt and Ed Boling, and he is considered the architect of the UT System structure, created in 1968. In 2014, the UT Board of Trustees presented him with its Lifetime Achievement Award.

“Dr. Johnson was the embodiment of the University of Tennessee,” said UT System President Randy Boyd. “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,” said UT President Emeritus Joe DiPietro. “I consulted with him frequently, and he remained very involved out front and behind the scenes. 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.”

Johnson began his career as a research associate and instructor in the department of political science at UT Knoxville in 1958. He held that position for one year until going to work for state government in 1960 as chief of the budget division, executive assistant to the governor and deputy commissioner of finance and administration.

After working in state government for three years, he returned to UT in 1963 as executive assistant to then-president Holt. Johnson later served as vice president for development from 1969 to 1973 and then moved to Memphis to be chancellor of the UT Health Science Center from 1970 to 1973. He returned to Knoxville and continued to serve as vice president for development and executive vice president until he was selected by the UT board to serve as statewide system president in 1991.

During Johnson’s tenure as president, the University marked several milestones, including its bicentennial in 1994 and completion in 1998 of the 21st Century Campaign that raised $432 million. Johnson was instrumental in the partnership with Oak Ridge National Laboratory that earned the University, through UT-Battelle, responsibility to manage the lab on behalf of the U.S. Department of Energy beginning in 2000. In 1998, he helped celebrate the Vols’ first national championship in football since 1951. He embraced his role as advocator and spokesman.“It’s important to be yourself and have a sense of values. It doesn’t take people very long to see if you’re real. You must walk the talk,” Johnson said in an interview with Tennessee Alumnus (now Our Tennessee) magazine upon his retirement. “In the University, faculty and students are the most important. The real strength of the University is what goes on in classrooms and labs.”

When Johnson was called on by the University to serve as interim president, it was during a rocky period that saw four presidents occupy the office from 1999 to 2004. Since 2004, Johnson served as president emeritus. During that time, he served in numerous capacities such as on the board of directors for UT Medical Center, board of visitors for the Knoxville-based UT Graduate School of Medicine, alumni boards and volunteer advisory boards of various UT colleges. He also taught master’s and doctoral courses in higher education leadership and funding at UT Knoxville and once a year at the University of Kentucky College Business Management Institute. Another part of his official University duties included visiting with UT faculty, staff, students, alumni and donors for lunch and was often seen at his favorite table at Chesapeake’s restaurant in downtown Knoxville.

An award for UT employees to mark 50 years of service was named in his honor. The Joe Johnson Lifetime Service Award was first given out in 2013.

“I agree with what Andy Holt said about leadership: surround yourself with people who know more than you do, encourage them and turn them loose. Occasionally correct them. Praise them often,” he once said. “Leadership can be fun. You work with outstanding, devoted people and get to see them grow. Leadership can be lonely. You’re expected to make that tough decision.”

A native of Alabama, Johnson earned a bachelor’s degree in history at Birmingham-Southern College in 1955. He received a certificate in public administration from the Southern Regional Training Program in Public Administration in 1956. He also earned a master’s degree in public administration in 1960 and an Ed.D. in higher education and industrial management in 1968 from the UT Knoxville.

Johnson served two years in the U.S. Army beginning in 1956 and was stationed in Korea. He was honorably discharged in 1958 as a sergeant.

Johnson was involved in many community organizations, including Imagination Library of Knox County, the Pat Summitt Foundation, Helen Ross McNabb Center, Knox Area Rescue Ministries and the National Council of the Boy Scouts of America. In 2012, he was honored with the Silver Antelope Award, the highest award the national council gives to volunteers at the region level.

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.

Funeral arrangements are pending and will be announced at a later time.

Read more about Joe Johnson’s legacy at


Melissa Tindell

Tiffany Carpenter

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Category: Announcements