UC’s Dean Lawrence J. Johnson, a transformative figure in CECH, celebrates 25 years

The college’s outgoing dean has served with a smile over a distinguished academic career

“I’m not your typical dean.”

Anyone who’s spent time around Lawrence "Larry" J. Johnson in his 25 years of deanship with the University of Cincinnati’s College of Education, Criminal Justice, Human Services, and Information Technology has probably heard these words. And of course it’s true – the standard tenure of an academic dean is just five years (or less), making Johnson’s quarter century in the Teachers-Dyer Complex anything but “typical.”   

There’s more to Johnson’s unique career than a lengthy tenure, though. As he himself likes to point out, “I doubt there’s many deans that were a hot tar roofer.”

Old picture of Larry Johnson seated at 1990s computer

Larry Johnson in the mid 90s, when he served as the director of UC's Arlitt Center. Photo/provided

Johnson was raised on the south side of Chicago, in a blue-collar neighborhood he describes as “challenged.” Neither of his parents attended college, and Johnson was the first of his three brothers to attain higher education when he enrolled in Western Illinois University to pursue a bachelor's degree in Special Education – an area of study close to his heart.

“When I was in elementary school I was identified as having learning disabilities … so I did receive special ed. services,” explains Johnson. “When I’m confronted with problems, my first thing is to think about it differently, try to find a different way. I think having those learning challenges really helped me to succeed.”

Instructors at Western Illinois guided him toward students with behavioral disorders and learning disabilities, and he was happy to work with kids who needed the extra attention he himself benefited from in school. After graduating in 1978, Johnson took a position as a teacher “to make a difference in this world.”

What he didn’t make teaching in 1970s Chicago, though, was a lot of money. So during this time Johnson started a business, called LJ Decorating, in which he organized groups of fellow teachers to help him with interior painting jobs on the weekends. “I really do know what it is to work and earn a living,” he says, listing restaurant work, pizza jobs and hot tar roofing as other past employment experiences.

“My dad taught us all to be entrepreneurs,” he says, conceding that the painting business probably could have provided him a lucrative career. But Larry Johnson’s brand of entrepreneurialism stays aimed at making a difference in the world.

Advancing in Academia

For Johnson, the long-term goal had always been a career in academia. After four years of teaching public school, he headed to the University of Illinois to pursue his master’s degree in special education with an emphasis in school counseling. From here, he applied for and was accepted to the doctoral program, focusing on statistics and research methodology in special education.

Dean Johnson speaks with two colleagues

Dean Johnson speaking with colleagues at an event. Photo/provided

And he started another business, too, doing statistics for faculty members and students. “I actually wrote a Fourtran program to help do some analysis,” he says. “Another doctoral student and I started a business where we did statistics for faculty members and students.”

Entrepreneurial streak aside (though of course Johnson never set this aside, much to the benefit of UC and CECH), this experience connected him with the director of the University of Illinois’ Colonel Wolfe Projects, who eventually made him the assistant director of research methodology. In time, Johnson made his way to the University of Alabama, where he set up a sister research center to the one he left in Illinois.

He worked in Alabama for four years, serving as an associate professor with tenure and chairperson of the Early Childhood Special Education program. And then Johnson glimpsed an opportunity for a bright future at the University of Cincinnati.

“Under Larry’s leadership, the college has made enormous strides. The metrics are impressive and compelling. But this growth at CECH was never at the risk of sacrificing quality."

Anthony Perzigian, PhD, Provost Emeritus and Professor Emeritus of Anthropology; University of Cincinnati

An Undeniable Legacy

Johnson’s impact on UC is, in a word, undeniable. His many experiences and accolades across 30-plus years at the university include numerous leadership searches for cornerstone members of UC history, including chairing five dean searches, serving on two provost searches, and leading searches for the vice president for finance and two directors. He was instrumental in various initiatives, from leading the strategic planning initiative for former president Nancy Zimpher to twice leading university re-accreditation to developing (and leading) the Gen-1 living-learning program.

President Pinto presents Dean Johnson with award

UC President Neville Pinto presents Dean Johnson with the President's Award for Excellence at the university's 2024 spring graduation commencement ceremony. "Dean Johnson, you have been an incredible advocate and an outstanding strategic partner," Pinto said when presenting the President's Award, which was only the fourth he's bestowed (other recipients include John Kasich, Rob Portman and former NBA player Oscar Robinson). "Generations of teachers and professionals have been impacted by your work and countless faculty and staff by your mentorship.... Yours is an example of outstanding and enduring success for today’s academic leaders." Photo/UC Marketing + Brand.

And Johnson served in a wide variety of roles instrumental to university operations, such as CECH Associate Dean of Research; Department Head of Special Education and Early Childhood; Full Professor of Special Education and Early Childhood; Associate Professor of Special Education and Early Childhood; State Representative and Co-Director of the University of Cincinnati Institute of Community Partnerships; Director of the Arlitt Child and Family Research and Education Center; Founder and Director of the Evaluation Services Center; Vice-Chair of the University of Cincinnati Research Institute; Interim Provost of the University of Cincinnati; and executive committee member for former president Greg Williams.

He chaired the Council of Deans four times; created curriculum; and authored seven books, 33 chapters, 75 refereed publications and 73 evaluation reports. Many of his publications were honored, often awarded article of the year, and he served as editor of numerous esteemed education journals.

Leadership Searches

  • Dean of College of Applied Science (chair)
  • Dean of Clermont College (chair)
  • Dean of Graduate School (chair)
  • Dean of A&S (chair)
  • Dean of CCM (chair)
  • Two Provost Searches (chair of one)
  • Vice President for Finance (chair)
  • Director the Office of Institutional Research
  • Director of Public Safety and Chief of Police

UC Initiatives

  • Chaired the HLC Accreditation in 1998
  • Co-Chaired the HLC Accreditation in 2008
  • Lead the Strategic Planning Initiative for President Zimpher
  • Chaired the Task Force on the Future of Athletics at UC
  • Co-Chaired the Committee to Develop the PBB Budget System at UC
  • Served on Committee to Develop the University of Cincinnati Research Institute
  • The Gen-1 House developed and first managed by CECH

UC Positions

  • Dean of College of Education, Criminal Justice, Human Services, and Information Technology
  • Associate Dean of Research of College of Education, Criminal Justice and Human Services
  • Department Head of Special Education and Early Childhood
  • Full Professor of Special Education and Early Childhood
  • Associate Professor of Special Education and Early Childhood
  • State Representative and Co-Director of the University of Cincinnati Institute of Community Partnerships
  • Director of the Arlitt Child and Family Research and Education Center
  • Founder and Director of the Evaluation Services Center
  • Vice-Chair of the University of Cincinnati Research Institute
  • Interim Provost of the University of Cincinnati
  • Served on the Executive Committee of President Williams
  • Served four times as the Chair of the Council of Deans


  • Co-Editor, Teacher Education and Special Education, 1998-2003
  • Associate Editor, The Journal of Early Intervention, January 1988-July 1992
  • Editor, Focus on Research. Newsletter publication of the Division of Research, International Council for Exceptional Children, 1989-1992
  • Editor, Research Notes section of the Journal of Early Intervention
  • Editor, Special issue on computer-based instruction for the Journal of the Division for Early Childhood, Spring 1986
  • Reviewer:
    • International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education
    • The Journal of Special Education
    • The Journal for the Education of the Gifted
    • The Journal of Early Intervention
    • The Journal of Teacher Education
    • Teacher Education and Special Education
    • Remedial and Special Education
    • The Journal of the Division of Early Childhood
    • Mental Retardation Systems
    • Office of Special Education Programs
    • Topics in Early Childhood Special Education Diagnostic
    • Exceptionalities
    • Education Foundations

Professional Service

  • Elected to the Executive Board of the Teacher Education Division of the Council for Exceptional Children in the following positions:
    • Member at Large, 1989-1991
    • Vice President, 1992
    • President Elect, 1993
    • President, 1994
    • Past President, 1995
  • Member, Executive Committee of the Early Childhood Division of the International Council for Exceptional Children, Chairperson of Research.
  • Member, Executive Board of the Research Division of the International Council for Exceptional Children
  • Member, Board of Directors of the Ohio Early Childhood Special Education Higher Education Consortium
  • President, Alabama Division of Early Childhood of the Alabama Council for Exceptional Children, 1988
  • Vice-President, Alabama Division of Early Childhood of the Alabama Council for Exceptional Children, 1988
  • President, Council for Exceptional Children, Chapter 51, September 1982-June 1985

Scholarly Honors and Awards

  • Recognized by University of Cincinnati President Neville Pinto with the President’s Medal of Honor, 2024
  • Recognized as a  Distinguished Alumni of College of Education at Western Illinois University
  • Recognized by the UC African Student Association for supporting their association, 2014
  • Recognized for Leadership of the Gen-1 House, 2014
  • In 2015 Named 9th Most Influential Dean in Education (CECH, Mometrix)
  • On December 18, 2011, received Citizen Cincinnatus Award of Excellence for Community Leadership by the Cincinnatus Association
  • In 2007 received the Cincinnati Human Relations Award for Inclusive Communities
  • Recognized in 2005 by the State of Ohio for Service on the Educator Standards Board
  • In 2004 received the Teacher Education Division of the Council for Exceptional Children Distinguished Service Awards for exemplary service to the development and advancement of quality teacher education in special education
  • Recognized in 2002 at the Ohio Educational Services Center Association annual meeting for Outstanding Leadership Award to the State
  • Recognized in 1997 at the Ohio Department of Education Awards Ceremony for contributions to early childhood education
  • Recognized in 1995 by the International Council of Exceptional Children Division of Teacher Education for contributions as President of the division
  • Recognized in 1995 by the University of Cincinnati for scholarly contributions to the field
  • Recognized in 1994 and 1999 by the College of Education of the University of Cincinnati for service contributions to the college (Sylvia Boltz Tucker Award)
  • Recognized in 1994 for contributions to Ohio’s Hunger Task Force
  • Recognized in 1993 for contribution as Department Head of Special Education at the University of Cincinnati
  • Recognized in 1993 by the International Council of Exceptional Children Division of Early Childhood for contributions to the strategic planning process for the division
  • Recognized in 1992 by the International Council of Exceptional Children Division of Early Childhood for contributions as Research Chair of the Division
  • Recognized in 1987 by Alabama's State Superintendent of Schools for contributions to the Educational Systems of Alabama
  • Recognized in 1983 by Illinois State Superintendent of Schools for contributions to Special Education in Illinois


  • Books and Monographs: 7
  • Chapters: 33
  • Referred Publications: 75
  • Curriculum and Evaluation Reports: 73

Publication Honors

  • Enhancing essential relationships: Developing a nurturing affective environment for young children was selected for inclusion in J. S. McKee & K. M. Paciorek (Eds.) Annual editions: Educating exceptional children (6th Ed., pp. 153-159). Guilford, CT: Dushkin
  • Rethinking the relationship between consultation and collaborative problem solving was selected for inclusion in E. L. Meyen, G. A. Vergason, & R. J. Whelan (Eds.) Challenges facing special education. Tucson, AZ: Love.
  • Manuscript entitled: The democratization of consultation through action research was selected as the most outstanding manuscript of the journal Teacher Education and Special Education, 1990; Vol. 13
  • Recognized in 1996 at the Council for Exceptional Children annual convention for Teacher Education Division Publication Award for most outstanding manuscript of the year:
    • Spooner, F., & Johnson, L. J. (1996). To stay the course or change: Reflections on preparing personnel in special education. Teacher Education and Special Education, (19)3, 197-199.
    • Johnson, L. J. (1996). Evolving transitions? Teacher Education and Special Education, 19, 202-204.
    • Johnson, L. J. (1996). Rejoinder to reflections pieces. Teacher Education and Special Education, 19(3), 221

External Funding

  • $91,545,931

Legislative Testimony

  • State 12 times
  • Federal 4 times

He’s especially proud of the fact that, after teaching in three different states – Illinois, Alabama and Ohio – he’s been honored by all three for contributions in relation to exceptional children.

In terms of legacy, though, Johnson’s 25 years as dean of CECH, an academic position accepted in 1999, is a pinnacle of success by any metric. And it was, in fact, an interest in moving into a dean position that first drew him to UC, for a role as department head of the Early Childhood Special Education program that he hoped, in time, could lead to a deanship role.

“At that point I’d brought in about maybe $30 or $40 million in external funds, so they hired me to try to get more money into the college,” he says. “They were trying to build the research portfolio of this college.” He lobbied against closure of the struggling Arlitt Center, which he evolved into the profitable research center it is today. The success of this project led to the then-dean asking Johnson in 1993 to become an associate dean to facilitate more research at the college.

“A way that you do that is to create centers, where you can create something that brings people together,” he explains. “That’s why we then began developing the centers in the college.”

Dean Johnson accepts large check for scholarships

Dean Johnson has brought in millions of dollars in funds for student success. He's seen here accepting a donation in the form of a large check. Photo/provided.

Today, CECH is home to a wide variety of academic, service and research-oriented centers – some 17 in all – created to serve as resources for students, staff and community partners. And, in times of tenuous educational funding, these centers also serve as the financial bedrock of the college, bringing in essential funds to maintain the college’s educational reach. It’s a uniquely entrepreneurial approach to academic administration.

"As a strong and passionate leader, he has guided the college through academic and financial challenges, growth and even a global pandemic," says Valerio Ferme, UC provost. "His commitment and vision to provide the best possible educational experiences to help students succeed has never wavered."

The result of this entrepreneurial leadership led CECH from a humble college of one school with 1,782 students, 84 faculty members, no ranked programs and just a few externally funded projects. Today, the college has four schools, close to 7,000 students, 161 faculty members and 60 college rankings. And CECH in 2024 is a decidedly well-funded college, with this year seeing the college earn more than $31 million in grant money, and Arlitt alone – one of Johnson’s original challenges at UC – raising at least $5 million a year. These funds enable CECH to pursue impactful research, support student success, facilitate faculty and staff initiatives, and affect the community in lasting, positive ways.

"Larry made decisions based on what was good for the students. I've never met anyone with that strong a moral compass.”

Regina Sapona, PhD, former Associate Dean for Academic Affairs; University of Cincinnati

As Johnson prepares for his July 2024 retirement, he can do so knowing that CECH is in a state of financial and reputational security all too rare for higher education. And the transition of leadership to incoming dean Lisa Huffman is empowered all the more by a college uncommonly equipped to transform student lives, which has always been at the heart of his service.

"I think his greatest impact is probably because he saw the college as student centered," says Nancy Zimpher, former UC president. "This is a college that puts students in the middle of their work."

"He has such deep concern for students," says UC provost emeritus and art history professor emeritus, Kristi Nelson. "He’d take money out of his own pocket to help a student if it was necessary!" Human Services professor emeritus Janet Graden agrees, saying, "He cares so much about our students and the whole college.”

Man stands with smiling college students at cookout

Dean Johnson poses with CECH students at his annual Welcome Back BBQ. Photo/provided

Chef Johnson, the Cooking Dean

Dean Johnson’s UC career has earned many descriptors, including distinguished, impactful, progressive … and delicious. Known as “the cooking dean” to many around the college, Johnson long ago figured out that the key to people’s hearts is through their stomachs, a reality well served by his longstanding culinary passions. Beloved for his annual cookouts, faculty and staff meals, and tables filled with free-to-take canned goods (prepared in his home-based commercial kitchen), Johnson’s hands-on leadership has resulted in a college community as well-fed as it is administratively supported.

While many over the years have simply accepted this gastronomical disposition as fact, Johnson’s interest in food preparation traces back to his childhood, when he learned at the foot of an aunt with a colorful personality. “She was a gourmet cook, and I loved her crazy stories. Most of them were fabricated, but they were wonderful stories,” he says with a laugh. “She really knew how to cook, and she started showing me techniques.”

As a teenager, he took on the responsibility of preparing family dinner when his parents worked late. And in time his love of cooking found its way into his professional life, too, in the form of food-centric events that allowed him to show his appreciation for the entire CECH community, one plate at a time. His annual picnic blowout – started in 1999 on the lawn next to the Teachers-Dyer Complex (named the Lawrence J. Johnson Lawn in 2023 in recognition of the dean’s many cookouts) as a full-college celebration – is the likely pinnacle of Johnson’s food journey, a legacy event that fed hundreds of people each year with homemade sides, grilled meats and his award-winning barbecue sauce.

All told, Johnson’s career has produced a lot of food – but, naturally, all this cooking is about more than piled plates. Preparing a meal, providing sustenance to power the hard work, is a basic and essential form of service-based support. For a man whose professional life has been a living expression of service – to students, CECH faculty and staff, UC and the Greater Cincinnati community – cooking is a direct and undeniable expression of appreciation and support.

Larry has always been someone I could depend on to ask his opinion, ask his perspective. He has really been a true friend, a true colleague.”

Bob Ambach, former Senior Vice President of Administration and Finance; University of Cincinnati

Johnson understands that his personal and professional passions intersect around a drive to make life better. “Cooking is a metaphor that we’re about helping others here,” he says. “All of the cooking events are a way to demonstrate we’re trying to help other people.”

“I think Larry is the heart and soul of the college. He sets the tone for the work that we all do," says Deb Telfer, PhD, executive director of UC's Systems Development & Improvement Center. "For as long as I’ve known him, that has been about serving others. He’s supportive and I think guided by this really strong commitment to doing the right thing for the right reasons. I will miss him.”

Thirty-four years at UC and 25 as dean of CECH. Thousands of students served by the college and its four schools, and countless community members living better lives because of CECH’s extensive reach. Johnson knows he leaves a substantial legacy behind as he shifts toward retirement, but when asked how he hopes to be remembered, his answer is simple and succinct. “Just that I made a difference,” he says. “I think my biggest strength has been to bring the best out of others. I tried to create an environment where people could thrive.

“It's been a great run.”

Featured image at top: College of Education, Criminal Justice, Human Services and Information Technology dean Larry Johnson. Photo/provided

Interview materials collected and compiled with assistance from Luke Bisesi.

Next Lives Here

The College of Education, Criminal Justice, and Human Services is committed to the pursuit of discovery and excellence in research, teaching and service that addresses real world challenges and opportunities to create positive social change. The nationally renowned college includes four academic schools: School of Education, School of Criminal Justice, School of Human Services and School of Information Technology. CECH serves nearly 7,000 students and 161 faculty members, and holds 60 college rankings

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