Alfred University News

Convocation speaker urges incoming class at Alfred University to ‘change the world’

Dr. Robert Johnson '68
Dr. Robert Johnson '68

Dr. Robert Johnson, a 1968 Alfred University graduate who co-founded a program serving underprivileged youngsters in New York City and has enjoyed a distinguished career as an educator of medical school administrator, reminded the incoming class of students at his alma mater of the responsibility they have in affecting positive change in the world.

ALFRED, NY – Dr. Robert Johnson, a 1968 Alfred University graduate who co-founded a program serving underprivileged youngsters in New York City and has enjoyed a distinguished career as an educator of medical school administrator, reminded the incoming class of students at his alma mater of the responsibility they have in affecting positive change in the world.

“Alfred students, these are indeed exciting times,” Johnson said in his keynote address for Sunday evening’s Convocation ceremony, which was held online. “May you never forget the enormity of your responsibility to change the world, to show compassion for those less fortunate, and to give back by mentoring the generation that will come after you.”

Johnson, who earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Alfred University, is dean of the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School in Newark, NJ, and interim dean of the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick, NJ (he is of no relation to the namesake of the latter). He is the only dean in our nation’s history to oversee two medical schools simultaneously.

In his remarks Sunday, Johnson drew a parallel between the time he arrived on the Alfred University campus in 1964 to that of the current generation of students. Johnson was at Alfred at the height of the Civil Rights movement, with the uncertainty of an unpopular war in Vietnam hanging over the nation. Today’s generation of students face mounting challenges relating to issues of racial and social justice and an unclear future caused by a global pandemic.

“I started college at a time of great change in our nation. We were in the middle of the Civil Rights era. People and communities of color were mobilizing, organizing, and protesting hundreds of years of injustice, and demanding that laws as well as attitudes change,” Johnson said. “As we began our adult lives, the world was changing and growing in ways we couldn’t imagine. Today, you start you academic careers at Alfred under somewhat similar and unusual disruptive circumstances.”

Johnson encouraged students to uphold their responsibility to work for positive change throughout the world. “You are beginning your time at Alfred during a time of societal growth. Much like the Civil Rights leaders from my college era, it is your generation that will now take the lead to insure that attitudes continue to change and that we become a more perfect society which respects the dignity of every human being.”

Johnson—a professor of pediatrics and Director of the Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School—has used his career in medicine to further the public good. After earning his medical degree from the College of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (now the New Jersey Medical School) in 1972, he was among a group of young professionals working in the fields of medicine, psychiatry, law, education, social work, and the arts who recognized a need to invest in New York City’s youth. That year, the group started The Door, a program aimed at helping a diverse and growing population of disconnected adolescents gain the resources needed to succeed in school, work, and life.

Today, The Door annually serves nearly 11,000 young people from all over New York City. The program provides a wide range of free services including reproductive health care and education, mental health counseling and crisis assistance, legal assistance, GED and ESOL classes, tutoring and homework help, college preparation services, career development, job training and placement, supportive housing, sports and recreational activities, arts, and nutritious meals. Johnson still sees patients at The Door twice weekly.

Johnson has enjoyed a teaching career that spans more than four decades. Since joining the faculty of the New Jersey Medical School in 1976, he has taught nearly 25 percent of all medical doctors currently practicing in New Jersey. His impact on the school’s growth and success has been significant, particularly in the area of research. When he took over as dean in 2005, the New Jersey Medical School was struggling in its research efforts. Under Johnson’s leadership, the school now ranks 38th in the country in research spending.

Mark Zupan, Alfred University president, opened the Convocation with an address to students.

“I join our faculty and staff in conveying how excited we are to virtually see our 185th class here at Alfred University. We look forward to working with you over the years to come—first as students and then as then as alumni—to fulfill our mission, which is transforming student lives and thereby bettering our world,” Zupan said. “I cannot tell you how heartened we are by your presence here with us, and by your interest in investing in education here at Alfred University. That investment will bear fruit, both here and in the broader world.”

Merveille Bulonza, Student Senate president, welcomed students to Alfred University and encouraged them to take advantage of all the opportunities available to them.

“Here at Alfred University, we are a family—all of us from different cultures and locations, with diverse beliefs. But once we are here together, we become a family, with one goal: to grow with exceptional quality and abiding values, utilizing academy and extracurricular activities,” she said. “You will face challenges, but remember that is what will build you up into the intellectual and robust person you ought to be. Explore, expand and exploit the resources at your disposal here at AU. Do not limit yourselves, because the future is in the beauty of your dreams.”

Zupan emphasized to students the important role they will play in promoting a safe and healthy campus environment, and in keeping the University open throughout the fall semester. Due to COVID-19, Alfred University, like most institutions of higher education, adopted a virtual model of instruction in late March. Faculty and staff worked diligently over the ensuing months to develop a safe and effective reopening plan, the effectiveness of which depends on all members of the University fulfilling their shared responsibilities.

“We each have to play our parts well,” Zupan said, referring to students’ commitment to the Alfred University pledge, which includes a commitment to important actions, including wearing masks, socially distancing, and appropriately engaging in personal hygiene.

“We are only as strong as our weakest link, so it is incumbent on all of us to play our parts well,” he continued. “None of us wants to return to the new norm that was established in March. The surest way to keep that from happening is by playing out parts well.”