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Johnson leads others to the law, promotes minority faculty hires
Alex Johnson
Ian Bradshaw

Johnson leads others to the law, promotes minority faculty hires

By Charlotte Crystal

It’s been many years and many tests since Alex M. Johnson Jr. first visited UCLA with his earliest mentor and favorite teacher, Tom Nakayama.

The teacher took Johnson to his alma mater for a special tour and told the youngster, then a third-grader at West Vernon Avenue Elementary School in South Central Los Angeles, that he, too, could someday go to college if he worked hard and believed it was possible.

To seal the deal, Nakayama bought his student a T-shirt in the bookstore.
Nearly 40 years later, Alex Johnson is the Mary and Daniel Loughran Professor of Law at U.Va. and vice provost for faculty recruitment and retention. He also serves as chair of the board of trustees of the Law School Admission Council, a consortium of nearly 200 law schools in the United States and Canada that administers the Law School Admissions Test.

Beginning in college, on the job and in his professional volunteer efforts, Johnson has dedicated his life to seeing that the doors of opportunity are open to all.

“He’s like an older brother to me,” said S. Bernard Goodwyn, Circuit Court Judge for the First Circuit in Chesapeake, Va., and a former law student of Johnson’s. “He gave me the scoop on things, told me what to expect, how things work. He’s my mentor.”

Johnson grew up in the 1950s and ’60s, during the heyday of the civil rights movement, and decided early on he wanted to become a lawyer. “With the impact of Brown v. Board of Education, I saw that to be a leader in the country, law was the avenue.”

For Johnson, that avenue started at home, where his hard-working parents, neither of whom finished high school, extolled the value of education and encouraged their four children to study hard and look for opportunities.

Years later, when college admission letters arrived from Princeton, UCLA, USC and Claremont McKenna College (then Claremont Men’s College), he chose Princeton — and quickly realized he had made a mistake.

“I was miserable,” Johnson said. “It was a good education, but it was too far from home and I wasn’t into the eating clubs. Also, it was a very small school, smaller than my high school, now the George Washington Academy in Los Angeles. It was just an all-white, male, Eastern establishment school. Not my thing.”

Johnson transferred to Claremont in his junior year the fall of 1973. He knew that, among its other strengths, the college had one of the best records in the state for its graduates entering their first choice of law school.

“Claremont instilled in me a sense of honor and integrity, a strong work ethic and intellectual curiosity,” Johnson said.

He graduated magna cum laude as a Phi Beta Kappa in 1975, going on to law school at UCLA — and finally making his third-grade teacher happy.

After receiving his law degree, he signed on as a legal associate with Latham & Watkins in L.A. After two years there, he took a leave of absence to teach at the University of Minnesota School of Law. Having tasted the intellectual challenge and relative freedom of the classroom, Johnson realized he preferred teaching and writing to practicing law.

When a call came from U.Va., seeking to fill an assistant professorship in 1984, Johnson headed to the East Coast. Initial fears about the racial climate in Virginia were put to rest after a visit.

He and his wife, Karen J. Anderson, have been at U.Va. for 17 years. His wife earned a law degree in 1995 and now works as a special assistant to the dean of admissions at the Law School.

His contributions to the University through his behind-the-scenes administrative role have been major and promise to leave a lasting impression on the institution. “Alex has been a significant player in developing and maintaining faculty quality at the University during his service as vice provost for faculty recruitment and retention,” said former provost Peter W. Low, who recently returned to teaching in the Law School. “In particular, he has facilitated the employment of faculty spouses, which has become an increasingly important issue in recent years, and provided support from the provost level to the University’s efforts to increase the diversity of its faculty.”

Johnson describes his duties as “enticing, threatening and cajoling the deans to make extraordinary efforts to hire qualified individuals in underrepresented groups.”

In addition to his day job, Johnson travels 20 weeks out of the year for the Law School Admission Council, the consortium of law schools that last year administered 107,000 LSAT exams to students hoping to enter law school. This volunteer activity has put Johnson front and center in the national debate over affirmative action and the use of LSAT scores in the admissions process.

Unlike the Scholastic Assessment Test, which tests the mastery of information and skills, the LSAT is purely a skills test, according to Johnson. While it can predict 20 percent of a student’s likelihood of success in the first year of law school, it doesn’t measure the remaining 80 percent, which can depend on hard work and other intangibles. It should play only a partial role in the admissions process, along with other considerations, such as character, leadership abilities, community service, undergraduate curriculum, life experience and career interests, he believes.

During his two-year term as LSAC chair, which started in June, Johnson has three goals in mind: to see that the LSAT scores are used properly; to boost minority students matriculating in law schools; and to help interested foreign countries establish their own LSAT programs.

“That African-American students score lower on the LSATs on average than white students doesn’t mean the test is discriminatory. It illustrates the problem of inadequate investment in African-American education in this country. But getting rid of the LSAT won’t magically open the admissions door to minority students.”
In general, Johnson believes that law schools do a good job of attracting and graduating African-American students and producing black lawyers who pass the bar.

Because of his overwhelming schedule, Johnson has taken a break from teaching property law this year, but hopes to return.

“I love teaching first-year law students above all,” Johnson said. “They’re so eager and unmolded, they’re inquisitive, they have high energy, they’re thirsty for answers. It’s like teaching a new language. You can really see the progress as they start to get it.”

He has had a big impact at the Law School, especially where African-American students are concerned, according to Goodwyn.

“He’s helped them in school and in their careers, offering job leads, encouragement and advice,” Goodwyn said. “There is a large cadre of students who see Alex as the ultimate role model.”

“He shaped my outlook on law as much as anyone has,” Goodwyn said. “I hope I can make him proud.”


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