When Julie Johnson stands before a new class of Gator pharmacists at orientation every fall, she starts her welcome message with a story — how a farm girl from Delaware, Ohio, who had dreams of owning her own pharmacy, followed an unexpected career path to become an accomplished researcher and dean of one of the nation’s top-ranked pharmacy colleges. She shares her story, not for personal satisfaction, but to remind the newly minted pharmacy students to keep an open mind and seize every opportunity that comes before them. It’s advice that has served Johnson well during her more than 40 years in pharmacy, with the last nine years spent as dean of the University of Florida College of Pharmacy. As she prepares to step away from the position on Aug. 1 and start the next chapter of her career, it’s important to look back on her tenure as dean and how this visionary leader took the college to new heights.
THE OPENING CHAPTER
There was no honeymoon phase when Johnson assumed the deanship on Aug 1, 2013, as the college faced several difficult decisions in the opening months of her tenure. A year earlier, the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education, or ACPE, had raised several concerns during a site visit, including the college’s 17-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio that was well outside acceptable standards. The accrediting body gave the college two years to address the issue or risk losing accreditation. There were also external forces weighing on the college, including a declining applicant pool and a tightening job market for pharmacists.
“We had to acknowledge that our student body was too big, and we needed to make some bold moves to get our student-to-faculty ratio in line with our peers, which was around 7-to-1,” Johnson said. “If we could grow the faculty and reduce the class size, then we could provide students a better education and a better experience because they would have more faculty to serve them.”
With support from new hiring initiatives at UF and new clinical practice models, the college aggressively recruited dozens of new research and clinical faculty. In Johnson’s tenure as dean, the full-time faculty grew from 72 to more than 130. Among the hires were 10 preeminence faculty who were at the top of their fields in areas such as drug discovery and development and cancer research. The influx of talent built upon a strong foundation of outstanding work led by faculty who already called the College of Pharmacy home.
In addition, the college created models where faculty who were practicing pharmacists were compensated — either through collaborative practice models with physicians or shared faculty practice models with hospitals. The new practice models allowed clinical faculty to better balance their time between practice, teaching and scholarly activities.
“I SET THE BAR REALLY HIGH. IF WE WERE GOING TO BE GREAT, WE HAD TO EXPECT TO BE GREAT. WHAT IS REMARKABLE IS THAT EVERYONE BOUGHT INTO THAT BELIEF AND COLLECTIVELY, WE ACHIEVED SOME AMAZING THINGS.” — Dean Julie Johnson
“One of my early goals was to amplify the level to which our clinical faculty were engaging in meaningful clinical practice,” Johnson said. “By saying that we’re not going to give away clinical practice for free anymore, we really changed the momentum of our college. We now have more than 40 clinical faculty engaged in the practice and a high percentage are compensated for their efforts. Our faculty now have more diverse responsibilities, and their clinical experiences are helping inform their teaching.”
Under Johnson’s leadership, the college also made strategic moves to reduce its class size by 20%. In 2013, the college was admitting 300 Pharm.D. students annually at four campuses in Florida. With a curriculum overhaul on the horizon and infrastructure challenges ahead, the college made the difficult decision to close its St. Petersburg campus and refocus its education and training efforts in Gainesville, Jacksonville and Orlando, with a class size of 230 to 240 students.
BOLD MOVES, BIG RESULTS
With the faculty growth, class size reduction and a campus closure came another bold move early in Johnson’s tenure — the adoption of a new Pharm.D. curriculum. In her first month as dean, Johnson appointed a task force to examine the curriculum and recommend any changes. She was concerned that many aspects of the curriculum had been largely unchanged for decades and the second year was too intense for students. After several months, the task force returned with the recommendation to overhaul the entire curriculum and modernize pharmacy education through a team-based learning approach.
“A lot of programs have revamped their curriculum, and they spent 2 to 3 years talking about it and planning it,” Johnson said. “Our faculty did it in nine months — from the formation of the task force to the approved curriculum by the faculty. It was a really extraordinary pace and a testament to our faculty, who were willing to be bold at a time when few colleges of pharmacy were overhauling their curriculum.”
At the same time, the college’s research program was expanding rapidly with the recruitment of many top scientists and new collaborations were developing within the college and UF Health. Johnson drew from her research experience to help elevate the program, as new centers were developed and staff support teams were established to help faculty be successful. When Johnson started as dean in 2013, the college had 17 grant-funded faculty and generated $8.5 million in annual research funding. By 2021, the college employed 57 grant funded faculty and secured more than $32 million in annual research awards.
“The college’s remarkable research growth is a direct result of Dean Johnson’s leadership style,” said Maureen Keller-Wood, Ph.D., associate dean for research and graduate education and a professor of pharmacodynamics in the UF College of Pharmacy. “She was able to use opportunities at the university level, such as the preeminence initiative, to grow the faculty and hire some amazing scientists. More importantly, she has established a culture where faculty feel appreciated and celebrated for their success.”
The influx of new research funding spread across the college’s five departments and propelled the college up several national research rankings. In 2021, the Blue Ridge Institute for Medical Research ranked the college No. 3 nationally in National Institutes of Health, or NIH, award funding, and the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy ranked the college No. 3 in NIH, federal and total research funding among colleges of pharmacy. In addition, UF College of Pharmacy faculty became more engaged in national organizations and assumed leadership roles that brought greater visibility to the college.
Johnson also oversaw efforts within the college to diversify the Pharm.D. student body and open new opportunities for minority and first-generation students to seek a pharmacy degree. By the end of her tenure, the UF College of Pharmacy had the highest percentage (34%) of underrepresented minority Pharm.D. students among the top 40 pharmacy colleges ranked by U.S. News & World Report and was one of three pharmacy colleges nationally to receive a Health Professions Higher Education Excellence in Diversity Award from INSIGHT Into Diversity Magazine.
Around the country, other pharmacy colleges took notice. When the U.S. News & World Report rankings of the best pharmacy colleges were released in 2020, the UF College of Pharmacy achieved its highest ranking ever at No. 5. The rankings rely heavily on peer perceptions and reaffirmed that the bold moves made during Johnson’s tenure were viewed positively by the pharmacy academy.
A TENURE OF FIRSTS
In nearly a century of existence, the dean position at the University of Florida College of Pharmacy has been defined by steady and respected leadership. Until 2013, only six deans had held the position — all men. With Johnson’s appointment, she became the first female dean and the first dean to hold a Doctor of Pharmacy degree.
“I have had a lot of female firsts in my career, and it feels like I’m a little too young to have had so many,” Johnson said. “More than 50 percent of our students are female, and I think it’s important for people to see role models in leadership that look like them.”
Johnson embraced her trailblazing role. She used her leadership position to talk openly about balancing a highly demanding professional career with being the mother of two girls. No matter the venue, she never shied away from sharing how women can be successful in their careers and share responsibilities at home. At times, she challenged men to talk more openly about how they support their wives in dual-career families.
As a licensed pharmacist, Johnson brought a new perspective to the dean’s office, as someone who has practiced and understood the profession. She also maintained an active research program throughout her nine-year tenure, something few pharmacy deans have done nationally. In 2018, she secured the college’s first postdoctoral federal training grant, with a focus on training the next generation of scientists in genomic medicine. She also mentored eight graduate students who finished their Ph.D. during her deanship.
“I HAVE HAD A LOT OF FEMALE FIRSTS IN MY CAREER, AND IT FEELS LIKE I’M A LITTLE TOO YOUNG TO HAVE HAD SOMANY. MORE THAN 50 PERCENT OF OUR STUDENTS ARE FEMALE, AND I THINK IT’S IMPORTANT FOR PEOPLE TO SEE ROLE MODELS IN LEADERSHIP THAT LOOK LIKE THEM.” — Dean Julie Johnson
BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS WITH ALUMNI AND FRIENDS
When Johnson began her deanship, she was familiar with many aspects of the college. She was a clinical pharmacist, a federally funded researcher, a classroom teacher, and she trained clinical and research postdocs, but there was one gap in her resume — fundraising and alumni relations. In her 15 years on faculty in the UF College of Pharmacy, she had rarely crossed paths with the college’s top donors.
With the assistance of Elizabeth Zipper, executive director of development and alumni affairs, Johnson set out to meet many alumni and friends at networking events, pharmacy meetings and alumni gatherings. Along the way, she outlined her vision and began building relationships that would become vital to ensuring the college’s success.
“I have so much respect for the vision Dean Johnson outlined for the college and her attention to detail in achieving that vision,” said Ed Hamilton, Pharm.D., FAPhA, ’75 and ’00, former president of the Dean’s Leadership Council and former president of the American Pharmacists Association. “She has made us all proud as alumni and worked every day to make our degrees more valuable.”
UF embarked on an eight-year, $3 billion fundraising campaign early in Johnson’s tenure. The Go Greater campaign helped position the university and the College of Pharmacy as a guidepost that the state, nation and world looked to for leadership and innovation. The college agreed to a $25 million goal, which was later increased to $35 million after an anonymous donor committed to a $10 million gift — the largest donation ever received by the College of Pharmacy.
In December 2020, the $35 million fundraising goal was achieved 22 months ahead of schedule and has since surpassed $40 million. Under her leadership, the college has established innovative student recruitment and diversity scholarships, created new professorships to recruit and retain top faculty and secured key leadership gifts to support the construction of Malachowsky Hall for Data Science & Information Technology, which will be the new home for data scientists in the college. “This part of the job was more incredible than I ever imagined,” Johnson said. “It really provided me an opportunity to meet a number of amazing people who have wide-ranging professional and personal stories. I consider the relationships and friendships established as one of the greatest gifts of being dean.”
A LASTING IMPACT
Johnson is a firm believer that leadership has a natural arc. With her departure on Aug. 1 comes the conclusion of her arc as dean. The decision to step away did not come easily, but as she reflects upon her original goals, the college has accomplished all of them and more.
“I set the bar really high,” Johnson said. “If we were going to be great, we had to expect to be great. What is remarkable is that everyone bought into that belief, and collectively, we achieved some amazing things.”
With several major UF and UF Health initiatives in the early stages, Johnson felt the timing was right to step aside now and let a new dean build a legacy. She plans to take a year-long sabbatical and return to the faculty in August 2023. As this chapter in her career comes to a close, the farm girl turned pharmacist from Delaware, Ohio, reflects on her time leading the college. She appreciates that she was pushed to take on the challenge of being dean and takes satisfaction in never shying away from being bold and seizing the opportunity to leave a long-lasting legacy of leadership with the UF College of Pharmacy.