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E. Patrick Johnson named School of Communication dean

Award-winning author, artist and teacher succeeds Barbara O’Keefe
e patrick johnson
E. Patrick Johnson works in the areas of race, class, gender, sexuality and performance.

E. Patrick Johnson has achieved many firsts in his lifetime. He was a first-generation college student and the first African American from his hometown to receive a doctorate.

He was the first African American to be hired and tenured in Northwestern’s Department of Performance Studies, and the first to be given a named professorship in the School of Communication (SoC). 

Today, he was named the next dean of SoC, the first African American to hold that role. He will take over as dean Aug. 1, succeeding Barbara O’Keefe.

“I am truly honored and humbled to be selected as the next dean of the School of Communication,” said Johnson, the Carlos Montezuma Professor of African American Studies and Performance Studies in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and SoC. “I stand on the shoulders of my grandmother and my mother, neither of whom ever stepped foot on a university campus except to celebrate my graduations and accomplishments, but from whom I learned how to be a committed scholar, artist and advocate for social justice. As I step into this new role, I carry their tenacity and determination with me. 

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My focus will be leading with a moral and ethical imperative to make the School of Communication a place where ‘first’ only refers to our ranking in the world.”

E. Patrick Johnson

“While I understand the symbolism of my being the first African American appointed to this post — and particularly during a global pandemic and persistence of antiblack racism — my focus as dean will be leading with a moral and ethical imperative to make the School of Communication a place where ‘first’ only refers to our ranking in the world.” 

Interim Provost Kathleen Hagerty said Johnson emerged from a national search of highly respected, prominent candidates. Johnson, who also will have the title of Annenberg University Professor, will be the school’s seventh dean.

“I’m thrilled that E. Patrick Johnson will be our next dean of the School of Communication,” Hagerty said. “Not only is he an outstanding artist, teacher and scholar, he is also deeply committed to ensuring that the students, staff and faculty in the school can continue to excel. He will provide visionary leadership, deep expertise and unwavering support as he champions each member of the SoC community. I am eager to begin working with him to address the many opportunities and challenges that lie ahead.” 

Johnson joined Northwestern 20 years ago and has served in several leadership roles over those decades, breaking barriers along the way. He came to Northwestern from Amherst College as an assistant professor of performance studies. He has served in multiple roles, including serving as chair of the departments of performance studies and African American studies. In 2012, he was the founding director of the Black Arts Initiative, a cross-school collaboration which is designed to create an understanding of black arts – honoring its past while celebrating its potential.

He serves on the Faculty Advisory Council of the Buffett Institute for Global Affairs, the Program Review Council of the Office of Administration and Planning, the Provost Committee on Faculty Excellence and the Advisory Board of the Institute for Sexual and Gender Minority Health and Wellbeing.

Johnson has been published widely in the areas of race, class, gender, sexuality and performance, and is an artist with Project&, a nonprofit arts organization engaged in art for social change and impact. A prolific performer and scholar, his research and artistry have greatly impacted African American studies, performance studies and sexuality studies. He is one of the progenitors of the field of “black queer studies.” In recognition of his work in these various scholarly fields and for his artistry, he will be inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences this fall. 

“When I joined the faculty at Northwestern 20 years ago, it was like finally landing home. The School of Communication, in particular, was a place where I was allowed to embrace both my scholarship and my artistry. This ‘theory and practice’ ethos is the hallmark of the School, which makes it unique among other schools of its kind,” Johnson said. “From our stages, screens, and labs to our field sites, classrooms and spaces of sociality, the School of Communication has proven to be a transformative catalyst for innovative research, artistry, pedagogy and social engagement. 

“Through the collaboration with and support of our brilliant faculty, curious students, dedicated staff, and accomplished alums, I look forward to leading the School to the zenith of its next stage of greatness.”

Johnson succeeds O’Keefe, who has served as the School of Communication’s dean since 2000. The University announced last year O’Keefe’s plans to step down. She led the transformation of the school’s curriculum and fostered highly interdisciplinary, cross-platform programs at every level from pre-college to undergraduate, professional and doctoral studies.

As incoming dean, Johnson takes over leadership of a school that has more than 1,200 undergraduates, 700 graduate students and 170 faculty members, with six majors in five departments.

The school offers a comprehensive program in performing and media arts, including dramatic writing, film and television production, design for interactive and digital media, acting on stage and on screen, sound design and studies, theatre design and directing, theatre history, music theatre and dance; and communication science that explores human hearing, speech, language, learning and swallowing.

“We had a truly exceptional pool of candidates, and the committee did an excellent job representing our School of Communication faculty, staff and student communities throughout the search process,” said Molly Losh, who chaired the search committee. Losh is the Jo Ann G. and Peter F. Dolle Professor in Learning Disabilities. 

“I’m so happy that E. Patrick has accepted this position,” said Losh, who is also the associate chair of Roxelyn and Richard Pepper Department of Communication Sciences & Disorders. “As an eminent scholar, and highly esteemed colleague to all of us in SoC, he will be an outstanding leader for our school.”

Johnson is the author, editor, or co-editor of several award-winning books, including his most recent two: “Black. Queer. Southern. Women. - An Oral History,” and “Honeypot: Black Southern Women Who Love Women.” He has authored dozens of journal articles and book chapters.

He has won numerous awards for his writing and his teaching. Last year, his “Black. Queer. Southern. Woman. - An Oral History” was a Stonewall Book Award Honor Book, and was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award and the Judy Grahn Award for Lesbian Nonfiction. In 2015, he received the Oscar Brockett Outstanding Teacher of Theatre in Higher Education award. And in 2010, he was inducted into the City of Chicago LGBTQ Hall of Fame. 

He also is an accomplished actor and playwright, having won several awards for his play, “Sweet Tea,” which will be published by Northwestern University Press later this summer. His new documentary film, “Making Sweet Tea” — a collaboration with John L. Jackson, Dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania — has also won several awards on the film festival circuit this year. 

Johnson received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, both in speech communication. He received his Ph.D. from Louisiana State University, also in speech communication (performance studies).

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