E. Patrick Johnson is a man often associated with the word "first."
He was the first in his family to go to college, and the first Black native of Hickory, North Carolina, to receive a Ph.D., for which the town proclaimed a day in his honor ( although he said he has his doubts about whether he actually was the first to obtain a doctorate ). He was the first Black man hired and tenured in Northwestern University's performance studies department, and then the first given a named professorship.
And soon, he will be the first Black dean of the university's School of Communication, where he has worked for 20 years.
Johnson experienced early success at Northwestern, beginning with his work in Black queer studies, an interdisciplinary field that essentially didn't exist in 2000, when Johnson joined what was then known as the School of Speech.
Black queer studies was unprecedented in many ways: Gender studies was less than 20 years old and had just been renamed from women's studies in the 2000-01 school year.
Additionally, according to Sandra Richardsa former professor of African American Studies and the first Black woman to gain tenure at Northwestern's College of Arts and Sciences, in 1990academia was only beginning to accept Black faculty.
"When we first came into white spaces, we were barely tolerated," Richards said. "For a lot of us, we were coming into hostile ground."
And, Richards said, scholarship around Blackness largely excluded queer narratives.
Johnson would be a major force in changing that, co-compiling the first anthology on Black queer studies and writing one of its foundational texts, an essay which dubbed the burgeoning field "quare studies" after how Johnson's grandmother pronounced "queer."
He has gone on to become a successful scholar and performer, writing several oral histories of Black queer folk in the South and adapting one of them, Sweet Tea, into a staged reading, a play and recently a documentary. He's also chaired both the performance studies and African American studies departments, while also contributing to what is now the gender and sexuality studies program.
"Patrick has always had a progressive, active, challenging vision of academia and the world at large," Richards said, adding that Johnson's personality and intellect helped encourage collaboration both inside and out of performance studies.
Johnson, in turn, credited Richards and a white performance studies professor, Dwight Conquergood, as key mentors who supported him at the outset of his Northwestern career and part of a "rich and broad" community that kept him at the university. ( Conquergood died in 2004. )
Certainly, a lot is asked of Johnson. Students seem to flock to Johnson to ask him to be their adviser or mentor. He's asked to be part of every committee on diversity as well as the diversity member on every search committee for new faculty. If there's an event about diversity on campus, he's requested to speak.
"You get asked to do all this labor around diversity that should be the work of the institution," Johnson said.
And there's still a lot to be done: Even in 2020, Johnson noted, there are still departments at Northwestern without Black faculty, in large part because the university doesn't do its due diligence in seeking out professors of color. Additionally, Johnson said, the universityparticularly its African American Studies departmenthas seen many talented professors "poached" by other universities.
In his new role as dean, Johnson said he plans to seek out more faculty who are persons of color and work with admissions to cultivate a similarly diverse student body.
Those are not disparate goals: Johnson said diversity has to be present at every level to create an inclusive environment that accommodates nonwhite students.
"Students of color are not going to be attracted to a university where they don't have any mentor who share their background," Johnson said. "People want to make sure they have mentors who share their experience."
Johnson added he also hopes to raise funds to offer socioeconomically disadvantaged students the sort of opportunities enjoyed by their wealthier peers and improve interdepartmental collaboration.
"We have to create an environment at Northwestern that is inclusive, and doesn't just pay lip service," he said.
But Johnson said the university has improved, particularly in gender and sexuality studies, where race is now a core part of the program's curriculum and trans and non-binary issues are the new frontiera change he credits to a new generation of scholars.
Johnson sees a change in himself as well, particularly with regard to those scholars. Now 53, Johnson said his new role is one of seeding ground forand ceding ground to a new generation.
"I often say that the moment I stop learning from my students is the day I should stop teaching," Johnson said. "I never feel like I'm the smartest person in the room. I've maybe read more or studied for, but I'm not the smartest. And that's a good thing."
Editor's note: Joshua Irvine is currently a student at Northwestern University.