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Rutgers dean is 1st to oversee two medical schools at once

Robert L. Johnson, the dean of Rutgers New Jersey Medical School (NJMS) and interim dean of Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, previously worked in the NJMS Department of Pediatrics. 
Photo by Courtesy of Keith BratcherRobert L. Johnson, the dean of Rutgers New Jersey Medical School (NJMS) and interim dean of Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, previously worked in the NJMS Department of Pediatrics. 

Dr. Robert L. Johnson was appointed interim dean of the Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School (RWJMS) in January 2019. He has served as the permanent dean of the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School (NJMS) since 2011, making him the first dean in history to oversee two medical schools at once.

As the dean of RWJMS and NJMS, Johnson said he is responsible for the leadership and management of the two schools to achieve academic, research, clinical and community missions. Extensive past and current experiences led to Johnson’s current positions in the two medical schools. 

“Prior to becoming (the) dean I was Director of the Division of Adolescent (and Young Adult) Medicine and Chair of the Department of Pediatrics at NJMS,” Johnson said. 

Johnson created this division within the Department of Pediatrics and has led it since. He also served as chair of the department from 2001 to 2005, up until he was asked to become interim dean of NJMS, according to a letter from Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences Chancellor Brian L. Strom. 

“In addition I (have had) a number of related leadership positions at the local, state and federal level,” Johnson said. 

He currently is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics and serves on the Advisory Committee of the Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences of the National Research Council's National Academy of Sciences, according to Strom’s letter. Johnson also is vice chair of the Community Preventive Services Task Force at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and also serves on the New Jersey Governor's Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS and Related Blood Borne Pathogens. 

Johnson said in order to take on his positions at NJMS and RWJMS, he had to be appointed by the Board of Governors and Trustees.

“I accepted the appointments because I felt that I could make a significant contribution to the leadership of the institution and the achievement of its missions,” Johnson said.

Johnson is also one of the few minority leaders in medical education. Only approximately 4 percent of the instructors, professors, associate professors and assistant professors were Black at the schools surveyed, according to a 2019 survey from the Association of American Medical Colleges. 

Johnson, who graduated from NJMS in 1972 while it was still called University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, said he was the only Black man in his class, according to an article from Rutgers Today. He said this has inspired him to advocate for more diversity in medicine. 

"I fully understand that in my current role, I represent the two schools, but I also represent my race and community of people," Johnson said, according to the article. 

In an interview with NJ Spotlight, Johnson said it is important for medical professionals to be able to connect with their patients. 

“One of the things to know is that medical students in general have better cultural competence, that ability to relate to all people, if they are trained in a diverse environment. So we need to make sure our classes are diverse to achieve that outcome,” Johnson said.

Under Johnson’s leadership, nearly 1 in 4 NJMS students were minorities as of last year, according to NJ Spotlight. The University has also implemented initiatives to enroll more minority students and provide support to ensure their success. 

Zach Hosseini, a University spokesperson, said Johnson has helped NJMS and RWJMS continue to grow. 

“Dean Johnson has had a major impact during his leadership of both medical schools,” Hosseini said. “He has worked to create greater collaboration between the schools, helped recognize and model best practices across the missions and maintained a deep commitment to the surrounding communities of each institution.” 

Johnson said his success would not be possible without the rest of the faculty at the two medical schools.

“(I am) pleased to accept the positions and appreciative to the importance of the management teams and faculty at NJMS and RWJMS,” Johnson said. “My achievements would be impossible without the hard work and commitment of these highly talented professionals.”