Jeh Charles Johnson to Speak at Vassar College’s 158th Commencement
February 7, 2022 - POUGHKEEPSIE, NY – College graduation exercises are familiar events for Jeh Charles Johnson; he has delivered addresses at nearly a dozen of them. But when he takes the podium at Vassar’s 158th Commencement on May 22, it will have special meaning, as he will be returning to the site of the first such ceremonies he ever attended as the son of beloved Vassar architecture instructor and industry luminary Jeh Vincent Johnson.
“Dad loved Commencement,” the younger Johnson said, recalling he had witnessed speeches by Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg in 1968 and women’s rights activist Gloria Steinem in 1969. “He always wanted to say goodbye to students he had mentored. Ever since then, I’ve always thought Commencements were special.”
Vassar President Elizabeth H. Bradley said Johnson’s selection as speaker this year was especially meaningful as the College celebrates his father’s life with the dedication of one of the buildings he designed as the Jeh Vincent Johnson ALANA Cultural Center. He died last January. “Our speaker’s father was a part of the Vassar family for nearly four decades,” Bradley said, “and his son’s achievements as an attorney and a longtime public servant can be an inspiration to our graduates.”
Jeh Vincent Johnson, who taught at Vassar from 1964 until 2001, was a partner in a Poughkeepsie architectural firm, Gindele and Johnson. He designed several buildings on the Vassar campus, including the Cultural Center which will bear his name. Johnson founded the National Organization of Minority Architects—an organization that has opened doors for aspiring architects of color and women. He also took an active role in social issues on the national level. In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson appointed him to serve on the National Commission on Urban Problems. He chaired the National Committee on Housing for the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and was awarded a special citation from the AIA’s New York chapter for his advocacy of equal opportunity in the field, his pioneering work on housing issues, and his commitment to maintaining the cultural integrity and social responsibility of the profession of architecture.
Professor Johnson was beloved by his students, many of whom he shepherded into graduate school and successful architecture careers of their own. Some even attained fellowship in the AIA, the profession’s highest U.S. honor, which Johnson himself had achieved in 1977. These included Sigrid Miller Pollin ’72 and Karen Van Lengen ’73.
Jeh Charles Johnson, the son, a partner in the New York City law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison, tried public corruption cases as an assistant US Attorney and held several major posts in the federal government, culminating with a three-year stint as Secretary of Homeland Security in the second Obama Administration. Most recently, Johnson authored a report on the state of New York’s courts that identified inequities in the justice system. “The sad picture that emerges is, in effect, a second-class system of justice for people of color in New York state,” Johnson wrote in his report to Chief Judge Janet DiFiore.
Johnson said he decided to pursue a career in public service while he was a student at Morehouse College. “Everybody has a political awakening,” he said, “and mine came at Morehouse. It was inspiring going to the same school Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had attended, and the energy and enthusiasm of everyone there was contagious.”
Johnson, who earned his law degree from Columbia Law School, said his reverence for higher education came naturally – his father was a successful architect who loved teaching his craft to Vassar students, and his grandfather, Charles Johnson, served as President of Fisk University. He has lectured at numerous colleges and universities and often mentors young lawyers and law students. “Having the opportunity to work with these young people is something I really enjoy about my profession,” he said.
Last year, Johnson had the opportunity to meet Vassar students, via Zoom, in the classroom. He and other public policy experts joined President Bradley and Professor of History on the Shirley Ecker Boskey Chair Robert Brigham to teach a senior seminar titled Strategic Thinking and Global Affairs. He said he was impressed by the students’ ability to think on their feet as they were peppered with questions by experts in the field. “They were intelligent and inquisitive,” he said. “They came prepared and forged ahead with their presentations as we tried to throw them off.”
Johnson said he was truly looking forward to returning to the site of his first Commencement experiences. He said he planned to leave the graduates with some of the same observations he had heard from his Columbia Law School graduation speaker, civil rights activist Andrew Young. “He told us that in our lifetimes we would witness and do things far beyond our current comprehension,” Johnson said, “and that has certainly been true in my case. The key is to take chances and make choices outside your comfort zone.”
Johnson said he had met many Vassar graduates during his professional life, including some who told him how much they enjoyed learning about architecture from his father. “I knew Dad loved his students,” he said, “but I had no idea how popular he was.”
Vassar College is a coeducational, independent, residential liberal arts college founded in 1861.
Contact: Larry Hertz, firstname.lastname@example.org, 845-518-3098, 845-437-7938 (Vassar College)