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Alum of the Month

March 2017 Alum of the Month: Kimberley Johnson '85

Kimberley Johnson '85 is a professor of political science and director of the Urban Studies Program at Barnard College. She is also a recipient of the College's Tow Distinguished Professorship for Scholarship and Practitioners chair for tenured faculty and was quite recently named BPH Chair in Urban Studies.

Johnson entered Hotchkiss in September 1982 as a lower mid. "I followed my sister Sharon Johnson '79 to Hotchkiss," she says. "I was living in California and was ready for a challenge - a different kind of experience, if you will." She found that challenge in Tom Drake's history courses. "Tom was hugely influential for me. He was animated and inspiring, and pushed me in ways I needed to be pushed. To this day, I still use one of his classroom examples at Barnard. Overall, he instilled in me an interest and passion for politics and history."

Enrolling at Columbia University, Johnson was interested in architecture or perhaps law. She received her B.A. from Columbia in 1989. "After graduation I went to the Harvard Design program over the summer, and I even had an internship lined up, but the big recession set in, and my job in Boston fell through. So I returned to New York and interned at a law firm for six months before deciding that it wasn't for me." Johnson then went to work as an analyst at Hamilton, Rabinovitz & Alschuler, a policy consulting and real estate firm, for the next two years. But in 1991, she took a job as a program assistant at the Social Science Research Council, and found the work interesting. "This job opened my eyes to a career in academia. A professor at Columbia and my mentor convinced me that I would need advanced degrees, so I went on to get an M.A. and Ph.D. in political science."

For the next two years, Johnson served as assistant professor at SUNY Stony Brook and then became a professor at Barnard. By 2012, she had become director of the Barnard-Columbia Urban Studies Program. She teaches such courses as: Introduction to American Politics; Theories of American Political Development; Power, Politics and Policy; Metropolitics of Race and Place; Introduction to Urban Studies; and Politics of Race, Crime and Criminal Justice Policy. Johnson's research focuses on the intersections between urban politics and policy, federalism and intergovernmental relations, race, ethnic politics, bureaucracy and public policy. Her research has been supported by such distinguished organizations as the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Political Science Association, Columbia University's Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy, the New York State Archives, and the Ford Foundation. "Foundations are interested in supporting work that crosses interdisciplinary boundaries. They want their funding to speak to different audiences and issues."

Johnson's interest and research in urban studies have revealed some clear demographic shifts in cities. "Cities that have done well have focused on bringing back millennials and white-collar workers. But as a city becomes more well-to-do, people working in the lower-end occupations have had to move to the suburbs, and some suburbs have become poorer. If you look back to 100 or even 50 years ago, immigrants generally moved to the cities. That is no longer the case, and many metropolitan areas are struggling with policy decisions."

The teaching of political science has evolved in many ways over Johnson's close to 20 years of teaching, she says. "It is interesting to note that students are coming to Barnard and Columbia from much broader backgrounds, demographically speaking. It used to be that the college was made up mainly of students from the Northeast, but both schools pushed for a broader student body of national and international students. But as our classrooms have become more global, not everyone has the same base knowledge of the American political system, so we are having to start with the basics. Some students only know what they have absorbed from the media. And the students themselves have changed as well. When I was an undergraduate, we were sort of left on our own. Our parents vaguely knew what we were doing in terms of college, but today students are very engaged with their parents, and what these parents think and say is a large part of the picture." For many of her first-year students, Johnson notes that their political awareness began with the election of Barack Obama. "And students learn differently now as they are far more visually oriented."

The teaching faculty at Barnard has responded to these changes by becoming more focused on subject matter. "Why are we teaching political science? What are the skills students today need rather than general knowledge? There is increasing pressure on these kids, and lots of demands. Many come to college in New York City as they are incredibly focused on internships. And how do we communicate to a broader audience the value of a liberal arts education? We make the case that liberal arts colleges provide one-on-one contact between students and professors."

One of Johnson's favorite courses to teach is a new course, New York City's Gilded Ages, a digital humanities course supported by a grant from the Mellon Foundation. The course focus is on the First and Second Gilded Ages and the transformation of cities, both for socioeconomic and cultural change. New York City figures prominently in the course, and Barnard is partnering with several organizations including the New York Historical Society, the Frick Collection, and the Tenement Museum.

This election year provided lots of material for discussion; and many, including lots of political scientists, called it wrong. "We had a harder time with the demographic shifts that just didn't pick up some people. We have talked a lot about the Electoral College and how it shapes party politics. But as political scientists, we knew the country is very polarized, and many people are living in bubbles. Many were surprised at the outcome, but it was a good learning moment, and one lesson would surely be compromise and outreach."

Johnson is the author of numerous publications and several books including: Reforming Jim Crow: Southern Politics and State in the Pre-Brown South (Oxford, 2010) and Governing the American State: Congress and the New Federalism 1877-1929 (Princeton, 2006). She is currently working on a new book-Chocolate City: Oakland, Newark, and the Future of Metropolitan America-which further explores changing demographic shifts in inner cities and traces the impact of these shifts on local and national politics. She "absolutely" credits Hotchkiss for her comfort level in writing, and her passion for teaching and research.