Illinois State’s new Vice President for Student Affairs Levester Johnson accumulated enough blue-and-white Butler swag to clothe a small town during his 24 years at his former university. He counted 300 T-shirts, 250 polos, and heaps of windbreakers, pullovers, and sweatshirts in his closet. While Johnson kept a select few in his transition to Central Illinois, the rest were donated to his local Goodwill.
“If someone went shopping a couple weeks after I left, they could get all decked out with the latest and greatest and throwback Butler stuff,” Johnson said.
Yet, when he scoured his closet for red attire for his interview with Illinois State, he found only a tie.
“I kept that one. It’s the lucky tie now,” he said.
Though he’s still in the midst of his first full semester at Illinois State, the Marquette and Southern Illinois University alum took time out of his hectic schedule to talk with the Civil Service Council about his journey and the possibilities he sees for his new favorite institution.
Can you share a little about your journey and time at Butler?
I am a first-generation student from a large Baptist family where my dad was a Baptist minister. I am number eight of nine and the only one in my family to go to college. College wasn’t on my radar until my friend’s mother, who was the Native American advisor at Marquette, sat me down and asked, ‘You’re top 20 in your graduating class and you are not going to college?’ With her help, I applied, interviewed, and was accepted to Marquette on a full ride. I was part of an educational opportunity program, one of the first, called Trio programs. It was for high achieving students of color and typically first-generation college students. I majored in broadcasting, got a degree, and after talking with my mentor, who was the dean of students, I decided to pursue a graduate degree in college student personnel at Southern Illinois. Following graduation, I worked in housing at the university for several years.
I was hired to serve under [past Illinois State University president] Vic Boschini at Butler. I spent 24 wonderful years and 20 of those as the vice president of Student Affairs. I had the opportunity to be a part of a leadership team that took Butler from a regionally recognized institution to one of national prominence. Of course, basketball had a little bit to do with that, too. I also assisted to elevate our campus life programs, expanding housing on campus, and health and wellness for students. That included assisting in the building of a new recreation and health and wellness complex for the community. I also helped to initiate and develop new safety programs for students. Through that program, students took on a higher level of personal responsibility and began better supporting other students who were trying to do the right thing. Most importantly, they had each other’s backs.
I also had a chance to lead a lot of foundational as well as creative initiatives to increase retention of our students, attract students, and help Butler become a better partner with the Indianapolis community. It was a great experience.
What was your first impression of ISU?
After graduating from Southern Illinois I was an area coordinator in housing but also coached women’s track. That was actually my introduction to ISU because we’d come up here for track meets once in a while.
But then I’ll fast-forward to when I was fortunate enough to make it for the airport interviews and meet with the wonderful search committee. When I walked into a room and saw all of the students who were at the table I thought to myself, ‘This is a statement by the University that students matter.’ I also did my homework on the institution and knew Illinois State’s mission was to foster a small school environment with large institutional support and resources. That’s what I grew up with at Butler. Butler is a small school environment with a personal touch. I love that. And when I went to the on-campus interview and felt that from the community, I knew there was a match.
What message would you like to share with civil service employees at Illinois State?
I think their service is extremely critical to the environment and climate that we establish for our students on campus. To that end, we’re all here to serve students and get them to graduation. Every single person on this campus plays an important role in that.
The other message I would share is that their voice matters when it comes to planning and thinking strategically about the institution. So when I approach plans for strategic initiatives like the housing master plan or Greek life, I need to have the voices and thoughts from workers across all areas of the University.
What’s your take on the personality of the institution?
People are very humble here. I would say we have pride in what we do here and how we support students and colleagues. We have pride in what we are about and what we focus on. But the institution does not have a history of being boastful. That can create a challenge in a competitive market when you are trying to recruit students, faculty, and staff. The institution over the last couple of years is showing more of those things with branding and marketing. But we may have to challenge ourselves to be more comfortable talking about the great things that we do so people know about them. Not just within the state or regionally, but nationally because I think that there are some great things that we do that the nation, and really the world, needs to know.
What are some of the initiatives you are working on?
First, the lifting up of our Greek system on campus. We will address leadership development within that student population. Greek life is becoming increasingly popular on college campuses across the country and ISU is no different. The numbers are surging, and with that comes the need for additional support, oversight, partnership, and collaboration. We need to work with both local individuals and national organizations to make sure that it’s a very positive option for students on campus. So that’s extremely important and a task force will be put together by the end of the semester to evaluate that and develop a three-year plan. The goal will be to get from Illinois State’s great foundation to what I believe we can be, a national model. That’s the plan, and students will be at the table to help to make it happen.
Secondly, improving the climate at the university surrounding diversity. There is already a task force working on this and we will be utilizing their recommendations to support that initiative and create a more inclusive environment. We as a campus community do some great things in order to celebrate and to educate as it relates to diversity. We definitely have some areas that we can strengthen. We have some holes and some gaps that we can fill, too.
Thirdly, the housing piece in general. We need to have a housing master plan for the institution. To this point, we have hardly had enough ‘beds for the buns’ that we have coming to campus. And some of our facilities like Cardinal Court are state-of-the-art, but others are a little tired. So we have to figure out the plan for elevating some of the more tired facilities. In addition, we’ve got a piece that is missing when it comes to our housing portfolio and that is pod style living for students. We need to have some new housing options on campus.
What has been your attitude as you essentially have changed allegiances from Butler to Illinois State?
I’ve created a presentation that I’ve shared at national and international conferences that is about embracing where you are at. My message to people who practice within higher education is that we should always embrace and believe that the place we’re at is the best institution that exists. We should believe it is literally the best school with the most school spirit and you have to be the biggest promoter of it. That doesn’t mean that there are not things here and there that could be made better, but that comes with every place. In the end, you have to have an attitude that your institution is the best. If you ever get to a point where you’re questioning where that is, you need to find the best institution ever that you can promote.
So guess what? Right now I bleed red and white with an accent of black. And this is the best institution ever.