In January 2016, Mathew Johnson began as the director of the Swearer Center for Public Service. The Swearer Center, which was established in 1986, has operated as a space for students to do partnership-based volunteer work in the Providence and surrounding communities. In 2008, the scope of the Swearer Center broadened to also provide support for students launching new initiatives through the Social Innovation Initiative; it further broadened in 2014 by establishing the Engaged Scholars Program, which supports students who are actively seeking to integrate their academic work with their social change related work in the community. Johnson was brought in to be the fourth director of the Swearer Center in just under thirty years.
Johnson’s first act in his role was to craft a strategic plan for the Swearer Center, which seeks to take the center from one that consists of successful programs to, as Johnson says, one that leads “transformative institutional change.” The plan charges Swearer Center staff to begin offering more comprehensive co-curricular offerings to students as well as support broadened opportunities for faculty and students to participate actively in engaged scholarship.
Johnson has been both lauded and criticized for his efforts to lead the Swearer Center through substantial change. Many faculty, students, and community leaders are impressed by his visionary leadership, clear voice, and decisive style. “I believe that Mathew is helping the Swearer Center re-imagine the roles that a university can and should play in community work. By developing true partnerships with local organizations and better equipping students to engage in this work, the experiences will be better for students and the impact will be greater in the community,” said Jose Gonzalez ‘18, a student leader within the Swearer Center.
At the same time, others have questioned whether Johnson spent the necessary time to learn about Brown’s unique culture before forging ahead with a new strategic plan. Several student groups have been openly critical of Johnson; one student leader, Anna Smith ‘18 stated that Johnson “has cut funding from programs, laid off beloved staff, and rushed into change before getting to know us and Brown.”
Johnson has certainly taken Brown and the Swearer Center by storm. This level of organizational change is rarely smooth, but time will tell if Mathew can successfully navigate the unchartered territory ahead.