UT Dallas Mourns Gifford K. Johnson, 1918-2009
As President of the Southwest Center for Advanced Studies, He Played
in Transforming Institution into the University of Texas at Dallas
July 29, 2009
The University of Texas at Dallas mourns the passing of Gifford K. Johnson, former president of the Southwest Center for Advanced Studies, the predecessor to UT Dallas. Johnson, 91, died Sunday at his son’s home in New York after a brief illness.
Johnson’s involvement with the University began in 1965 when he was appointed president of the Graduate Research Center of the Southwest by J. Erik Jonsson, one of the founders of Texas Instruments.
In an effort to better convey its teaching and basic research functions, the center changed its name to the Southwest Center for Advanced Studies in January 1967. Johnson continued as president until 1969 when the center became The University of Texas at Dallas.
According to a 2000 memoir written by Johnson, the center was at a tipping point in terms of growth, but with no degree-granting powers, it was virtually blocked from shifting into a viable, freestanding institution.
It was Johnson’s visit to then-UT System Chancellor Harry Ransom that changed the course of University history.
“I told Dr. Ransom that UT would receive large campus acreage, our buildings, laboratories and equipment, a faculty which had $6 million per year in funded research, and (who) could really put together graduate programs and teach them,” Johnson recalled. “Harry liked the idea, and approached his Regents Chairman, Frank Ikard, who agreed. Frank and Erik (Jonsson) took over work on the agreement. It included a promise by UT to add at least $40 million in funding to the new University of Texas at Dallas, which they did and more.”
A year later, and after several setbacks and obstacles, an agreement to establish UT Dallas was reached and made it through the Texas Legislature, along with three strict requirements:
- The University could teach only master’s and Ph.D. programs for its first five years.
- Junior and senior level programs could be added thereafter.
- The University was prohibited from admitting freshmen and sophomores.
In 1990, the Legislature granted approval to admit freshmen and sophomores, but entrance requirements were legally required to be set as high or higher than those at UT Austin and Texas A&M. The requirements, though strict at the time, set the course for a tradition of academic excellence that continues at UT Dallas today.
“All of us at UT Dallas owe a great deal to Gifford Johnson for his vision and leadership at a time when UT Dallas was more concept than reality,” said David Daniel, UT Dallas president. “His long view of the possibilities and his continuing involvement with the progress and accomplishments of the University set a very high standard we strive to uphold today.
“He was here with us only weeks ago to participate in the investiture of two of our chairholders,” Daniel said. “I am personally saddened by his passing. He was a man of many accomplishments, but he seemed especially proud of UT Dallas. He always made room on his calendar and in his life whenever UT Dallas needed him.”
Johnson also was a founding member and former vice president of the University’s Excellence in Education Foundation, which was created to make annual gifts to the University based on requests, analysis of need and competition. One of the largest benefactors to UT Dallas — its total giving exceeded $29 million — the foundation managed assets including land and short term investments and was a major source of private funds to the University until it dissolved around 1995.
A member of the University’s Development Board since 1969, Johnson also served as chairman of the board for two terms, a total of four years. He was named to the Lifetime Development Board in 2002. In addition, the Betty and Gifford Johnson Graduate Scholarship, awarded annually in the fall, was named in honor of Johnson and his wife in 1996.
A lifelong advocate of higher education, Johnson was appointed general chairman of the Dallas Chamber of Commerce’s Education Committee in 1962. As chair, one of his top priorities was the “Education Beyond High School” initiative, and the group eventually helped launch the Dallas County Community College District. The assembly also lobbied the governor and the Legislature for increased state university involvement and commitments to build graduate programs.
Johnson was on the board of Southern Methodist University from 1964 to 1966. Around that time, Texas Gov. John Connally formed the Governor’s Committee on Higher Education and appointed 25 members from around the state, including Johnson and heads of all the major university systems, both private and public.
The group produced a report for the governor that recommended installing one agency over all junior colleges, colleges and universities. That agency, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, still exists today and provides leadership and coordination for the Texas higher education system.
In addition to leading UT Dallas’ predecessor, the Southwest Center for Advanced Studies, Johnson served as the head of several Dallas-area defense-contractor and technology companies, including UTL Corp., Ling-Temco-Vought Inc. and American Biomedical Corp. He began his career in 1935 with North American Aviation Inc.
He also served as chair emeritus of C.C. Young Memorial Home, was on the board of directors for the Texas A&M Research Foundation, was a member of the American Clinical Laboratory Association and the Navy League of the United States, and was a member of the Salesmanship Club.
Born in Santa Barbara, Calif., on June 30, 1918, Johnson attended UCLA and Harvard Business School. He was preceded in death by a son, Craig. His widow is Betty Johnson, and he has two children, Dane and Janet, as well as four grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 1, at Preston Hollow United Methodist Church on Walnut Hill Lane in Dallas.
In 1965, Gifford K. Johnson was appointed president of the Graduate Research Center of the Southwest, the research institute that would later become UT Dallas.
Johnson (left), shown with UT Dallas President David E. Daniel, represented the Excellence in Education Foundation at the investiture ceremony of Jonsson School Dean Dr. Mark Spong in April.