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Forward Progress 

The Source's Woman of the Year, Becky Johnson, spearheads Bend's future

It's hard to imagine a man or woman having a larger impact on Central Oregon in 2014 than the Vice President of OSU-Cascades, and the face of the University's four-year expansion, Becky Johnson.

Since her arrival at the OSU Cascades campus in December of 2008, Johnson has led the charge for growth in higher education in Central Oregon. Appointed Vice President of the campus in the spring of 2009, in her tenure, she has guided the University through a rough economic downturn and an attempt by lawmakers to defund the branch campus. Yet, despite those obstacles, OSU-Cascades has increased enrolment and continued growth of the campus, including ambitiously moving forward plans for a four-year university set to open in the fall of 2015.

Those plans are turning Bend on its ear; a town known for its outdoor lifestyle and breweries is set to add mix in the concept of a college town. The rapid timeline of the expansion has drawn criticism, along with concerns about the chosen campus site and demand for increased infrastructure. But Johnson doubled-down and built support beyond her immediate team, and collaborated with the city, Deschutes County, Bend Parks and Recreation, the community at large, students and experts in numerous fields to create a collaborative process for the successful growth of the University.

"Becky has been in this community, and has given and given and shows up in such an amazing capacity," said Jodie Barram, city councilor and member of the Source's nomination committee. "To be out there promoting and listening, then listening again, and then she's got to call the state legislature, and then she's got to turn back to her community. Becky has the ability to stretch across a lot of barriers."

Johnson grew up in Madison, Wis., in a family with two older brothers and a love of the outdoors. Those influences led her to pursue a degree in natural resource economics while she played basketball and golf at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Eventually, she worked her way through the educational hierarchy, from a professor to her current coveted and challenging position. Understanding the value in natural resources, hard work and a collaborative spirit are priorities that have served her well in her work.

"Sports were always super important because I played against my brothers all the time," Johnson explained. "It gave me a leg up when it came to competition. That was a big, big part of my life." She added, "Sports are a great thing if you end up in a more competitive type of career. You learn leadership and teamwork and discipline. You have to work out, you have to do things you don't really like to do. Sports and higher education are on the same path, they're competitive, but there's team work involved."

Johnson's success hasn't been without challenges. Working her way to the top of the food chain in higher education as a woman in a field known for its good old boys' club attitude was difficult.

"I think there is more gender discrimination in higher education than any other type of discrimination," explained Johnson. "It's subtle and almost accepted. Pay scale isn't equal across the gender. I've been the lowest paid in many positions over the years and I had to bring that to people's attention."

Those unfortunate, but pervasive attitudes exist in the classroom as well as in the administration, in Johnson's experience.

"The hardest was the attitude of students in fields where they don't expect to see women," said Johnson. "When I first got into the classroom there were guys in the back of the room with hats pulled down over their eyes. That says you have to prove it to me before I take you as an expert."

To overcome those obstacles Johnson takes a measured, but assertive approach—a strategy she also implements as the OSC-Cascade campus expansion continues.

"The best way to do it is simply through mutual respect," she knowingly explained.

Last week, Johnson attended a public meeting of a group called "Truth in Site," concerned citizens determined to stop OSU-Cascades from building in the current proposed location on the west side of Bend through legal action. That Johnson attended the meeting of community members dead set against her University's vision is a sign of her willingness to hear out community apprehension as she continues to try to do her job.

"It's hard not to take those things personally," said Johnson, "but I thought it was important that we be there to hear the concerns." Her enthusiasm isn't quelled by the challenges, it's fueled by them. "It just means we have to get out there even more with traffic, parking and housing information."

Johnson is in the hot seat for 2014, but already has proven to be the type of woman that can handle criticism and challenges with a calm, collected grace and a forward thinking tenacity (in fact, when presented the nomination for the Source's Woman of the Year, pondered whether we should wait until she had fully proven herself).

As for advice, Johnson encourages girls to look around their community for role models and mentors. "Bend is this incredible place where people come because they love the lifestyle and the place, and they want to make a difference," said Johnson. "To me, it's humbling to think about being woman of the year in a place like Bend where there are so many women doing so much. There are so many nonprofits and women that decided to making a difference in their community, and that are taking the initiative to do that. Girls in Bend have some incredible role models to see about how you can go so many different ways. They can be a CEO or director of a nonprofit, or volunteer at a preschool. There are so many ways that you can make a difference and not just sit on the sidelines."

More in The Women's Issue

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