July 2024
David R. Johnson.

With sadness, colleagues at the University of Minnesota are mourning the passing of David R. Johnson on July 4.

Johnson, who led the University’s Institute on Community Integration from 1997 to 2018, devoted his career to improving the educational system that serves students with disabilities.

Along with University of Minnesota President Emeritus Robert Bruininks and Charlie Lakin, former director of the Research and Training Center on Community Living, Johnson helped develop the foundational roots of ICI in the 1980s as a center of excellence dedicated to moving people with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities (IDD) out of institutions and into full lives in their communities of choice. He also served for several years, from 2006 to 2014, as the associate dean of research and policy at the College of Education and Human Development.

“We are saddened by the death of our colleague and friend,” ICI Director Amy Hewitt said. “David was one of the most respected leading experts in the nation for his work related to the transition from school to adult life. His work was used by policymakers and educators across the country to shape opportunities for children and youth with disabilities.”

A celebration to honor Johnson’s life and career is planned for the fall. Details will be provided as they are finalized.

Driven in his work by his experiences supporting and advocating for his brother, who lived with developmental disabilities, Johnson spent his career conducting research to change policy and practice so that children, youth, and adults with disabilities and their families could thrive in their communities of choice.

“What I saw in him, and in the other early founders of ICI, was this deep commitment to create new ideas and strategies,” said Robert Bruininks, ICI’s first director, who later served as president of the University of Minnesota. “He was a great scholar and hard worker, and even though he had a quiet demeanor, he had a burning desire to create a better world for people with disabilities and to improve schools for students with, and without, disabilities.”

At the time of his passing, Johnson was an Emma Birkmaier Professor of Educational Leadership in the College of Education and Human Development. His faculty appointment was in the Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development where he taught courses and advised graduate students in evaluation studies and research methods. After concluding his 20-year term as ICI’s longest-serving director, Johnson continued his research at ICI.

CEHD Dean Michael C. Rodriguez recalled that Johnson reached out to him soon after Rodriguez began his faculty position in 1999 to brainstorm opportunities for advancing research that would transform educational practice and policy. He credited Johnson with laying a foundation of rigorous translational research and evaluation.

“When I became dean, he readily shared his expertise, institutional knowledge, and dedication to the University of Minnesota,” Rodriguez said.

Johnson’s widely published research and evaluation results have been used by U.S. Congressional committees, state legislatures, education agencies, and others to hold schools accountable for providing students with disabilities an appropriate education that will prepare them for adult life. In 2018, he received the George S. Jesien Distinguished Achievement Award from the Association of University Centers of Disability and the Education Award from the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.

Accepting the Jesien award, Johnson held up great universities as partners in advancing the public good through research, education, and sustained community engagement. “It is important for us all to recognize that the work we do makes a difference in people’s lives,” he said.

Overseeing the research team that created Check & Connect, Johnson helped guide ICI’s highly successful intervention model for at-risk students that has been adopted throughout the United States and in many other regions of the world.

He published more than 130 book chapters, journal articles, research monographs, technical reports, and products on topics concerning the secondary education of and transition of youth with disabilities, special education policy, interagency collaboration, and other themes related to his research. His devotion to research and developing strategies that help students with disabilities transition, or move from school to adult life, made significant contributions to the field, as well as to the students themselves.

Beyond his significant body of published work, Johnson was a modest and unassuming leader who valued and ensured the autonomy of staff at ICI to pursue their passions through our research, training/education, and outreach activities, Hewitt said.

“He knew that the best way to support our work was to get out of our way and protect us from too much administrative burden and bureaucratic oversight. This approach allowed those around him to thrive.”

Also known for fostering collaborations with and among state agencies, he continued to consult with agency and community service leaders throughout his long career.

Bruininks recalled that Johnson joined the Peace Corps soon after completing his undergraduate work.

“He didn’t major in special education, but his first thought was to join the Peace Corps and try to expand services in a very underdeveloped part of the world, and then decided on a career in special education and rehabilitation,” Bruininks said. “For years, long before it was a priority for the U.S. Education Department, he was working to bridge the gap in services after students with disabilities leave school.”

Among numerous other awards and appointments throughout his career, Johnson received the President’s Outstanding Service Award in 2008 from the University of Minnesota, where he completed his bachelor’s degree in sociology in 1973 and his doctorate in special education administration in 1987. In 2020, the Council for Exceptional Children awarded him the Patricia L. Sitlington Research in Transition Award.

In a 2015 video marking ICI’s 30th anniversary, Johnson reflected on the success of his longtime career home.

“Keeping clear on a mission over 30 years has probably been as instrumental as anything to furthering the work we do,” he said. “There is not a person at ICI that is not clear on what this place is about.”

Despite his devotion to the work, he always found joy in family and in working on his farm caring for his many horses and dogs, Hewitt said. His family includes his wife, Sharon Hill, two adult sons, and two grandchildren.

“Nothing made him prouder than his family. His stoic face always lit up when he shared pictures and stories of his grandchildren and any recent fishing excursion with friends and family,” Hewitt said. “I am so thankful for his encouragement, calming words of wisdom, support, and mentoring he provided to me and so many others at ICI over the years. Most importantly, I am forever grateful for his permanent imprint and unwavering commitment to making the Institute on Community Integration what it is today. He set a sustainable foundation for our future.”