From its beginning 100 years ago, Johnson & Wales combined industry-focused curricula and strong ties to employers with individualized career roadmaps for students.
With institutions of higher education from vocational-technical to liberal arts increasingly emulating this model, Johnson & Wales has emerged as a pioneering university ahead of its time.
BY JENNIFER BROUILLARD
Courageous entrepreneurs Gertrude Johnson and Mary Wales left stable positions at the Bryant and Stratton Business School in Providence, RI, to found their own business school — and started by placing this classified ad. One student responded. And a trailblazing journey began.
A Century of Innovation
As men left their jobs to fight in World War I, women took their places and sought training during an era when they were prohibited from voting. Misses Johnson and Wales tapped into this emerging market, catering to some women’s “stipulation that it was to be a deep, dark secret the husband and children must not know,” wrote Johnson.
These founders not only understood the importance of a professionally focused education in preparing graduates. They spoke with employers to discover their needs, as well as students to uncover their career aspirations. They created individual curriculum roadmaps for students to achieve their goals and then worked to place them in companies that were a right fit. The combination of industry-focused curriculum and
connecting students to employment opportunities
established an institutional DNA that is still thriving
Businesses like Brown and Sharpe, Providence
Telephone Co. and nearby hospitals called the school
when they needed jobs filled. “They would say, ‘You
know what we want. Send them out,’” recalls Vilma
Triangolo '36, '98 Hon., Misses Johnson and Wales’
assistant. “And they never sent anyone back.”
When the two founders retired in 1947, they passed
the torch to Triangolo’s husband Edward and Morris
Gaebe, who expanded the school with the influx of GIs
seeking job skills during the post-World War II years.
Triangolo and Gaebe turned the school nonprofit,
broadened the curricula, achieved accreditation and
grew enrollment exponentially.
Throughout this rapid
transformation, the men continued the standard set
by Misses Johnson and Wales that still endures today
— educating students who are often the first in their
families to attend college and who, like the first female
students 100 years ago, could finally consider higher
From there, further growth followed — as well as
industry interest. Former President John Yena '06 Hon.
led Johnson & Wales into the latter half of the 20th
century by expanding to a multicampus, multistate
system and refining curricula that listened to and
addressed industry needs. “With all the changes over
the almost 100 years of the university’s history, there is
a thread that continues today,” says Yena, chairman of
the board emeritus. “JWU listened to employers as to
what traditional universities were missing in terms of
preparation for success.”
Chancellor and President John Bowen '77 further
strengthened Yena’s industry focus. “One of the many
ways that Johnson & Wales has been ahead of the
curve is we bring in industry experts. We partner
with business and our professors. How can we update
or adopt a new curriculum? How can we place our
students in industry and get feedback directly as
they’re going through our programs?”
Starting in the 1970s, Bowen invited these companies
to campus to speak to students and recruit not only
for jobs after graduation, but for internships as well.
He created career services as a unique and essential
component of a JWU education long before other
colleges and universities, whose definitions of a
relevant education differed.
“Higher education has a continuum,” Yena notes. “At
one end, purely vocational schools who give job skills
to graduates: very little education for life. The other
end is the academy, which is all education for life.
Johnson & Wales has been and continues to be in the
sweet spot, which is somewhere in the middle.”
That sweet spot in the middle — blending critical
thinking and experiential education — helped a
fledgling business school evolve to a university that
today educates 17,000 students from nearly 100
countries across four campuses. Throughout it all,
Miss Wales’ educational philosophy remained steadfast:
“We should teach a thing not for its own sake, but as a
preparation for what lies beyond.”
But what does lie beyond? How have the past 100
years adapting to student and employer needs shaped
JWU as an institution — and how will they guide
JWU for the next 100?
Blending Active Learning and
“What makes Johnson & Wales so special — what’s the
genius of Johnson & Wales?” asks Terry MacTaggart,
former chancellor of the Minnesota State University
System and the University of Maine System. “I think
it’s a combination of a very intelligent reading of what
the market desires with what Johnson & Wales can
deliver in response to that.”
What the market desires has shifted in the past couple
of decades. JWU graduate Brenda Dann-Messier '00
EdD, assistant secretary for vocational and adult
education at the US Department of Education, notes,
“We’re seeing the core elements, the effective elements
of career and technical education being embraced by
larger and larger numbers of postsecondary institutions
because they’re hearing from their students that they
want authentic, hands-on, relevant, educational
With student debt spiraling and well-paying
employment stagnating in a slow-to-recover
economy, students and parents also want accountability
and return on investment. The federal government
In May 2013, US Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.),
Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.)
introduced the Student Right to Know Before You Go
Act that would require colleges to publish graduation
rates, student loan debt, graduates’ salaries and
unemployment rates by major. Similarly, the Chronicle
of Higher Education hosts College Reality Check,
a website that includes graduation rates, net prices,
default rates and graduate earnings for 2,000 US
colleges, funded by the Gates Foundation.
As higher education shifts its focus to meet the demand
that its purpose be workforce development, the value
of arts and sciences is being questioned.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott has made waves through his
proposal to shift funding away from liberal arts and
social sciences toward a market-based degree approach.
He’s urging the state’s 12 public universities to adopt
a 3-year tuition freeze for students majoring in
the STEM disciplines. Students majoring in the arts
would pay more for their degrees.
In addition, the Florida Legislature reduced the number of required
general education course credit hours from 36 to 30 in 2012.
Ironically, though, employers are saying they want
graduates with higher order thinking and transferable
skills that these general education classes help instill.
In 2010 the Association of American Colleges &
Universities reported that 89% of surveyed
employers value written and oral communication skills
and 81% value critical thinking and analytic
reasoning, while 79% value applied knowledge in
At the same time, in a survey published in March by
the Chronicle of Higher Education and American Public
Media’s “Marketplace,” employers across all industries
rate internships as the most important credential
recent college graduates can possess. The percentage
of students hired from internships supports this rating.
The National Association of Colleges and Employers
reports that 63% of paid interns have at least
one job offer upon graduation, compared to only 40% of graduates without an internship.
“The most frequent thing I hear from [business owners]
is ‘all too many people [who] come in through the door
don’t have the skills necessary to do the job that I need
[them] to do,’” US Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez
underscored to “Marketplace.” “We have to make sure
that [for] the jobs of tomorrow, people have the skills
to do them.” He notes that of all industrialized nations,
the US ranks low in employable skill investment.
The bottom line? Employers want “book smarts
that translate in the real world,” Julian Alssid of
the nonprofit Workforce Strategy Center said to
“Marketplace.” Universities may be providing adequate
theoretical knowledge, but not the ability to apply it.
Education for the 21st Century
The increasing industry demand for employees with
professional skills and work experience as well as the
critical thinking and communication skills developed
through an integrated arts and sciences curriculum has
resulted in institutions of higher education on both
ends of the spectrum — from traditional vocational
schools to liberal arts colleges — converging as a
blended education model.
“The vast majority of colleges and universities are
now offering some combination of liberal arts and
professional education along with internships and
other forms of experiential learning, career services and
strengthened ties to industry — a model that Johnson
& Wales has been refining for decades,” notes Bowen.
To address employer claims of ill-preparedness,
traditional vocational education has evolved into a
more sophisticated approach now known as career
and technical education. “It started as a very specific
vocational education program,” says Dann-Messier.
“Over the years it’s really changed and evolved to be
responsive to the needs of business and industry.”
To meet these needs, Dann-Messier developed a
plan unveiled by US Secretary of Education Arne
Duncan in spring 2012 that invests $1 billion in higher
education. Titled “Investing in America’s Future:
A Blueprint for Transforming Career and Technical
Education,” the plan calls for strengthened emphasis
on liberal arts and STEM disciplines along with closer
ties to industry. It ensures that the skills taught in career
and technical education programs reflect the labor
market’s 21st-century needs, specifically for
in-demand occupations within high-growth sectors.
Fisher College President Thomas McGovern '01 EdD,
echoes this approach. His exposure to JWU’s education
model led him to emulate it at his Boston-based college.
“The future of education is getting more practical
experience into the classroom: job shadowing,
information interviews, industry speakers, ramped-up
speaker series,” he suggests. “People need to hear from
practitioners — and hire practitioners — to understand
what’s going on out there. Students who have learned
critical thinking can only go so far. It’s the combination
— critical thinking with work experience — that’s key.”
Meanwhile, liberal arts colleges designed to groom
critical thinking are having such an outcome
questioned. In response, they are increasingly
incorporating industry-specific programs such as
business administration, accounting, engineering
and entrepreneurship, with a far greater emphasis on
internships and career development.
Clark University in Worcester, Mass., a traditional
liberal arts institution, recently rebranded itself by
integrating liberal arts and experiential education
through a program called LEEP (Liberal Education
and Effective Practice). “While the world has changed
dramatically during the last century, traditional liberal
arts programs have remained relatively static,” Clark
University President David Angel said in a press
release. “LEEP fills the gap by ensuring that students
build the knowledge and the skills employers seek, the
world needs, and they require to flourish personally,
professionally and civically.”
Even traditional land grant universities, which have
always existed to prepare students for specific careers,
are adding more active learning, internships and other
experiential education opportunities while developing
stronger career services and closer ties to industry.
The University of Rhode Island’s newly launched Business
Engagement Center “is a focal point for faculty and
students to interact with industry in meaningful and
innovative ways,” describes URI President David
Dooley on the center’s website, and is a “front door for
business to navigate the talent and knowledge that URI
offers,” including internships where students “meet real
challenges and solve real problems [with] their fresh
ideas, innovative thinking and vitality.”
Transforming a UniversityEducational models and ideas are only as solid as the
base they’re built on. JWU’s foundation and adaptability
helped the university succeed throughout the
20th century — and continues today when others have
faltered. By implementing the transformative FOCUS
2011 strategic plan, the university attracted better-prepared
students, strengthened curriculum and enhanced
the student experience while exceeding enrollment
The plan also addressed the mounting issue of
affordability, doubling institutional aid from $70 million
in 2005 to nearly $140 million today. “The risk
involved couldn’t be overstated,” says Bowen.
But the risk paid off. While average national student
debt between 2007 and 2011 increased by 8%, JWU student debt decreased by 7%.
In addition, JWU’s retention increased by nearly
7% over the same period (and has risen to
nearly 10% by 2013). “I don’t know if another
college or university can make that claim over the same
four-year period,” says Bowen. “We want all of higher
education to look at our new model.”
JWU’s current strategic plan expands the university’s
“We knew we had to continue to become more selective.
We had to continue to focus on affordability and we
had to meet the expectations of the students that we’re
enrolling now,” says Mim Runey, LPD, Providence
Campus president and chief operating officer.
JWU has also strengthened its commitment to relevant
work experience. “Today the university is investing
nearly $4 million a year in stipends for students who
are participating in unpaid internship programs,”
The university continues to assess the growth sectors in
industry using US Department of Labor statistics and
forecasts, adjusting curriculum accordingly to prepare
students for these careers. JWU increasingly integrates
arts and sciences into professionally focused programs —
and professional focus into developing arts and sciences
programs. “We have a real knack at looking at the
market and determining what’s in demand and how we
can service industry and the students that we attract,”
Health sciences will feature prominently in JWU’s
future; a physician assistant graduate program that
received Accreditation-Provisional status from the
Accreditation Review Commission on Education
for the Physician Assistant will begin in June 2014,
while a biology undergraduate major is planned for
2015. Both programs will be part of a future School
of Health Sciences that may include bioinformatics,
biotechnology and science-based interdisciplinary
programs with JWU’s existing schools and colleges.
Johnson & Wales’ increasing stature in the higher
education arena has not gone unrecognized. For the
last 3 years Forbes has ranked JWU’s Providence
Campus among “America’s Top Colleges.” The campus
also rose significantly in US News and World Report’s
“Best Colleges Rankings,” from 98th in the north
region in 2012 to 74th in 2013.
On the global stage, JWU has attracted alumni from
152 countries who are pursuing careers worldwide.
The 2012 Open Doors Report ranked JWU seventh
in international student enrollment for master’s
institutions and 20th for number of students that
study abroad. In addition, JWU has been named to
the national president’s community service honor roll
every year since its inception in 2006.
“We currently employ more than 600 JWU alumni
who hold a variety of leadership roles — including
president, senior vice president, vice president and
clinical dietician, just to name a few,” notes Raj
Pragasam, senior vice president of human resources
for Compass Group North America. “JWU students
are prepared to be the best because they’re trained with
integrated academic and real-world work experience.”
And it’s this integration that makes Johnson & Wales a
university ahead of its time.
“Today’s students are much more pragmatic, focused
on their careers, preparation for the world of work,
and advancement in that field. Johnson & Wales
plays very well into that appetite for professionalism,”
observes MacTaggart. “It’s really an exemplar of a high performing
institution in the United States today with
a marvelous, financially sustainable business model. I
think this is an institution that is going to prosper and
be superior for a long time to come.”
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