On The Record with PCJ

Graphic courtesy of Ashley Potter.

Here at The Oredigger, we strive to stay on top of issues that matter to students. We accomplish this in a variety of ways, from conducting campus polls to featuring student opinion articles. In lieu of this goal, we decided to bring back an Oredigger tradition: interviewing the Mines President. As you all know, the person currently serving in this role is President Paul C. Johnson (affectionately known on campus as “PCJ”). We took the opportunity to ask PCJ, who has not had an interview published in The Oredigger for several semesters, a variety of questions. In part one of this article, we will be covering questions that fall into two contrasting categories: fun and COVID-19.


A question many students wondered but few have asked, “What
does the ‘C’ stand for in PCJ?”

“So usually I don’t tell people until they’re at least a sophomore. It’s funny, freshmen will ask me and I say ‘you gotta wait till next year to ask that.’ [author’s note: if you’re a freshman, you are to skip to the next question or you will be quarantined without internet until next school year to ensure your silence].

But it stands for Carr. My grandfather on my father’s side was born Paul Carr. He changed his name, I think in part to hide from his family for some reason or another, to George Johnson. And so my parents named me Paul Carr Johnson which is a sort of a blend of the two.”

We then asked PCJ what he eats for lunch every day. His answer
was all too relatable.

“I usually don’t have a whole lot of time for lunch. It’s typically two pieces of bread with a couple slices of provolone in between them, or a bagel with peanut butter on it.”

He then shared his thoughts on changing Mines Market to Miner Diner:

“I did get an email from the student who was proposing that, and I said if you get the other students behind it, it’s fine with me. The history of the Periodic Table is very similar. It’s only been the Periodic Table for five years now and that was student-named. If everybody liked Miner Diner and that made them happy when they go eat, that’s good as far as I’m concerned.”

Shannon, our Editor-in-Chief, wanted to know if PCJ has a winogradsky column:

“I don’t have one of those, but our current microbiology experiment is a sourdough starter in the refrigerator. Not quite the same thing, but it’s still microorganisms at work.”

We asked about everyone’s favorite member of President Johnson’s family (his dog, Ember).

“[S]he really misses all the events on campus where she can get spoiled by students. Molly, our cat, is doing fine as well.”

Finally, what with the never-ending campus construction,
we asked about PCJ’s favorite building on campus (based on
architectural style).

“Ah, that’s a good question. Let’s see. I tend to be attracted more to the CoorsTek and Marquez Hall style. Something with a lot of glass, that you can look into it and look out of it at the same time. There are some older things on campus I like. I like the architecture of the president’s house, the sort of castle-look is cool, you know?”

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, we can get into the fun stuff! Wait–I might have that backwards. Anyway, despite how often he must discuss COVID-19, PCJ was happy to answer our coronavirus questions. Who knows–maybe his answers will go viral!

Re: Our Old Pal COVID

You’ve stated that you think Mines is doing well handling the pandemic. How have the students directly influenced how the situation is handled here at the school (through things like virtual town halls, etc.)?

“We have been learning from students along the way on a lot of things that we’re doing. This summer, we experimented with some things and we got feedback from students who took the second summer session courses [in person]. . . We pilot tested all the things that we were going to do in the fall with those classes, so students got to provide input on that. In the town halls, I think you sometimes learn a lot just through the questions people ask and give you some insight into things. For the students who have had to quarantine and isolate we’re holding virtual Pizzas with the President with them. This week I’ve had two of those already with different groups of students and we ask them “How are you? How are the support and services and everything you’re getting while you’re under quarantine?” We’re
always listening because at the end of the day, we want to create an environment in which everybody just wants to do what’s right. We’re hanging in there so far, so we’ll see.”

There is general student agreement that the Mines experience has been adversely affected by the hybrid environment (esp. upperclassmen), how do you justify not lowering tuition?

“This is a kind of a complex one, but I’ll try to break it down into a few steps. Our goal going into this semester, much like the last semester is, let’s set up something so everybody can make progress towards graduation.
[This was] number one: offering all the things we would normally offer in a way that you could participate in your education in any way you felt comfortable. Some of our students did not feel comfortable coming back to
school, but they don’t want to take a semester off. So we said okay, we’ll make sure you can be in the classes you need to be in. We also have students who periodically had to quarantine and isolate. Some classes are fully remote as well. Then we have to work within county health restrictions, the constraints of campus (classroom capacities had to reduce 50% or more from what they were before, faculty who some cannot come
into the classroom and teach). And so we put all that together and then, as you’ve discovered, we also said we can’t offer everything in-person. But we also said let’s see if we can get to 70% of some in-person component of all classes. So that was another target in all of this. And then we had decided since they’re not all going to be in-person, are we going to just randomly do it or is there going to be some systematic approach? We made this strategic decision this fall that – actually, every student I’ve ever talked to tends to agree with it – we’re going to bias it towards the first-year students because they need to build community. Community is so important to all of you so let’s bias it towards the first-year students this semester so they do build community. We’re looking at the spring to get about 80% of courses to have
at least some in-person component, and there’ll be a bias towards juniors and seniors. I totally understand the frustration of some people’s parts. Clearly, not all of us are wired to be remote learners, not all teachers are wired to be remote teachers, and not all course material fits a remote format. But I do think we’re delivering what we told people we were going to deliver. So that’s part of the story. The other part of the story is the state significantly reduced its investment in higher education. This year, state funding was reduced by about half a billion dollars. All the universities got a cut to their state budgets. So that went down pretty significantly. The cost to the university actually went up pretty significantly. All of the technology that we had to install over the summer so that everybody could participate in their classes in some way or another had to all be put in rapidly. We have free testing on campus. I could point to a whole lot of other things. Plus, staff are doing jobs they have had to pick up just to make this all work. Faculty who are teaching in-person classes are working two-three times harder than they’ve ever had to. In some ways, the real questions would be “why didn’t tuition go up” as opposed to “why it didn’t go down” because if you look at all of the factors they would all point to significant tuition increases. So we made a decision to keep tuition flat. To do that we had to do some other things: faculty and staff did not get raises this year. The senior administration is taking a 10% pay cut through a furlough program. So the way I kind of look at it is that the campus has done everything they could in the situation that we’re in to just hold tuition where it is.”

How have you been personally throughout this year? How are you staying connected with students?

“I think, like all of you, I’m just tired of this. It’s a strange period because a lot of us on campus feed off the energy of the students. I would normally spend at least an hour to have my meetings every day sitting in the Periodic Table. I just love that energy. I get a little bit of it from still being in the classroom, get some from these kinds of interactions. I still have coffee with students. I think you had an article last edition that was suggestions for students staying well in the COVID era. Set up a schedule, have a plan, make sure there’s a structure to your life and I think that applies to all of us. It’s challenging. The one thing that I think keeps me going is just how everybody’s doing as a campus and just being so proud of what we’ve been
able to do at Mines. It’s a never-ending constant decision-making process and you can kind of get tired from making decisions all the time. Especially when just about everybody on campus and all their relatives have pretty strong opinions on what should be going on. It’s an interesting time but . . . at the end of the day, I still get up every morning excited to be here and feeling very fortunate to be part of Mines.”

So there you have it–our President’s thoughts on everything from winogradsky columns to tuition during COVID-19. We enjoyed the chance to sit down and have a candid discussion with PCJ and are glad that we have the opportunity to share the result with you. Make sure to come back for
part two, though; the second half of the interview covered President Johnson’s perceptions of and goals for the Mines community in addition to his thoughts on the preservation of Mines’s historic President’s house.

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