A native of Homer, Nebraska, Johnson earned his PhD in economics at Columbia University. In 1919, with Thorstein Veblen, John Dewey, Charles Beard and others, Johnson founded The New School to bring progressive, university-level learning to populations who had previously been shut out of the academy.
“Without Alvin Johnson’s contribution, higher education in the United States would be very different today,” New School President David E. Van Zandt wrote in a letter supporting Johnson’s nomination. “Johnson gave form to a brilliant vision and, without abandoning the traditional liberal arts and social sciences, helped shift the curriculum and audience for higher education to reflect the breadth of American society and the width of the human imagination.”
Under Johnson’s leadership, The New School committed one its most historically significant acts in establishing the University in Exile. Providing a safe haven for Jewish intellectuals threatened by the rise of European Fascism, the University in Exile served as an institutional home to Claude Levi-Strauss, Erich Fromm, Max Wertheimer and others. It also laid the foundation for The New School to become the major degree-granting institution it is today.
“I felt that Alvin was a natural for the Hall of Fame, not only for his many accomplishments, but also because he never lost sight of his Nebraska heritage and the values he gained growing up in the state,” said Lee Rockwell, Professor Emeritus of Broadcasting within the College of Journalism University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL), spearheaded Johnson’s nomination along with Jerry Petr, Professor Emeritus of Economics at UNL. “His efforts to create the University in Exile and his work on the New York State committees drafting legislation banning discrimination in employment and education cannot be ignored.”
Johnson was Rockwell’s great uncle, so his connection to The New School founder is quite personal. But in preparing his nomination, Rockwell was impressed by the profound effect Johnson had on many others.
“As part of my research effort I located Claus Colm, the surviving son of Gerhard Colm who was in the first wave of Jewish intellectuals brought to The New School. Claus spoke with such emotion when he told me he owed his very existence to Dr. Johnson,” Rockwell said. “A few years ago my one word descriptor of Alvin was ‘Educator. Today, I proudly say ‘Humanitarian.’”