The interim vice provost of international studies, Johnson says that he and the International Institute won't "sit still" in 2010-11. His job for the year includes travel to build relationships with institutions abroad and collaboration with units across campus on internationalizing higher education.
Specializing in Brazil was "never a rational, objective decision" for Randal Johnson. The first step on that path, he says, was buying a record one summer by Bossa Nova legend João Gilberto.
Johnson moderates a public event with Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles last April.
"I didn't understand anything he was saying," recalls Johnson, a UCLA professor of Spanish & Portuguese since 1994. "I loved the music. My friends were listening to Jimi Hendrix; I was listening to Sérgio Mendes or João Gilberto."
In the decades since he first took Portuguese as a college sophomore, Johnson has built a reputation as a scholar of Brazilian literature and film with a wide-angle view of how social, economic and legal conditions relate to culture. He also writes outside of his principal specialty, including a recent book examining the film language of centenarian Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira in the context of European cinema.
For the 2010–11 academic year, however, Johnson's writing projects are on hold, he explains with a smile. A former department chair and Latin American Institute director, he will be doing more than double duty this year as an administrator. Following through on a prior commitment, he is starting a two-year term as president of the U.S.-based, international Brazilian studies association BRASA. And this summer, he agreed to come on as interim vice provost of international studies at UCLA, replacing outgoing Vice Provost Nicholas Entrikin during a job search to begin in the fall or winter.
"Nick did a great job. We have momentum, with new relationships with universities," Johnson says. "I'm not going to sit still."
Brazilian Culture Minister Juca Ferreira (left) with Johnson in Brasília last month at the opening of BRASA's annual conference.
In the role of vice provost, Johnson will lead the International Institute, forge partnerships among schools and departments across campus, and represent UCLA to foreign institutions on trips abroad. The jobs go together, he says, because "the International Institute has a campus-wide mandate, and so do its constituent centers."
Earlier this month, international area studies and language instruction programs within the Institute won renewed federal funding of nearly $11 million over four years, about a third of which supports fellowships for budding specialists in world regions. Johnson says that the funds for programming and research back a number of collaborative projects involving faculty members in UCLA's professional schools.
"Public Health, Medicine, Law, Anderson [School of Management] – they all have strong international commitments," he says.
Even as the Institute focuses UCLA studies of international issues, says Johnson, it also oversees the process of internationalization at the various professional schools and departments on campus, with the goals of identifying best practices and implementing common procedures based on them.
"It's not a question of bringing it under our umbrella. It's about the flow of information," he says.
International agreements help UCLA and partner institutions to keep up with innovations and academic trends and maintain the highest teaching standards. Many of them involve exchanges of students and create shared venues for research.
All such efforts at internationalization have the twin aims of advancing education in particular fields and of promoting understanding about the world. Johnson says that the need for spreading knowledge about the outside world is acute in the United States, which has been fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while understanding next to nothing about their cultures. Language training will be fundamental.
"If we are an international community, we have to be teaching languages," he says. "You can't go anywhere outside of the U.S. where people don't speak more than one language."
Another experienced administrator, Sociology Professor Roger Waldinger, joined the Institute this summer as interim associate vice provost. Among other activities, Waldinger has served as chair of his department, director of the Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies, and co-organizer of the UCLA Migration Study Group.
International Institute Director of Development Maura Kleeman Resnick contributed to this report.