College of Dentistry Dean David Johnsen to step down early after free speech controversy

Originally planning to leave his position in 2022, Johnsen will step down at the end of the 2021 spring semester.


Caleb McCullough, Managing Editor

University of Iowa College of Dentistry Dean David Johnsen will step down at the end of the spring 2021 semester after an email thread in the college raised free speech concerns with state Republican lawmakers.

Johnsen is stepping away a year earlier than his original plan to leave the position in the summer of 2022. A press release from Iowa Now, the UI’s news service, does not mention the political controversy as a reason for the earlier date. Johnsen said in the press release that “upon further reflection, I came to realize that the pieces are in place for me to step away a year earlier.”

“I am ready for change of pace,” Johnsen said. “I look forward to seeing the college continue our service to this state that I am proud to call home.”

The controversy stems from an email college administrators sent in October condemning an executive order from former President Trump that put restrictions on diversity, equity, and inclusion training from federal contractors. The executive order forced the UI to temporarily halt all DEI trainings.

Multiple students and faculty responded in a public email thread that they agreed with Trump’s order, with one faculty member saying she “cannot support Black Lives Matter.”

The controversy reached the Iowa Statehouse when dentistry student Michael Brase contacted state legislators after he was called in for a disciplinary hearing, which was later canceled, for his response to the thread in support of the executive order.

Johnsen at first said he stood by his signature on the original email that opposed the executive order, but later apologized after being called before the House Oversight Committee and said the college would prevent professors and administrators from taking political positions in mass emails. Johnsen said in the committee meeting that Brase was never at risk for expulsion or academic punishment.

Several students of color at the college found the comments in the thread offensive and said it showed a lack of DEI sensitivity in the college. In January, students held a march to call for more DEI considerations in the college.

“The University of Iowa College of Dentistry has been my second home since 1995 and I have enjoyed every single minute of my time with our students, faculty, and staff,” Johnsen said in the release. “I want to help navigate the college through the challenges brought on by COVID-19, and I am now certain that we have weathered the storm so it is time to hand the keys off to another leader.”

Johnsen, who has been the dean of the college since 1995, will continue in the college as a professor of pediatric dentistry. He previously taught at West Virginia University and Case Western Reserve University.

As dean, Johnsen’s salary was $351,512 in 2019. His new salary was not made public.

The UI will conduct a national search to find Johnsen’s replacement, according to the press release, planning to form a search committee in April.

“David has served the college and the university with distinction over more than two and a half decades,” Executive Vice President and Provost Kevin Kregel said in the release. “Under his leadership the college has continually advanced its reputation as a premier dental school, a leader in interdisciplinary research, and a vital resource to the state of Iowa. He is a passionate champion of the college and ambassador for the university, and I have no doubt that will continue.”