Governor names higher-education head

Karen R. Johnson has been named the state's secretary of higher education, replacing Patricia S. Florestano, who is retiring after five years in the job.

"I'm really flattered that the governor would place that kind of confidence in me," said Johnson, 36, who is Gov. Parris N. Glendening's deputy chief of staff.


Johnson, a Baltimore native who graduated from Western High School, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and University of Maryland School of Law, has been the governor's chief adviser on higher education issues.

Florestano announced in April her intention to retire, saying she wanted to give her successor three years in the job before the end of Glendening's second term.


"She's smart and she's tough, and she will learn the job quickly," Florestano said of Johnson.

Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County described Johnson as "a solid thinker."

"She's a person of impeccable character who understands the importance of maintaining the diversity of higher education institutions, public and private, in Maryland," he said.

"Most important, she knows how to work well with people," Hrabowski said.

As higher education secretary, Johnson will head the Maryland Higher Education Commission (MHEC), the state's regulatory body over all post-secondary schools.

She will be the point person in the effort to satisfy the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights, which is currently in the process of certifying that the state's colleges and universities are properly desegregated.

"Right now, that is probably the toughest issue facing higher education," Florestano said. "She has been involved in it from the beginning."

Johnson said she was confident that the state would come up with a satisfactory plan by the Sept. 30 target date.


"I think so much of what they are looking for are policies and practices we already have in place, I'm happy to say," she said.

Johnson also takes over MHEC as its regulatory powers have been diminished by the General Assembly, which voted to allow state schools greater freedom to institute new programs without seeking commission approval.

"To me it's clear that MHEC is a coordinating body, not a regulator," she said. "That's what's so exciting about it. There's so much going on in higher education, it can help move all these schools to be the best they can be."

Before she started in the governor's office in 1998, Johnson held several positions in the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.

She began her career as a lawyer, specializing in civil litigation at two Baltimore firms.