Kathy Johnson '66 | University of Portland

Kathy Johnson '66

Mary Kathleen Johnson, who rose to be chief nursing officer for one of the largest and most extensive health systems in America, the Providence Health System she served with creativity and distinction, will long be remembered on The Bluff for her prime role in creating the Providence Scholars program, by which 30 to 75 junior students a year at the University of Portland are given full tuition scholarships by Providence for their final five semesters, in exchange for a three-year commitment to work as nurses for Providence. The program, an immense success at the University (which has seen its nursing enrollment triple), has now been imitated nationally, and has made substantive inroads in the critical shortage of nurses in Oregon and in the United States. More than 500 University students and alumni are or were Providence Scholars on The Bluff.

A Portland native, and the daughter of the elegant and urbane Mary and Ray Mills '42, Johnson was schooled at Saint Cecelia and Saint Mary's Academy before earning her undergraduate degree in nursing on The Bluff in 1966. (She also later earned a master's in business administration from City University, in Bellevue, Washington, in 1986). As a student here, she worked as a nursing assistant in both a hospital and a nursing home; after graduation, she worked as a staff nurse in emergency rooms, orthopedics, medical respiratory, medical renal, cardiology, and as "medical surgical float" nurse. In 1970 she was named nurse manager of a 60-bed orthopedic unit; in 1981 she was named associate director of nursing in surgical and obstetric service; and in 1987 she became director of nursing at St. Vincent. From 1992 to 2002 she was assistant administrator for nursing and patient care at Providence St. Vincent, until her elevation to chief nursing officer for Providence's operations in Oregon. During many of those years she also served the University as an adjunct professor in both nursing and business.

"Even as I was promoted into management," she says, "I kept at least one patient assignment each month until just five years ago, so as to maintain contact with nurses and patients. I tried my best to create an environment where nursing care gave patients the respect, compassion, and dignity they deserve. I wanted funding to get to the bedside. I worked for an improved nurse-to-patient ratio.

"I worked to change the management structure from the traditional top-down model to more self-directed teams and decentralized decision making. I worked to involve nurses and caregivers directly in the daily planning and decision-making processes. We started nursing ethics classes and a support team. We started a research program to increase the data available to nurses for making patient-care decisions. And our work culminated in Providence St. Vincent earning a 'magnet' designation, in 2000, from the American Nurses Credentialing Center, which honors facilities that provide the best nursing care and foster an environment where nurses can do quality work. That's the ultimate benchmark for quality care, and we were the first hospital in Oregon to earn that."

In recent years, faced with crisis-level shortage of nurses and recognizing that the only solution was to educate more of them, Johnson worked with the University's late nursing dean Terry Misener to not only create the Providence Scholars program, but to have Providence nurses with master's and doctoral degrees teach as adjunct professors in the University's School of Nursing. The results, as Johnson says, "mean that now there are graduating classes with hundreds of nurses, compared to the twelve that graduated with me!"