Holding the Center

Holding the Center

Memoirs of a Life in Higher Education

By Jacques W. Cremer

Memoir of a former MIT President, as well as professor, corporate director, and advisor to American government agencies and to museums and foundations.





Memoir of a former MIT President, as well as professor, corporate director, and advisor to American government agencies and to museums and foundations.

Howard Wesley Johnson has been associated with MIT for more than forty years and been a major influence on the modernization and expansion of many of its programs. He will be most remembered as a management educator and as MIT's president during the turbulent late 1960s and early 1970s. The title of his memoirs reflects his central, usually lonely position in those days, trying to hold together an institution often torn apart by the turmoil of the times. Johnson was more successful at navigating the minefields on campus than were many other college and university presidents, perhaps because he was always willing to listen to both sides and because his values were in the right place—against the war in Vietnam, in favor of increased participation in the university by women and minorities, and concerned about environmental issues. As a professor and administrator at MIT, a corporate director, and an advisor to American government agencies and to museums and foundations, Johnson consistently sought both to understand and to apply the principles of good management.


Out of Print ISBN: 9780262100793 356 pp. | 6 in x 9 in


$30.00 X ISBN: 9780262600446 356 pp. | 6 in x 9 in


  • Holding the Center represents not only the personal memoir of a deeply dedicated man but also a vivid history of MIT since World War II. This book reveals one of the secrets of MIT's success as one of the greatest American institutions of higher learning—the continuity of its governance throughout its history.

    I. M. Pei


  • Holding the Center is a rare accounting of how President Howard Johnson skillfully lead MIT throughout the 1960s campus revolt. Executives everywhere will learn a thing or two about conflict management from this engaging diary of a university president.

    Thomas Winship

    former editor

    The Boston Globe

  • This is a remarkable book about a remarkable man. Howard W. Johnson has served his community well, as an educator and a leader in business and the arts. He is the kind of man whom people instinctively trust. Johnson's memoirs make good reading and should be studied by anyone interested in the history of Boston and Cambridge from the 1960s to the 1980s, or in how one great institution faced the educational crises of 1969-70.

    Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr.

    John Moors Cabot Curator of American Painting, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

  • Holding the Center tells two engrossing stories. One is Howard Johnson's personal journey from the South Side of Chicago to the presidency of one of the most prestigious universities in the world; a journey that transited the Great Depression, military service in Europe and World War II, and a circuitous climb to the peak of higher education. The other story recounts his experience as President of MIT in the late 1960s and 1970s when MIT, like other American universities, was wracked by student and faculty dissent growing out of opposition to the Vietnam War and a profound shift in cultural attitudes. An understanding of Johnson's personal values and life experiences helps to explain how he skillfully managed the potentially explosive forces in a way that preserved campus comity and the integrity of the institution. Together, these two stories make an absorbing, and even inspiring, narrative which tells us much about higher education—and American—during a period of turbulent change.

    Arnold R. Weber

    President Emeritus, Northwestern University

  • Howard Johnson's memoirs show how an exceedingly wise, balanced, and knowledgeable individual can guide an institution through turbulent periods and have it emerge stronger from that experience. The story of his life as an academic leader, public servant, and corporate executive provides a panorama of much of the twentieth century that engages, informs, and inspires the reader. This is a book not just for the MIT community but for anyone who wants to see how the fortunes of institutions reflect the quality of their leaders

    Frank Press

    President Emeritus, U.S. National Academy of Sciences

  • What a multiple feast Howard Johnson has given us. At one level his book is a fascinating autobiography of the leader of arguably the greatest research institution in the world. At another level, it is a riveting history of how this university, MIT, coped with and responded admirably to the spastic hyper-turbulence of the Vietnam era. But for me personally, as a student of human organizations, the most important contribution this book makes is how it illuminates the darkness surrounding our understanding of how complex organizations are led through periods of unparalleled change—a challenge, I need hardly add, that all of our contemporary institutions are confronting today.

    Warren Bennis

    University Professor, Marshall School of Business, University of Southern California

  • Holding the Center is an exceptionally wise and readable book, rich with the fruits of long experience in troubled times. All of us who have some responsibility for university leadership should cut out the list of maxims in the Coda and tape it up near our desks.

    Nannerl O. Keohane

    President Duke University