2020 Best 40 Under 40 Professors: Tim Johnson, Willamette University Atkinson Graduate School of Management

Tim Johnson of Willamette University is a Best 40 Under 40 MBA Professor

Tim Johnson is a do-it-all professor. At just 38 years of age, he’s created courses, been named a senior associate dean of faculty, and led his school — the Atkinson Graduate School of Management at Willamette University — through an accreditation review. All while doing this, the associate professor of public management and policy analysis has been publishing massive amounts of research and earning teaching awards.

“Tim wants his students to understand all of the ways the public sector interacts with and impacts their lives. Tim has really perfected the art of making lectures feel like a story,” one nominator said. “He starts most classes with real-world examples of the concept he is discussing and draws students through the process of figuring out for themselves why the information they’re learning is important. A class with Tim seems to fly by and students don’t even realize how much they’re learning because of his natural gift for storytelling. Tim was asked to be Senior Associate Dean of Faculty, almost single-handedly led us through an accreditation cycle, and still managed to publish at a pace of four articles per year, often in excellent outlets. I’m consistently impressed with Tim’s list of co-authors. He is very widely known for two streams of research: understanding egalitarian motives, and analysis of the Vietnam War draft lotteries. His work has inspired hundreds of studies that seek to better understand these subjects.”

Johnson’s Google Scholar citation count tops 1,100. And his research has been covered in many major media outlets. In 2014, Johnson was named a finalist for the Aspen Institute’s Faculty Pioneer Award. And he has also been awarded Willamette University’s Hudson Award for Excellence in Teaching as well as Atkinson’s Faculty Member of the Year award.

“Professor Tim Johnson likes to create an environment of discovery where students can engage and learn from discussion,” praised another recommender. “Tim’s interdisciplinary research has answered questions about the social and psychological drivers of cooperation, the political values of unelected public officials, and the consequences of public policies that facilitate veteran’s transitions into the civilian labor market. His research has appeared in multiple publications of the preeminent scientific journal Nature and many others.”

Outside of the classroom, Atkinson says he enjoys swimming, hiking, and camping with his daughters and partner. He also enjoys checking out Portland’s robust culinary and espresso scene.

Tim Johnson

Grace and Elmer Goudy Associate Professor of Public Management & Policy Analysis; Director of the Center for Governance and Public Policy Research; Senior Associate Dean for Faculty (until July 31, 2020)

Atkinson Graduate School of Management, Willamette University

Current age: 38

At current institution since what year? 2011

Education: Ph.D., Stanford University; MA, Stanford University; BA, Clark Honors College, University of Oregon

List of MBA courses you currently teach: Politics and Public Policy for Managers; Public Policy Studies; Decision Making


I knew I wanted to be a business school professor when… I taught my first class session at the Atkinson School in August of 2011. Prior to that session, I considered myself a social scientist who could just as easily work in academia outside of a business school. However, at the end of that class session, I realized that the students who enroll in schools of management exhibit a profound degree of dedication: they view the academic content of their courses as a foundation for their careers, thus they engage with their classes in a deep way. That fact became apparent in my first class session as a professor and I immediately knew that working in a business school was the right fit for me.

What are you currently researching and what is the most significant discovery you’ve made from it?

I always maintain multiple lines of research, but the one that most-often steals my attention focuses on a simple, broad question: why do individuals cooperate when they can do better by free-riding on others’ hard work? My research collaborators and I have learned that material equality plays a central role in sustaining cooperation: individuals use equality of resources as a proxy for other folks’ cooperativeness, thus conditions of inequality can degrade cooperation and efforts to redress inequalities can restore it.

If I weren’t a business school professor… I would be a plumber—that line of work requires intensive thinking about how complex systems function, it serves a vital purpose, and it always will be in demand. An intellectually engaging, meaningful, and stable career is a winner in my book and I think plumbing is that type of a career.

What do you think makes you stand out as a professor? I truly have no idea!

One word that describes my first time teaching: Fun!

Here’s what I wish someone would’ve told me about being a business school professor: Make sure to step back and enjoy your work every day. The key landmarks facing professors (for example, getting tenure, rising in rank, and so forth) lift one’s eyes toward the distant horizon at the expense of seeing the good things in near view. Keeping sight of both is possible and good professors do so.

Professor I most admire and why: The late Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom. Professor Ostrom showed how multi-method, interdisciplinary research can answer theoretically interesting academic questions while simultaneously guiding practice and public policy.


What do you enjoy most about teaching business students?

Students who pursue degrees in management are generally very practical in how they approach their education and that disposition makes them more interested in learning deeply. They recognize that folks cannot achieve their goals, or even pursue those goals, without the knowledge and skills to do so. Accordingly, they work hard to gain knowledge and refine their skills because they understand the very high stakes associated with learning.

What is most challenging?

Making sure students don’t feel apprehensive about mathematical or quantitative course content. I find that people, in general, have grown more intimidated by mathematics and arithmetic in recent years, even though the data revolution of the past decade has made quantitative information more important in our daily lives. Teaching students to embrace numbers and mathematics has grown more challenging.

In one word, describe your favorite type of student: Present

In one word, describe your least favorite type of student: Absent

When it comes to grading, I think students would describe me as… someone who makes the most out of the “Comments” function in Microsoft Word! I view every paper that a student submits as a forum for further discussion. I enjoy filling the margin of student’s documents with questions, rebuttals, recommendations for further reading, and, of course, enthusiasm for points that students make well.


What are your hobbies?

Swimming, hiking, and camping with my daughters and partner, as well as reading, working on projects in the garage, enjoying the culinary scene of my hometown, Portland, Oregon, and drinking espresso with friends in Portland’s coffee shops.

How will you spend your summer?

Conducting research, teaching, and palling around with my family and friends.

Favorite place(s) to vacation: Berlin, Germany; I worked there for a couple of years and it remains a home away from home.

Favorite book(s): Fiction: Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko; Song of Solomon by Tony Morrison; Ubik by Philip K. Dick; William Faulkner’s short stories; Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow; The Good Soldier Švejk by Jaroslav Hašek; and many others! Nonfiction: anything by Mary Roach; Our Mathematical Universe by Max Tegmark; Silent Spring by Rachel Carson; Beyond Infinity by Eugenia Cheng; Nonzero by Robert Wright; Turing’s Cathedral by George Dyson

What is currently your favorite movie and/or show and what is it about the film or program that you enjoy so much?

For some reason, I have a hard time focusing on TV shows, but I love seeing movies in the theater and my favorite films consist of almost anything directed by Wes Anderson, Kathryn Bigelow, Sofia Coppola, Christopher Guest, Werner Herzog, Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick, or Wong Kar-Wai. Filmmakers who possess a distinctive style and a common set of themes across their movies always catch my attention.

What is your favorite type of music or artist(s) and why? Pretty much anything that plays on my favorite FM radio stations: 90.7FM KBOO community radio (Portland, OR), 107.1FM KXRY (Portland, OR), or 89.9FM KQAC (Portland, OR). I love it when folks with great taste in music curate my playlists and introduce me to sounds that I never would have encountered on my own. Thus, “old school” radio stations with real, live DJs still are my favorite source of tunes and I listen to them more often than the algorithms of digital streaming services.


If I had my way, the business school of the future would have much more of this… discussion of social science research that does not have an obvious or currently recognized practical application. Supplying students with actionable knowledge and skills is a primary function of management schools, but teaching students about research findings that are well established but of unknown applied value might plant ideas that students can cultivate and grow over the course of their careers.

In my opinion, companies and organizations today need to do a better job at… respecting the privacy of their employees and customers. The temptation to capitalize on every piece of data that can be collected actively or passively ought to be weighed against the risks of creating an environment in which individuals’ daily lives are thoroughly recorded and scrutinized. I’m the last person to be able to offer insight on what the right balance looks like, but I would like to see more organizations thinking about that topic.

I’m grateful for… my family and friends—I feel so lucky to be surrounded by people who are caring and supportive.

Faculty, students, alumni, and/or administrators say: 

“Tim has really perfected the art of making lectures feel like a story.  He will start most classes with real-world examples of the concept he is discussing and draw students through the process of figuring out for themselves why the information they are learning is important and interesting. A class with Tim Johnson seems to fly by and you don’t even realize how much you are learning because of how his natural gift for storytelling keeps you invested in what you are going to learn next.”

“Tim has really sacrificed to help the school run over the past few years.  Tim was asked to be associate dean, almost single-handedly lead us through an accreditation cycle, and still managed to publish at a pace of 4 articles per year, often in excellent outlets.”

“I’m consistently impressed with Tim’s list of co-authors.  He is very widely known for two streams of research: Understanding egalitarian motives, and analysis of the Vietnam war draft lotteries.  The egalitarian motives research tries to understand why people will act to punish people that they perceive as having an unfair advantage and proposes that one determinant of this behavior is “egalitarian motives” – the desire for things to be equal.  This work has inspired hundreds of studies that seek to better understand this dynamic.   Tim’s work on the Vietnam war draft lotteries is wide-ranging, including using the lotteries as a natural experiment to understand the reasons that people join the civil service, the quality of the work done in the federal government, and even most recently deaths of despair.”

“I think that Tim wants his students to understand all of the ways that the public sector interacts with and impacts their lives.  He also seems to be really interested in getting students to think about the world like a researcher.”

“Tim is known for answering students’ emails in lightning speed.”


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