Justin Johnson was raised a Spartan.
As a child, he lived at Cherry Lane/Faculty Bricks, a now-demolished housing unit for married students, he said.
After graduating from MSU in 2001, teaching English in Japan and running his family-owned metal-stamping company, Jordan Manufacturing Company, for 11 years, Johnson has returned and wants to help fix the culture at his alma mater.
Johnson is running for a trustee position on the MSU Board of Trustees, for which elections will be held this November.
Though he is running as a Democrat, Johnson said he will court both Republicans and Democrats and try to appeal broadly to the community.
"Sparty before party," Johnson said.
Running for survivors
“I remember when Penn State happened, and my friends and I were like, 'If this happens at our school, I’ll be really mad,'” Johnson said.
As details of the sexual abuse from ex-MSU and USA Gymnastics Larry Nassar surfaced, Johnson and his friends, self-described die-hard Spartans, were at a point where they didn’t want to be involved with their school anymore, he said.
“When we got to the victim statements, those were really raw, really emotional, and I was like, ‘I’m going to be mad about this forever,’” Johnson said.
Though the actions by Nassar enraged him, being a Spartan was too big a part of his identity to abandon.
“I couldn’t shut that part of me out,” Johnson said. “So I was like, ‘Well, why don’t I run?’”
Logistically, Johnson said he has the financial security and free time to be able to handle the unpaid trustee position.
Motivationally, Johnson said he’s running because he loves his school and the MSU community owes the survivors.
"I use the word 'penance,’” Johnson said. “If I want to continue to be a Michigan State fan, I owe something to the victims of our administrative letdown … I feel like as a Spartan, just loving my school or the Spartan community as much as I have, I really have to do something to atone for that.”
Johnson said he will not seek endorsements of the survivors of Nassar's abuse, as they’ve already done more than enough for the university.
“The only way Michigan State wins is if we do right by the victims, so I am explicitly running, I don’t want to say on their behalf, they don’t need to me to speak for them, they’ve already spoken up with more bravery and more eloquence than I can possibly muster,” Johnson said. "They've done the hard work, they've cracked the nut, ripped the bandage off, whatever metaphor you want to use. They’ve stood up and announced to the world that there’s a problem going on. Because they’ve done that, I want to help fix it.”
Johnson’s main campaign promise is the creation of a “Trustee Justice Committee” to directly involve the board in the oversight of MSU’s compliance at the local, state and federal level.
“The Justice Committee gives the board a direct link between what’s going on on the campus, because one of the things I would ask any member of the board is, ‘How often do you attend university events that aren’t athletics?’” Johnson said. “‘How often do you go to a sexual assault training session and see what’s happening?’”
Of five committees on the board, four involve finances and one involves academics, Johnson said. None are concerned with the welfare of students, he said.
“It doesn’t even enter into the board’s consciousness that this is a problem,” Johnson said.
Johnson said he hopes creating such a committee would signal to students that safety and justice will become a part of MSU’s culture.
“If you’re in manufacturing, quality is not a project, quality is a process, quality is endemic to your company, which means that it’s part of everything that you do,” Johnson said. "Safety is not endemic to the board’s culture here at Michigan State.”
Working with the board
Johnson has been vocally critical of the Board of Trustees, both in person and on Twitter. Among other grievances aired, Johnson has amplified calls for Trustee Dan Kelly’s resignation and blasted the board for weak oversight at a recent board meeting.
"The position of trustee is that of a public servant," Johnson said in a previous State News article. "You sought this responsibility. ... It appears the board hid behind President Simon. They are hiding behind President Engler. And I’m afraid that they will hide behind the next president ... and this kind of tragedy will happen again."
As he seeks to join them, Johnson said he can have a working relationship with the trustees in spite of his criticisms.
“(Am I) going to go golfing with some of them? Probably not. Am I going to try to temper my criticisms? I'll try to be less snarky on Twitter,” Johnson said.
What Johnson has had to say carries far less weight than the opinions of survivors, he said.
"I'm trying not to be too vocal right now, but if people can't take criticism ... they're in the wrong business,” Johnson said. "I'll temper my criticisms, but people are fair game, this is public service, you are open to criticism if you don’t do your job."
If elected, Johnson said he will try to get along with the trustees he’s publicly blasted. However, he won’t sacrifice the good of the Spartan community for the sake of amity, he said.
"I'd rather do right by the victims,” Johnson said.