Sylvester Johnson named associate vice provost for public interest technology
Sylvester Johnson, assistant vice provost for the humanities and founding director of the Virginia Tech Center for Humanities, has been promoted to associate vice provost for public interest technology. In his new role, Johnson will build and activate consensus across disciplines and colleges for research, teaching, and public engagement to develop and enhance Virginia Tech’s impact as a national leader in public interest technology.
Public interest technology is a burgeoning, nondisciplinary field of teaching, research, and practice as evidenced by the approximately 50 colleges and universities affiliated with the Public Interest Technology University Network. Member institutions are also advancing public interest technology through affiliation with the New America think tank and the emergence of strategic funding from the Ford Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation, Mastercard Impact Fund, The Raikes Foundation, Schmidt Futures and The Siegel Family Endowment.
“I am honored and excited to help advance Virginia Tech’s comprehensive mission through this new role,” said Johnson. “Our ability to solve technical challenges has been astounding — a result of tremendous investment and focus over decades. Our society is now challenged to create new methods and greater collaboration for democracy, social justice, and sustainability to guide the technological future of humanity. It speaks volumes that Virginia Tech is answering the call by structuring an associate vice provost role to advance public interest and civic good within the context of technology innovation.”
As associate vice provost for public interest technology, Johnson will work across the institution to support enhanced participation of Virginia Tech stakeholders to help lead the future of democracy, social justice, and equitable outcomes for an innovation-driven world. He will lead strategies and support efforts to deepen Virginia Tech’s engagement with policy, human rights, and civil liberties organizations to interpret and nurture Virginia Tech’s collaborative role with external institutions for ensuring the ethical governance of technology.
One of Johnson’s first activities in this new role is organizing and hosting the inaugural Tech for Humanity summit which will take place June 29 at the Virginia Tech Research Center — Arlington. This one-day national summit will seek to elevate the visibility of the humanistic, human-centered work being advanced by the Tech for Humanity initiative; convene national and global leaders in social justice, democratic governance, technology ethics/policy and innovation; and leverage strategic challenges for human-centered leadership to shape the ethical future of technology governance.
“Our Tech for Humanity summit will convene national and global stakeholders committed to ensuring that civic interest and public benefit guide the ethical future of technology,” Johnson said. “It will expand Virginia Tech’s engagement with private and public institutions such as technology companies, federal agencies, and human rights organizations as we work together to ensure we continue to have democratic institutions and a more equitable world not in spite of but partly because of the choices we make as a technological society.”
Johnson, who came to Virginia Tech in 2017, is a nationally recognized humanities scholar specializing in the study of technology, race, religion, and national security. His award-winning scholarship has produced new approaches to understanding the human condition and social institutions of power in an age of intelligent machines and other forms of technology innovation.
“Sylvester is an internationally recognized scholar who specializes in studying technology though a humanities lens,” said Ron Fricker, vice provost for faculty affairs. “In this new role and via his expertise in public interest technology, Sylvester will position Virginia Tech to lead at the human frontier of technology. I look forward to continuing to work closely with him to build and activate consensus across Virginia Tech for advancing research, teaching, and public engagement in public interest technology."
Prior to arriving at Virginia Tech, Johnson led a 20-member team of humanists and technologists at Northwestern University to develop a successful proof-of-concept for a machine learning system that could assist in scholarly research of an early English corpus using named-entity recognition and topic-modeling. As director of the Center for Humanities, housed in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, Johnson oversees programs that support individual faculty fellowships, departmental grants, and speakers, events, and colloquia in the humanities. He will also lead the college’s participation in several new digital publishing and digital humanities initiatives both within the university and nationally.
“Sylvester Johnson is a true visionary with breathtaking intellectual scope and boundless energy,” said Laura Belmonte, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. “It is my aim to make Virginia Tech as renowned for the humanities as it is for STEM, and I cannot imagine achieving that goal without Sylvester’s extraordinary leadership.”
Johnson is a founding co-editor of the Journal of Africana Religions. He has authored two books: “African American Religions, 1500–2000: Colonialism, Democracy, and Freedom,” published by Cambridge University Press in 2015 and a winner of the Choice Outstanding Academic Title Award, and “The Myth of Ham in Nineteenth-Century American Christianity: Race, Heathens, and the People of God,” a 2004 Palgrave MacMillan publication that garnered the American Academy of Religion’s Best First Book Award.
Johnson holds a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in contemporary religious thought from the Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where he also earned a master’s degree in systematic theology. He earned his bachelor’s degree in chemistry and education at Florida A&M University.