A graduate of Illinois Wesleyan and the University of Minnesota, Willis E. Johnson came to South Dakota State College from Northern Normal School at Aberdeen, SD. He was the first president to enjoy a formal inauguration. During his term, there were enormous problems with the college infrastructure and many financial difficulties resulting from World War I, but many of the changes he brought about are still felt today.
Johnson was in office when many extra-curricular activities began. During his term, many student organizations were formally recognized, and intercollegiate athletics became a regular part of college life. He succeeded in opening the student bookstore and placing the post office on campus. The Printing Department also began during his term. One of his most important contributions was the creation of five divisions of study, which were precursors of today's academic colleges. The Board of Regents recognized Johnson for these contributions when he was installed as the first President Emeritus in 1923.