Dreaming of a future Academy 

City Sage

Back in the '90s, one sharp-tongued activist characterized our elected leaders as "the rocking-horse Council," going back and forth, quarreling interminably, and never getting anywhere.

This time around, some of our mayoral/City Council candidates have been neatly boxed in by Jeff Crank's "no new taxes" pledge. They've promised to refrain from actually, like, governing, instead implicitly embracing four overarching principles: No new taxes. No old taxes. Sell stuff (e.g., Memorial Health System). Cut expenses.

That's fine, I guess, unless we want a city that can meet the challenges of this century.

Look at our history. This city was built by men and women who weren't afraid. They embraced big ideas and big projects. They took big risks. Without such leaders, we'd be a little nothingburger of a town.

Risk-averse leaders couldn't have rebuilt after the 1935 flood, couldn't have created our transmountain water diversion systems, couldn't have attracted Fort Carson and the Air Force Academy, couldn't have built The Broadmoor, couldn't have created TOPS, couldn't have struck it rich in Cripple Creek.

Right now, the ground is shifting underneath our feet.

Here, 40 percent or more of the local economy is directly dependent on military spending. That spending, inflated by a decade of war, may not continue. Will we still be waging war in the Middle East in 2021? If not, will Americans support the same level of defense spending? And if they decline to do so, what will be the consequences for Colorado Springs?

Consider the Air Force Academy. Has it, like a shopping center on South Academy Boulevard, become functionally obsolescent?

The Cadet Wing will shrink by 10 percent in the next three years, to 4,000. As every military branch faces spending cuts, the argument could be made that the Air Force is growing increasingly irrelevant in an age of pilotless drones and asymmetrical warfare.

"We're just a bus company," one AFA graduate told me recently. "We just load soldiers and equipment on transport planes, and drop 'em off somewhere. Fighter pilots? No more."

The Academy will never close its doors — but it may have to change, expand its mission, re-imagine its role. It's more than a service academy. It's one of the country's finest colleges.

So let's make it one of the greatest universities in the world.

Consider America's great private universities: Yale, Harvard, MIT, Columbia, Princeton, Stanford. Many are geographically constricted, unlikely to grow or expand. Compare that to the Academy, whose superb physical plant could easily expand to house thousands more students.

Suppose that we marshaled the resources of foundations, private business, local government, state and federal governments to create a partnership between the Academy and one or more of the great universities? Call it Harvard West, attracting the best and brightest from all over the world.

Elite institutions such as Harvard have been reluctant to expand, arguing that doing so would dilute the quality of their educational product. Those doubts would vanish in the face of such an opportunity, which would greatly expand the power, reach and influence of universities that participate.

What's in it for us? Great universities create enduring prosperity. An institution focused on recruiting the best students in Asia, the Middle East, Africa and India would bring excitement, new ideas, companies, jobs, new ways of doing things. The Sergey Brins and Mark Zuckerbergs of the future might go to school here, stay here, build their companies here.

Can we do it? There are few practical objections, but no lack of political obstacles. Military traditionalists won't like it, as traditionalists of another era dismissed Gen. Billy Mitchell's outlandish ideas about air power. The Pentagon brass won't like it, deficit hawks in Congress won't like it, and would-be local leaders fearful of Jeff Crank might be afraid to get off the rocking horse.

Who's left? The gamblers and risk-takers, business owners who have met payrolls, kept afloat in good times and bad, and built our private sector. Some are even running for office. So, to you candidates ... how about it?

Remember, it's only a billion or so ... and no new taxes!


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