February 05, 2014 News » Cover Story

Yes, Ma'am 

First female academy superintendent has her hands full in a fishbowl

City for Champions is among several topics that recently have thrust the Air Force Academy and its superintendent, Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson, into the spotlight. So it was on the agenda when Johnson sat down with the Independent in late January for an hour-long interview in her office overlooking the academy's terrazzo.

The precise location of a new academy visitors center and how it will be funded are under review by the Air Force as part of a "business case analysis" that Johnson herself ordered.

The center, made part of City for Champions under previous Superintendent Mike Gould, is to receive $13 million in state sales tax rebates under the state's Regional Tourism Act program. But the project's cost as stated in the city's application is $20.5 million — and Johnson says the extra $7.5 million won't come from her military budget, which she expects will decline in coming years.

"As we set our priorities, we'll probably have to look at private funding, and it would have to be probably pretty modest," she says.

The city's plan calls for the visitors center to sit adjacent to Falcon Stadium on the campus's east side, west of Interstate 25. An Air Force Financial Management Center of Expertise preliminary report, due in mid-February, will look at five specific sites and assess "the existing facility and several other sites around the installation to determine which location best meets our need to improve visitor access while controlling operating costs," as the academy puts it in a statement.

Johnson emphasizes that although she drove snowy roads to Denver on Dec. 4 to speak in uniform at the Economic Development Commission hearing on City for Champions "to be a good community partner," as a federal officer, she's barred from endorsing state government activities.

So it's not surprising she envisions the visitors center as a joint project of shared space with the community's tourism efforts.

"We're at the north end of the community, right?" she says. "So if we can be a gateway in that sense, that would be great, just to show we're community partners."

She adds, "We have bounds on what we can do. I want to take a businesslike approach to this and have a look. We have opportunities as our endowment grows, and as an institution we can balance those priorities with what the donors would be willing to look at.

"I will tell you in terms of stewardship of our facilities, obviously, it's 60 years old. Even our shiny aluminum buildings are aging, so we look at our priorities as we go through and that's why I want to look at [a new visitors center] quantifiably."

'But Dad, you said we could do anything'

Because Johnson is the academy's first female commander, you feel compelled to start by asking how she got to where she is today.

Shooting baskets is one answer.

Her parents farmed during the Great Depression, but sold their land in the 1960s, and her father took a job managing Farm Service Stores in Elburn, Ill. The youngest of three — her brother and sister are 12 and eight years older, respectively — Johnson showed a bent for athletics, so the family moved to Spencer, Iowa, with a population of 12,000.

"My dad, we didn't have a lot, but he took a flyer, basically, so we could live there and I could go to school there," she says, "because they knew the quality of the schools and the opportunities in sports."

Her high school track coach, Dick Lineweaver, recalls Johnson as a stellar student and athlete. "She was an outstanding hurdler," Lineweaver tells the Indy. "She was a great leader. Anything you'd ask her to do, she would do and a little extra. She was the first one to the track and the last one to leave."

A four-woman hurdling relay team for which Johnson led off set state records for four consecutive years, a stretch unequaled since, he says. Also a basketball standout, Johnson helped her team to the regional finals one year.

The family ran a hamburger restaurant, The Zesto, and lived above it. Johnson shot baskets in the parking lot when she wasn't cleaning the grill or driving to the next town to pick up hamburger patties.

She found out about the academy from a liaison officer who spoke during career day, as the story's told by her hometown newspaper, the Spencer Daily Reporter. The idea of getting a world-class education while also playing sports appealed to her.

At the academy, Johnson — who entered one year after women were first admitted — distinguished herself, becoming cadet wing commander as a senior. She's still the second all-time leading scorer for Air Force women's basketball and was named an Academic All-American. She also was a Rhodes Scholar.

Johnson was inspired by her Air Officer Commanding, an Army helicopter pilot, who drilled into her, "You are a warrior. You should fly," she recalls.

When she got her wings two years after graduation, her father wept.

"I said, 'Dad, you're crying. What's wrong?'" she says.

"He said, 'I could never imagine my daughter being a pilot.'

"I said, 'But Dad, you said we could do anything.'"

Since then, Johnson has earned two master's degrees, served three fellowships, taught at the academy, logged more than 3,600 flight hours, directed public affairs for the Air Force Secretary, led the Transportation Command and served as deputy chief of staff for operations and intelligence at NATO.

Along the way, she married a career Air Force officer, now retired, and had twin boys, now in fifth grade.

Preppies, CIs and LGBQ

On a snowy day in January, Johnson warmly invites us into her spacious office. Unlike some previous superintendents who cocooned themselves amid personnel during interviews, she has only one public affairs official and her executive aide on hand — across the room.

The Indy's Q&A comes roughly six months after her arrival. Blue eyes flashing with energy, she waves her hands as she talks but maintains her posture, rigid as a tail fin, as she perches on the edge of her chair.

Are there any plans to downsize the Preparatory School admission rate to match the downsizing that's taken place for direct admits to the wing? What does a smaller, leaner academy look like?

This is a historic time in [the Department of Defense], so the Air Force faces budget challenges. The sequester has us looking at worst-case budget scenarios.

When I got here, I said, "Look, what are we cutting to? What is the essence of the academy? What does the Air Force expect of us?" So we came up with the ... characteristics that we looked at: character and leadership development; harmonizing STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] with the liberal education for well-rounded leaders; competition, which can be intercollegiate, intramural or club; the four-year immersion; the experience every day of responsibility.

As we said to the chief of staff, we think these are the important things. As we make our cuts to be good stewards, we want to make sure there are some things we preserve, and the air staff supports that. So even while permanent party [staff] might be trimmed down ... we have not been asked to reduce the size of the wing any more. So in 2010, the [Air Force] secretary directed that we have the cadet wing be at 4,000. ...

I'm new, so I'm trying to ask good questions. When you do a turnover, the first thing you ought to do is ask probing questions and have a fresh look. We have a group looking at the prep school now to say, how can we sustain this shoestring operation? ...

We share the dorms with the base enlisted [personnel]. They use the base gym. Their budget is around $300,000. It's about as lean as it can be, to the point I thought, how sustainable is this with a skeleton staff? ...

We've actually looked at the entry requirements academically and raised them. We've set the academic composite score [for entry] at 2,300. [Formerly it was 2,200.] If we can raise them up ... when they leave [prep school], they have a better opportunity to succeed here.

But there's this other thing that's hard to quantify. Is it grit? And that's what we try to quantify as well.

We're looking at the prep school very closely. Under Col. [Kabrena] Rodda's leadership, their performance down there has been great this semester. It's been the best they've had. I think the leadership there is helping them.

But can you count on that leader always being there? A system dependent on one personality is a weak system.

So that's why we're looking at it in terms of process. The prep school advisory committee meets from across the academy: academics, athletics and military. They'll report out to me pretty soon to say how can we sustain this mission, do it effectively and efficiently during a budgetary time. Prior enlisted bring that maturity and experience. Just a maturity, the grit. We're chartered to accomplish that mission.

Sexual assaults continue here. Every superintendent for at least two decades has vowed to address this problem. What gives you hope that your initiatives will result in fewer or zero sexual assaults? Some people would say the honor code is a companion issue. We could also lump in with that the religion issue. It all comes together in terms of raising questions about the value system that's at work here.

I want to go back to [my wearing] two hats, a college president and a commander. When I talk to my peers, those at Colorado College, UCCS or Pikes Peak Community College ... we are all very concerned because of human nature and the age group that we all care very much about [and] how our students interact with each other. We happen to count things very transparently in the military ... and we look at the numbers, and our numbers include the spectrum of behaviors — everything from sexual harassment to actual violent assault. We don't want any of it.

What gives me hope and what is encouraging is the DoD's recent report. They spent three to four minutes of their 20-minute report basically praising Mrs. [Teresa] Beasley, our sexual assault and response coordinator. We have several programs, different offices across the academy, addressing diversity ... because it does all come together. It is about respect and commitment to our standards, and we're addressing it that way. ...

We want to work to improve our culture of commitment and our climate of respect. We need to optimize these different efforts better by aligning them under [the director of culture, climate and diversity, hired in January] to make sure we can maximize what we do and have sensors everywhere from the athletic department faculty across the military and on our air base wing — because I command the whole installation — and we want to make sure we take care of victims, that we work to prevent this. Because this is a long-term effort.

Culture change, if you look at the change management books, takes decades sometimes. I don't want it to, but we have to stay at it. What we're doing is doubling down now on this culture of commitment and climate of respect.

The commandant started talking to the cadet wing last year. Not just compliance, not to make transactional choices — I'll do this and not that, which isn't commitment — but to actually buy in to what we're doing and that allegiance to the nation first, the Air Force, the institution and each other. We want to be sure we get to the core of it in a way that I think is different, and that is to give the cadets more responsibility.

I'm quoting Thomas Paine a lot lately. In the article, "These are the times that try men's souls," the last part of that paragraph is: "What we [obtain] too [cheap], we esteem too lightly: It is dearness only that gives every thing its value."

Have we had the cadets own this? Or have we over-managed them, over-scheduled them? We're giving them more responsibility, and they're stepping up. ... It's starting to take, we think, and we'll have to watch and see. ...

You know, the nature of diversity here has expanded from the 1960s; the wave of diversity in the nation was different then. Now it's religion, it's sexual orientation, it's obviously race, creed, color, where you're from, the different values that they come in with from across the nation. We need to adapt more.

Not everyone is like me. My parents lived through the Depression on a farm in Iowa. The honor code was normal to me. That was standard operating procedures. We need to teach them and bring them along ...

The honor code is essential to what we do, but not just the code. It should be living honorably. So, recently, a researcher has put out an article about some studies of graduates and surveys and that sort of thing. ...

[Editor's note: Dr. Fred Malmstrom's analysis of cadet surveys spanning decades found a decline in adherence to the honor code. See "Cracks in the code," cover story, April 11, 2012.]

We listened to him. We don't agree with the link he's made with the CI [confidential informant] program. That's not the right logical link. We took Dr. Malmstrom's information and took it to heart and tried to incorporate it into the courses we have at the Center for Character and Leadership Development.

[Johnson provided results of a survey of academy grads from 1973 to 2008 in which more than 90 percent said they abided by the code, including the toleration clause. The response rate was 27 percent of 8,308 grads.]

It's not 100 percent, sadly.

What's your take on the Gazette's report that cadets were used as informants and then punished for misdeeds connected with that role?

I've talked to graduates who said they participated in the '70s all the way through. This is a longstanding law enforcement technique that [the Office of Special Investigations] had used.

In terms of what we're doing about it, we said, look, first of all, the story that went out was from one person's perspective. We're bound by the Privacy Act [of 1974] about where we can go with it. ...

The OSI program belongs to the Air Force Inspector General, who reports to the secretary, because that's on the civilian side. My chain of command goes to the chief of staff of the Air Force. So I asked the IG, please have a review of how the program was used. They're conducting that now. They did interviews last week. We should get their report out in the next few weeks. ... [Lt.] Gen. [Stephen] Mueller and I spoke last week when I was in Washington, and he assured me they will publicly release their results.

Now, from our perspective, we own the disenrollment process. Simultaneous to this particular case, we've been looking at refining our disenrollment process and improving it, we think. However, we think that standard practice for credibility and openness is to have other people be part of an executive review, which I've asked my team to do ... I just spoke to that team this week and we have the head of personnel from West Point, a JAG [Judge Advocate General] from Annapolis and a lawyer from the Holm Center at Maxwell Air Force Base. ... They're looking at our disenrollment process. Is it timely? Is it fair? Is it consistent?

So we'll report that out as we get that in the next few weeks.

[No CI program] is going on now with cadets.

Some cadets and staff are concerned there's an atmosphere in which cadets are expected to have their first allegiance to God, not country. How do you deal with that?

Because we're a college, we need to have open discourse, but we have to balance that with providing a successful climate. So what we have going in, it's really kicked in well, is this religious respect training, not just for cadets but for permanent party. That's really important, for permanent party to know the balance there. People are free to have their beliefs but not proselytize or impose them on someone else.

And we have the training to help people understand those bounds. People express their private opinions and that's fair, or if there's questioning in a place like this, we want people to have those rich conversations you have in an institution of higher education. The boundary is, and it's defined by Air Force regulation 1-1, is to not impose that on others or try to establish. Again, respecting our constitutional bounds, respecting freedom of expression but freedom from establishment — and that's a tension and balancing act in our country and here.

Also, we want to establish an ombudsman to be able to capture concerns people have. ... And if they're uncomfortable with the chain of command, talk to our inspector general. We welcome that.

One story is that a professor wrote a formula on a classroom blackboard that said, "One cross plus three nails equals 4-given." Was that investigated?

We couldn't find it. We really did ask. The dean went across the faculty. We have members of the faculty who are members of [the Military Religious Freedom Foundation], classmates of mine, and we said, "Who, what, where, when? Help us find it." We couldn't find it, so we couldn't act ...

[MRFF founder Mikey Weinstein admits the where, who and when of the blackboard incident were never reported. Although a cadet took a picture of the formula, it wasn't given to the academy. Complainants can't give specifics, he says, "because they know who you are, and they will destroy you."]

You are in a fishbowl. How does that impact how this institution functions and how you lead it?

We do need to see ourselves as others see us, because national issues do play out here. ...

I had a chance to get to know our LGBQ cadets and our alumni leadership in our Blue Alliance over the fall. We have up to 180 cadets in a group who are out and proud of being in the Air Force, proud of being at the academy; they're strong, confident leaders. I know that others aren't out. Frankly, we've had cadets who can't go home. They feel safe here, but not at home. The part we can control is our climate.

We think we can do a better job in following up with the repeal of "Don't Ask Don't Tell," and the conversations with cadets. We can do better and make sure people are sensitized. People come in from all across the country, every year, every class. They're not all in the same place about that aspect of diversity, and so that's important. But not just that.

It does touch on faith, belief systems, and people are growing up, and they're trying to sort out what their belief systems are, and they want to have those discussions in a respectful environment and understand each other in terms of sexuality. ...

How do we approach being in a fishbowl? Try to accept it. When you can communicate better, I think we can do a better job. I'm not a whiz at social media, but I know I need to routinely communicate with parents who are much more closely engaged. They're here a lot. They want to know everything. My parents dropped me off and made sure I lived through basic training and went home to Iowa — but now it's different.

How do you measure your performance? How do you know when you've been effective here?

What I've found leading big organizations is you can feel when that confidence and trust in people are working together, and we're all working toward the same aim. ... To use a basketball analogy, you can make the no-look passes. ...

I'd love to tell you about the things that are fantastic. Will Kent, who was the hammer thrower, was competing last year, and the measurement was 19 meters, 55 centimeters. That would have gotten him into the NCAA tournament. He went up and said, "I can't throw that far. That's not possible." Three times he went back and said, "That's a whole meter farther than my best." After the third time, he said, "It's only 18 and 55." He won the event but he lost the chance to go to the NCAA — but he did the right thing.

So we have so many stories of them doing the right thing that it's encouraging. It makes you feel like, in the main, we're doing well.


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