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Interview: Air Force Academy superintendent sounds off on cadet life, CIs, religious tolerance and more

Aug. 3, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
basic cadet training MWM 20140721
Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson, superintendent of the Air Force Academy, greets staff before the new class of basic cadets marched out to Jacks Valley for training on July 21. (Mike Morones/Staff)
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COLORADO SPRINGS, COLO. — In her first year as superintendent, Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson has steered the Air Force Academy through a government shutdown that grounded flying operations and suspended some classes, a budget crunch, and a scandal that exposed the Air Force Office of Special Investigations’ controversial use of cadets as confidential informants who spied on their fellow classmates.

But as the academy absorbed the blow of the upcoming tight fiscal 2015 budget, which forced it to announce plans in March to cut 10 academic majors and 99 staff positions, Johnson used the opportunity to try to refocus the school on its core mission.

“We said, ‘OK, let’s pull together’ and ... did a little soul searching and said, ‘What are our enduring values?’ ” Johnson said in a July 21 interview in her campus office.

The result was the so-called “Essence of the Academy” — an eight-point list of its most crucial missions, including developing character and leadership; focusing on the Air Force’s mission in air, space and cyberspace; immersing cadets in a total experience; teaching both STEM, or science, technology, engineering and mathematics, courses alongside liberal arts courses; fostering competition through athletics and other programs; and exposing cadets to the professional Air Force culture. Focusing on those essential duties helped Johnson fight off more draconian cuts to the academy.

“The air staff basically said yes, that’s what we want you to do, and we’ll help you sort out the budget,” said Johnson, who became the academy’s first female superintendent Aug. 12, 2013. “I got this incredible support from the leadership to stabilize our program by focusing on those core competencies.”

And as Johnson manages the bureaucratic side of the academy, she’s also trying to make sure cadets have opportunities to ease out of the cloistered academy environment and make more decisions for themselves. Last year, for example, the academy changed the pass policy for seniors and, for the first time, no longer required them to check in at night. As long as they show up wherever they’re needed in the morning, don’t break rules, and don’t maintain an illegal residence, Johnson said, cadets can pull an all-nighter if, for example, they need to cram for a project.

Over the next few years, Johnson said she wants the academy “to be more bold” and give cadets more choices about how to use their time. Giving cadets more responsibility will help them mature and grow into stronger officers once they graduate, she said — but that means risking the chance that some cadets might make mistakes.

“We want to set them up to succeed, but have them make choices, rather than have us overmanage them,” Johnson said. She spoke to Air Force Times after seeing the basic cadets of the Class of 2018 off to the second phase of their basic cadet training.

Following are edited excerpts of the interview:

Q. Can you talk more about wanting to give cadets more opportunities over the next few years? In what ways?

A. We’re doing a time study right now to see how we work it. You’ve probably seen how tightly scheduled cadets are. We’d like to find a way to look at time differently, than just trying to crunch every minute of every day. This model from the 18th or 19th century of cloistering people needs to adapt to the 21st century, where they’re already connected to social media and other ways of communicating, and how can we help them develop their maturity more and more? So that will be more of a natural process, to walk out the door and feel like their maturity is ready to go, that we’ve let them practice making some of those decisions in their own lives.

The Air Force wants leaders that are innovative and inclusive and have character. And that’s where we come in. One thing that’s going to help us a lot is this Center for Character and Leadership Development. We’ll cut the ribbon on it about a year from now, and it has an internal role, because it has the honor courts and the offices that go along with, internally, how do we update our officer development system to bring in that maturity and responsibility?

I’ve been quoting Thomas Paine a lot to my staff — “What we obtain too cheaply, we esteem too lightly.” It’s the dearness that gives everything its value. If you own it, you’re going to make the decisions, then you can celebrate your good decisions, and learn from the not-so-good decisions. And then we as a cadre need to be there to be good flight instructors — let them go until they “crash” and say, “Whoa, let’s think about that.” They’ll have scraped their knees, maybe, but they’ll do that here, and then when they go out [will have learned].

Q. How do you see allowing the cadets more freedom working?

A. What we’d like to have a byproduct of that be is, a culture of commitment, a climate of respect, to say that when you own something, you want to hold your counterparts accountable. When you’re flying, or jumping out of a plane, that’s life or death stuff. So the stakes are pretty high, and holding each other accountable by saying, “Hey, your strap’s not tight enough, or you’re not set,” that’s one thing. Telling somebody their uniform doesn’t look right or their behavior isn’t what we expect, that takes a different kind of moral courage. So what we’re looking for is the sense of accountability here, where cadets will hold each other accountable. We’re better than that, this is what we do.

And that will apply on sexual assault, and the climate of respect will apply to diversity, religious expression, the way people behave sexually, and responsibility. I think that where we start seeing it — and it’s hard to measure this stuff — is when you see people, bystanders intervene before something goes wrong, whether it’s, you name it, drinking or too much of a good thing or not signing in some place you’re supposed to be. Accountability, I think, is going to be what we’re looking for as a byproduct.

We want to have different privileges for each class. The firsties, the seniors, already have this, and they know that if they don’t respect it, and aren’t accountable, it might make it difficult for us to sustain. But we have to be brave enough to let them make some mistakes, but by the same token, hold them accountable all the time. And when I talk to cadets, they say, “We know this matters, we’ve earned this, we want to hang on to it.”

Q. The Air Force is changing in many ways. How do you see the academy’s mission changing along with it?

A. Our five basic missions of the Air Force haven’t changed, but how we deliver them changed. Air superiority, space superiority, [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance], command and control, [global strike and rapid global mobility]. But for us, how we deliver them is different. We’ve got a new major in cyberspace ops, we have an RPA [remotely piloted aircraft] program that had the genesis in the faculty. And that’s modern warfare, and air power, and so we’re institutionalizing that and then actually using those guys to figure out how to help with the survival training. We want these airmen to be ready for the asymmetric, unpredictable warfare that’s going to face us over the next decades and expose it to them here.

Q. What’s the status of the controversial confidential informant program? After the issue broke you said that you planned to personally oversee any use of informants and you intended to eliminate the need for cadet CIs over the long term. Are they still being used and when might they be eliminated?

A. We had an executive review of our disenrollment process and one of the things we learned from that is we could do better at helping indoctrinate new OSI agents [to] understand cadet life and the rhythms of life and the missions and how [cadet life] works. But I would say it’s a standing program that OSI owns.

We don’t have any [confidential informant programs] going now with cadets. If we did, it would be under very strict oversight on my part. OSI is about law enforcement, they’re here to help the Air Force. So they have these techniques that commanders, including myself, need to have great oversight over. We aren’t running any now, and if we had to it would be because there was a crime. And as you noted, what I would like to get at is the crime part and not have bad [things] happen. That’s what I’d like to eliminate.

Q. The issue of religious tolerance has been a hot one at the academy in recent years. Do you feel there is now an accepting environment in the academy as far as tolerating people of different faiths or of no faith, or are you concerned about inappropriate proselytization on campus?

A. I feel good about where we are. Again, this is another area where we can never be finished, because people come in every year with different outlooks across the country, and we want them to understand that climate of respect for each other. Not tolerance, but respect. What we’d like to have is people feel so comfortable with each other that if they do have a concern they’ll raise it through the chain of command or to the [inspector general] and we can talk about it.

The feedback I get is that people feel very comfortable. It’s always a balancing act because we’re balancing the freedoms of the Constitution, and balancing freedom of expression with freedom from establishment [of religion] and we do that balancing act every day. And I think in a very fair way. But obviously our local issues become very national issues very quickly, and all we can commit to do is do the right thing every day and be respectful of each other.

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