Air Force Superintendent Makes History, Leads Change

By John Sowell
The Idaho Statesman.

When Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson took over as superintendent of the Air Force Academy in August 2013, the school in Colorado Springs, Colo., was reeling.

Several football players had been accused of sexual assaults after allegedly administering date-rape drugs to women attending a party. Other cadets had cheated in class, abused illegal drugs and committed other serious violations of the academy’s honor code.

Johnson, a 1981 academy graduate who came to Colorado Springs the second year after women were admitted to the school, immediately set a new tone. She told the school’s 4,000 cadets that they were expected to abide by the honor code and that she would also hold professors and coaches responsible for enforcing academy standards.

Only a small number of cadets got into trouble before Johnson arrived, but their actions cast the academy in a negative light, she said.

More than a dozen problem cadets have left the academy in the past three years, the Colorado Springs Gazette reported.

Since Johnson took over as superintendent — the same as a university president but with added military responsibilities — the school has instituted new recruiting standards for athletes and coaches have been told to keep a closer watch in the locker room, the Gazette reported.

“We need to conduct the right discipline, and if they don’t meet our standards, (we need) to have them not stay and not become an officer in the Air Force, because the American people want us to produce these leaders of character who will make these tough and correct decisions that affect people’s lives,” Johnson told the Idaho Statesman before the start of Saturday’s Famous Idaho Potato Bowl in Boise. “I want to celebrate the good ones but also get even better.”

Air Force won Saturday’s game, defeating Western Michigan 38-24.

Tony Pierce of Athens, Ga., whose son, Jordan, played linebacker in the Potato Bowl victory, said he spoke with Johnson before a game earlier this season and liked what she said.

“She was talking about cleaning things up. She’s getting the message out among the cadets and their parents,” said Pierce, whose older son, Christian, graduated from West Point, and whose daughter, Allana, is a freshman at the University of Georgia.

Johnson grew up in northern Iowa and graduated from the academy with a bachelor’s degree in operations research. She later attended Oxford University in England as a Rhodes Scholar, the academy’s 22nd.

Johnson, who has more than 3,600 flight hours as a pilot, was a political science professor and flight instructor at the academy from 1989 to 1992.

She was promoted to brigadier general in 2007, to major general in ’10 and to lieutenant general last year.

About 1,000 cadets play on the academy’s 27 NCAA Division I sports teams. Every other cadet competes in other team sports, such as cycling or skiing, or plays on an intramural team, something Johnson likes.

“You need a whole person to go out and be this leader of character in whatever role the Air Force needs and in the country later,” she said.

She played basketball for the Falcons and still holds the record for the second-most points scored by a female player at the academy.

Admission to the Air Force is very competitive. Less than 10 percent of the more than 12,000 applicants each year are accepted.
Women make up about 23 percent of the student body, up from 12 percent when Johnson attended.

About 50 high school seniors from Idaho apply annually for admission to the Air Force Academy. Johnson, whose hometown in Iowa had only about 11,000 people, said she encourages students from rural areas to consider applying for a position, with tuition paid by the U.S. government.

“We have people from every walk of life, every social-economic situation, some people from comfort, some military, people who understand the system, and some come from pretty hardscrabble experiences and show amazing grit, and just by their grit they make it,” Johnson said.

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