Superintendent addresses upper-class cadets as academic year starts

U.S. Air Force Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle D. Johnson speaks to Academy Airmen at a Superintendent's Call Jan. 7 at the Arnold Hall Theatre. At the event, the general spoke on how the Academy can maintain it's leading edge in an era of fiscal constraints and other challenges./U.S. Air Force photo by Elizabeth Copan

Lt. Gen. Michelle D. Johnson spoke with cadets in the Classes of 2015 and 2016 during a superintendent's call Aug. 4, 2014. She's seen here addressing the Academy's staff during a superintendent's call Jan. 7. Johnson, the Academy's superintendent, serves as the institution's commander and university president. (U.S. Air Force photo/Elizabeth Copan)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Air Force Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle D. Johnson met with cadets in the classes of 2015 and 2016, Aug. 4, to welcome them back to the Academy and to discuss how the Academy's leaders intend to make the Academy experience more meaningful in the coming academic years.

"You guys are the officers and senior NCOs of the cadet wing," Johnson said, referring to the roles assigned to cadets in their senior and junior years, respectively. "We're going to do this together, and it's going to be a great year."

Johnson said the Class of 2018, which the upper-class cadets would lead into the coming year, is ready to be challenged. The class size on inprocessing day was 1,206, out of over 9,000 applicants. The average basic cadet's GPA was 3.85, and about one in five had 4.0 GPAs.

"They're fired up," she said. "You're going to be the ones who will help lead them forward."

Johnson also told the cadets that they will be given more freedom but will also be held more accountable.

"If we overmanage and overschedule you to the point where you can't exercise your judgment," she said, "how can we expect you to walk out the door and be ready to go? You've got to own (your schedule), and we'll hold you accountable to do the right thing. We want you to feel like you're ready to go when you walk out the door."

Johnson said that after spending the last year focusing on the essence of the Academy -- the core aspects of its mission -- leaders will spend this academic year focusing on how the Academy conducts its mission.

"We should deliver our mission in a way that makes this place more meaningful for you and more meaningful for the Air Force," she said. "This is what Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh III asked me to do about two years ago. He said, 'When you come out here, start with a clean sheet and ask yourself, if you had to start a new academy now, what would you do?'"

One step in that process includes making the Center for Character and Leadership Development available as a resource, not just for the Academy, but for the broader Air Force and the nation, Johnson said. Another includes giving cadets a sense of ownership and responsibility toward the Academy.

"If you've got skin in the game, and you own it, it means something to you," she said. "If you don't feel like you own it, it's hard to feel like you're a part of it."

The Academy's already taken some steps. The Academy is incorporating relevant leadership: more responsibility coupled with more accountability, and reinvigorating a four-class system that translates leadership theory into practice.

"The idea that doolies (freshmen) eat first is a big deal," Johnson said. "We want you to be able to take care of people and at the same time challenge them."

In addition, the Dean of Faculty mission element will review the core curriculum to make sure the classes cadets take here are relevant to the Air Force that awaits them.

"When one of you is standing up here on stage, will you be prepared for the war you're going to fight?" she said. "I graduated during the Cold War ... is that relevant now? In some ways, it's not."

Other programs the Academy's examining include the former "stop-out" program, which allowed cadets in good standing to take a year to improve academically or get more experience in a field of interest.

"They would always come back with a lot more responsibility, commitment and maturity because of the experience," she said.

These initiatives and others all aim to help cadets grow, and the Academy's leaders are open to other suggestions, Johnson said.

"What if we switch classes so you watch a lecture on your computer at night and then go do the homework in class?" she offered. "What if we do something with other colleges? How can we make this the most meaningful, challenging, rewarding thing for you so that when you walk out the door, you feel confident and ready to go?"

The general introduced a commander's intent to the cadets. Top on her list for the 2014-2015 academic year was reinforcing a culture of commitment and climate of respect.

"This is the standard to which we hold each other," she said. "We're an elite team, and we're going to get it right. That's on you now. It's on the permanent party as well: We have to get it right for you. But that commitment to the values of our Air Force and a climate of respect, that's everywhere: That's on the Terrazzo; that's in the dorm rooms."

Cadets must hold themselves to a high standard because the entire country holds them -- and this institution -- to a high standard, Johnson said. She summarized an article in the Colorado Springs Gazette Aug. 3 that detailed the fallout from a party in December 2011.

More than 30 cadets were investigated following the party. The investigations resulted in three court-martial convictions, five cases of non-judicial punishment and dismissal from the Academy, six resignations in lieu of punishment, three discharges for behavior unrelated to the original investigation and five cases handled through the cadet disciplinary system.

Johnson discussed how situations like this, even three years later, can damage the Academy's reputation.

"This hurts our institution," she said. "This is where the commitment to something higher can help your friends from crossing a line that they can't get back from. Read the article, see what you can learn from it."

Johnson said the Academy would continue to move forward from the incident and praised the Athletic Department for the recent changes they've made.

"They're really responding," she said. "I think they're doing some good things."

The Athletic Department invited Dr. Jackson Katz to bring his Mentors in Violence Prevention program to the Academy. Cadet athletes produced and starred in a video, titled "Cadet Athletes Against Sexual Violence," pledging to create a culture free of sexual assault.

Chief Master Sgt. Maxwell Grindstaff, the Academy's command chief, also briefly addressed the cadets.

"We are turning out some incredible leaders," he said. "It's really eye-opening for me to see what you all go through out here.

"The sons and daughters of America need good leadership," Grindstaff said. "I have two sons-in-law: One's a Marine, and one's an Airman. In a year or two, you will be leading them ... you're going to do fantastic taking care of them."

Grindstaff told the cadets the Air Force needs their leadership, and so does the Air Force's Academy.

"You're going to be faced with a lot of challenges this last couple of years here," he said. "It all comes down to what the boss says, that higher calling: Why are you here? Be a good person, be a good teammate ... take care of your teammates."

Those leaders need to be ready to lead the day they graduate, the chief said.

"You need to be ready to roll on Day one," he said. "Pick the brains of your air officers commanding and your Academy military trainers. Watch leadership in action, and you'll do fine: When you get out of here next year or the year after, you'll be squared away."

Johnson concluded the superintendent's call by emphasizing her pride in the cadets, and she gave them a humorous sendoff.

"I know the hard work that goes into everything you do," she said. "Have a great year, and get a haircut."