AFA change of command sends fresh message

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Looking out at the crowd, and farther to the 4,000 cadets hoping for immediate inspiration from their new leader, Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson made a very public debut Monday morning as the Air Force Academy’s new superintendent.

It won’t be a surprise if Johnson makes her first noticeable — and lasting — impact on the academic side.

She had a tough act to follow. Actually two tough acts, because the change-of-command ceremony already had been filled with humor, eloquence and emotion. Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force’s chief of staff (and 1976 Academy graduate), struck the perfect balance of serious and lightness in encouraging the cadets as well as honoring his AFA classmate, Lt. Gen. Mike Gould, who was ending his four-year tenure as superintendent as well as retiring after 37 years as an Air Force officer. Gould, choked up with heavy feelings, turned his farewell speech into a grabber, paying tribute to his father, his wife and adult children, and to the AFA staff as well as the cadets.

Then came Johnson, trying to downplay becoming the Academy’s first female superintendent. (West Point and Annapolis, by the way, still haven’t broken that barrier, though the Coast Guard Academy did in 2010.)

Everybody wondered how Johnson would handle the moment, and how she might deal with the responsibility. She had to know that one of Gould’s top priorities, from the moment he took over in 2009, was developing closer ties with the business, civic and political leaders of Colorado Springs. And if there were a report card for superintendents, Gould would’ve earned an A-plus for community outreach.

Johnson took the microphone, and the former Rhodes Scholar, Cadet Wing commander and basketball star spent the next 10 minutes quickly and smoothly dissolving any concerns that anyone might have had. She talked about having worked extensively in joint commands and coalition environments, such as NATO and in Afghanistan, thus gaining a better grasp of other nations and their militaries. She talked about her respect for noncommissioned officers, the enlisted force and the value of pulling all of them together.

She did make it clear that “things will be different” from Gould’s regime, because “we’re different humans.” She didn’t go into detail, saying she would be “listening and learning” while avoiding any temptation to fall back on her memories as a cadet (1977-81) or a faculty member (1989-92). She realizes she’ll be dealing with ever-tightening budgets, yet she emphasizes that “we become stronger through adversity.”

From this view, it won’t be a surprise if Johnson makes her first noticeable impact on the academic side.

Given her array of military and educational experiences, at home and abroad as well as at the Pentagon, she surely brings new perspectives on how the Academy’s curriculum and research programs might be revamped (not just tweaked) to match up better with the Air Force’s needs. That’s especially needed in these more austere times.

And despite having been a trailblazing athlete herself, Johnson might not spend quite as much time as Gould (a former AFA football player and assistant coach) did with athletics. It’ll be interesting to see her philosophy and expectations on how the cadet-athletes balance their time between classwork and sports.

Johnson could face one local issue soon: Colorado Springs’ application to implement the state’s Regional Tourism Act, which includes seeking funds to help build a new AFA visitors center outside the Academy’s North Gate and adjacent to Interstate 25. Gould was a major supporter, but we don’t know yet whether Johnson will follow that lead or back off. Word has it that some AFA leaders advised Gould against the idea, preferring to save the potential capital for perhaps a different purpose.

It’s obvious Johnson will form her own opinions and has no fear of revising priorities — or staying the course.

She won’t be afraid of Colorado Springs, either. That was apparent on her first day, as Johnson and her husband John Hargreaves (a former Air Force pilot whose grandfather was part of the military selection team that, back in the 1950s, chose Colorado Springs as the site for the Academy) spent two nonstop hours greeting hundreds of civilian and military well-wishers in a receiving line without ever showing a hint of fatigue.

We’ll see what’s in store, but one gets the clear sense that Johnson has no interest in simply being a caretaker. She knows this is her chance to make the Academy much better, and more equipped to face the future as an integral part of tomorrow’s Air Force.

This much is certain: The more that Johnson achieves, and the more she can reshape the Academy starting now, the more it will mean to Colorado Springs.

As she put it at the end of her first speech, “I can’t wait to get started. Let’s go!”