Academy stays on right track

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We couldn’t help but admire Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson this week as the Air Force Academy superintendent laid out the institution’s proposed budget cuts for fiscal year 2015.

Many high-ranking officers would have taken the easier way out, sending their well-laundered comments to the media along with the basic facts, thus avoiding the kind of probing questions that always come with such news.

Instead, Johnson invited local media to her office Monday, a day ahead of the official release. She also assembled the AFA senior leadership, military and civilian, with the goal of sharing all the budget-related information and then having the best-available expertise to address any questions that might arise.

It was a classic example of how to deal with a tough situation, meeting it head-on. Johnson had known for months that this day was coming, and she handled it with remarkable poise. Yes, the superintendent said, military cuts were inevitable after 13 years of combat overseas, and she recalled her early years of service in the 1980s after her AFA graduation when the Air Force had as many as 600,000 in its ranks (upcoming service-wide cuts will leave the Air Force with about 305,000).

And though most Air Force bases might not feel as compelled to share their reductions, Lt. Gen. Johnson didn’t hesitate, saying, “We might not be the biggest military installation in this area, but we probably live under the biggest magnifying glass.”

The details were a little confusing, in part because some cuts are vacant positions, not forcing people to find other jobs or retire. Also, AFA leaders did their best to make their trims judiciously, as in the case of eliminating 10 academic majors. That might sound draconian, but in reality many of those lost majors will be consolidated with others, such as biochemistry and materials chemistry continuing as tracks within chemistry, and meteorology becoming part of geospatial science.

In fact, the academic program still has room to evolve, as Brig. Gen. Andy Armacost, the AFA dean of faculty, revealed the upcoming launch of a new major — computer network security — that shows a sensitivity to the Air Force’s developing needs.

“What I want the community to know is that we’re still committed to the essence of our mission.”

Johnson clearly had thought about what to say, and several comments stood out.

About not cutting any of the 27 intercollegiate sports, Johnson recalled piloting aircraft and seeing certain traits in any crew members with athletic or other (such as the Wings of Blue skydivers) competition experience. “They know their role and how to train, putting others before self, being able to play hurt, and playing above yourself,” she said.

Johnson saved her best words for looking into the academy’s future, saying, “What I want the community to know is that we’re still committed to the essence of our mission. We’re here to stay, we’re going to be great, and we’re going to do it together.”

That might mean not renovating Falcon Stadium as quickly or thoroughly as had been planned. It also might mean being careful with how money may be raised for the proposed AFA Visitors Center as part of the City for Champions projects.

If there was an important takeaway from the planned budget cuts, though, it’s that every decision has been handled smartly and sensitively. No agendas, no politics, no power plays.

And it’s more obvious now that Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson is the perfect AFA superintendent for this moment.