COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo.—Lieutenant General Michelle Johnson stood at the window of her office and surveyed one of the most orderly college campuses in America. Despite the mild spring weather, there were no students lounging on the grass or blasting music outside the dorms at the U.S. Air Force Academy just north of this mountain town. In fact, it was quiet, save for the low whir of tow planes pulling gliders across the blue April sky.
“We’re like an aluminum fortress,” she said, gesturing toward the pointed spires of the academy’s iconic chapel and the low-slung buildings that anchor this 19,000-acre school. “We’ve got to be open and secure.”
Johnson, who became the first woman to serve as superintendent of the academy in 2013, was speaking literally. (The Air Force has conducted airstrikes against ISIS and the campus has become a target of the group.) But she might as well have been referring to her strategy for running the operation responsible for educating the next generation of Air Force officers who will be tasked with defending the United States against foreign threats.
Although she’s only been at the helm for three years, they are years that span a tumultuous time for both higher education and the military broadly. Educators and military officials are grappling with shifting demographics, where the people in leadership roles look less and less like the people they are charged with serving. At colleges across the country, the overwhelming whiteness of those in power has prompted Black Lives Matter activists to call for more diversity. At the Pentagon, the Defense Department is looking for creative ways to fight an enemy that is less predictable and more amorphous. Both tasks require a delicate balance of preservation and evolution, of security and openness. As the leader of both an elite institution of higher learning and a key piece of the military pipeline, Johnson sits at the nexus. “We’re trying to deliver this traditional mission in a relevant way to this generation and to the profession of arms,” she said.
At the academy, that has meant bringing sometimes-uncomfortable conversations about race into the open. The dialogue is structured in a way that both adheres to the military’s strict guidelines around acceptable conduct and recognizes that the 4,000 cadets that call the academy home each year are not cogs in a machine, but young American adults with opinions and values and connections to the world around them. The student protests that erupted at schools like the University of Missouri after the black teenager Michael Brown was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a white police officer in Ferguson, didn’t materialize at the academy. Such activities could, after all, be considered a violation of the Defense Department’s rules against making political statements in uniform. But Johnson acknowledged that the absence of overt unrest does not mean the absence of discontent. “Same concerns. Same gene pool. Same generation, so we try to tend to those,” she said.