Lt. General Michelle Johnson, Revisited

Four years ago, I wrote about Lieutenant General Michelle Johnson when she became the First Woman Superintendent of the U.S. Air Force Academy, making her the First Woman to lead any U.S. Service Academy. She had several other firsts: the First Woman cadet wing commander (the most senior ranking cadet) at the Air Force Academy, First Woman from the Academy to be inducted into the Academic All-American Hall of Fame, and the First Woman Rhodes Scholar from the Academy.

When she enrolled in the Academy, she was in the second coed class, and women comprised only 12% of the class. She says she was treated as if she didn’t belong but, now that almost one-third of the cadets are female, she says that doesn’t occur today.

Recently The Chronicle of Higher Education contained an interview with her, after four years as Superintendent—the length of one academic course of study. The interviewer focused on the challenge I mentioned in the earlier article, the need to address sexual assault at the Academy.

General Johnson confronted the issue head on. In her first address to the cadets she said, “a person of character [and Air Force officers are expected to be persons of character] doesn’t harm someone else, doesn’t violate their personal boundaries, doesn’t discriminate against somebody else.”

Johnson believes focusing on the characters of leaders she can affect change in this institution that has not only an honor code, but a commitment to producing leaders of character who treat others with respect. She believes this is possible in the Air Force because, “[In the military] If you can do the work, fly the plane—planes don’t really care what you look like or where you came from—your earn the respect of your colleagues.”

Academy graduates in all branches of service are more likely to achieve the highest ranks in the military, so we should see more women at the top in the future. Fingers crossed!


MICHELLE JOHNSONCongratulations to Lieutenant General Michelle Johnson on being the first woman to command the U.S. Air Force Academy! General Johnson, a graduate of the academy, was the first woman to serve as cadet wing commander (senior ranking cadet) at the academy. In addition to her B.S. degree from the academy, she has a master’s degree in politics and economics from Oxford University, where she was a Rhodes Scholar.

Her career began piloting various support aircraft and her command assignments included refueling squadrons and wings. She supported operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and here in the United States after 9/11 and was Deputy Chief of Staff of Operations and Intelligence for NATO. She has been an Air Force aide to the President and a political science fellow at Syracuse University, Harvard, and MIT.

During the last decade the Academy has been reviewed and chastised for instances of the sexual assault and harassment of female cadets, so General Johnson will most certainly be expected to improve the prevailing jock atmosphere. If she is successful, this will mark a major step forward for the services as they still struggle to treat women as equals.