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Air Force to UCCS? Concerns over a chancellor finalist

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The selection of Air Force Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson as a finalist for chancellor of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs has triggered pushback over the question of her qualifications.

Johnson doesn’t have a doctoral degree, which is highly unusual for university leaders, and some question if her role as superintendent of the Air Force Academy, with 4,000 cadets, prepares her to lead a public university three times that size. The academy offers no advanced degree programs, while UCCS’s 12,000 students pursue studies toward 36 bachelor’s degrees, 19 master’s degrees and five doctoral degrees, including degree programs designed to satisfy local employers’ needs, such as nursing.

The academy’s governance — a military chain of command — is vastly different than that of UCCS, which is overseen by an elected board of regents, raising questions of whether Johnson can make that transition. Other concerns focus on her ability to be effective in the world of academics and research — whether her hiring would pull UCCS deeper into military dependency.

Military watchdog Bill Sulzman notes UCCS already relies on Pentagon dollars to fund programs beneficial to the armed forces. “If she takes over,” he says, “that would accelerate. The university and the city desperately need more diversity, not less.”

Johnson did not respond to questions submitted in writing to the academy about her credentials and other issues.

Pam Shockley-Zalaback retired in February after 40 years at UCCS, the last 15 as chancellor, during which enrollment skyrocketed. She was paid $309,458 annually as of her most recent compensation package, along with a $10,000 annual car allowance and a $25,000 housing allowance.

Whoever is chosen would negotiate a new compensation package, a CU system spokesman said.

The job likely would bring a big salary jump for Johnson, who is paid roughly $187,000 as a lieutenant general, along with housing. But that’s not why she wants to the UCCS job. “I turned down a promotion to stay in higher ed,” she told faculty members during an hour-long session on April 26. “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life, because it’s so purposeful.”
Johnson has spent 40 years in the military. - COURTESY AIR FORCE
  • Courtesy Air Force
  • Johnson has spent 40 years in the military.

Her military service, Johnson said, prepares her for the job, which she described as building relationships and working as a team. But she offered few specifics, other than saying she understands the job will veer from the military world of which she’s been part for 40 years.

After graduating in 1981 from the Air Force Academy with a degree in operations research, Johnson obtained a master’s in politics and economics at Oxford University, England. She earned a second master’s in national security strategy from the military-run National War College in Washington, D.C. She’s a pilot who taught political science at the academy from 1989 to 1992, and worked as personnel director at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, in public affairs at the Pentagon, and with the joint staff at the Pentagon.

Johnson, who arrived at the academy in mid-2013, announced her retirement “later this year” via a news release on April 27, the day after she met with UCCS faculty on campus. When a professor asked her about not having a Ph.D., she emphasized her assignment at NATO in Belgium, saying she worked with allies from 50 nations. When dealing with a number of ambassadors, she said, “I had to hold my own.”

She also met with the vice chairman of the Russian general staff in Moscow to discuss terrorism. “I think that perfectly prepares me,” she joked, drawing laughter.

Yet, she assured the faculty, “I’m leaving the uniform behind.”

Asked how she would help the university build its endowment, she said, “I spend a lot of time building relationships. That’s the bottom line on fundraising is relationships, right? ‘Here’s what you’d be part of. Here’s where we’re going.’ I’ve had the ability to interact with people and make a case and win them over.”

There’s no hard and fast rule about academic credentials for university presidents and chancellors, says Steve Kauffman, spokesman for the Higher Learning Commission, which accredits UCCS and hundreds of other colleges and universities.
The commission, Kauffman says via email, “does not have a benchmark for chancellor credentials since the position’s primary roles and responsibilities might vary greatly per institution.” Hence, he notes, the commission’s guideline is left open to interpretation by saying an institution’s administrative structure should include top ranking officials who possess “appropriate credentials and experience and sufficient focus on the institution to ensure appropriate leadership and oversight.”

But in the real world of recruitment, a terminal degree — a doctorate, law or medical degree — is mandatory in most cases, says Bill Funk, with R. William Funk & Associates of Dallas, which has placed nearly 400 presidents and chancellors in the last 32 years.

“In the last five years, we have done 50 [university] president or chancellor searches, and I can’t think of a single one of those [hired] that didn’t have a terminal degree,” he says.

But he cites a few deviations in recent years in which retired military members were chosen. Kansas State University chose former Air Force Gen. Richard Myers as president, and the University of Texas system picked retired Adm. William McRaven as chancellor in 2015. Both have master’s degrees, and both are alumni of the institutions that hired them.

“It’s still pretty rare,” Funk says of a person without a terminal degree rising to a top slot. “It happens, but it’s not common.”

In Johnson’s case, several faculty members are skeptical.

Rex Welshon, head of UCCS’s Philosophy Department, who has a Ph.D. from Brown University and was a Fulbright Fellow, won’t say her lack of a doctorate disqualifies her. But, he adds, “I don’t think she has the depth of experience some other candidates have through the unique aspects of higher education. It’s an enormous transition from the military world to the university world, an enormous change of culture. I question whether her experience is relevant.”

That said, Welshon says some of Johnson’s comments “eased” his skepticism.

John Harner, professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies who earned his doctorate in geography from Arizona State University, shares Welshon’s concern about the degree issue and sees other potential barriers.

“I’m concerned that the whole governance structure at the academy is completely different from a public institution, and I don’t know if it’s transferable,” he says. “I don’t know if she really understands higher public education, academic freedom, faculty governance. I think she’s used to a rigid military chain of command.”

Harner fears consideration of a candidate without a terminal degree falls into line with a trend toward privatizing education so that it’s “run like a business.”

Michelle Johnson addressing UCCS faculty on April 26. - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • Michelle Johnson addressing UCCS faculty on April 26.

Because state and federal funding is declining for higher education, Harner notes, “Everyone’s trying to be entrepreneurial, looking at ways to generate revenue. I don’t know what that means when you lose track of the primary mission of public education.”

At the end of the day, he says, higher ed is not a business. “If people don’t recognize the difference and keep the academic mission in the forefront of their mind, focus on quality faculty, student success, then our model changes simply to a mill to generate workers with much energy invested in ways to raise money, like real estate development, events, facility rental, and business peripheral to an academic mission. People who don’t have their own research experience and background and academic training at the doctorate level are unlikely to fully grasp that.”

It’s true that emphasis at the academy isn’t placed solely on academics. Academy sources say that late last year Johnson changed how cadets’ overall performance average is weighted to determine graduation order. Instead of requiring grade point average (GPA) count for 60 percent and military performance, 30 percent, with athletics at 10 percent, she downgraded GPA to 50 percent, and upped military performance to 40 percent.

For Daphne Greenwood, who holds a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Oklahoma, it’s about academic freedom and whether Johnson can transition from a military environment. “What’s important is what can be taught in the classroom and that people pursue research freely without the idea it will be screened,” UCCS’s Greenwood tells the Indy.

During the April 26 faculty talk, Johnson had acknowledged that articles produced at the academy must be vetted by the Air Force and the academy public affairs office.

“It’s such a completely different culture,” Greenwood notes. “When you come out of a culture that does that, when you get complaints from the community, how do you balance that? Are you going to have the instincts [of a university environment]?”

David Mullin, a former academy associate professor of economics for 13 years, has an MBA from Duke University and an economics doctoral degree from the University of Virginia. He left the academy after filing a discrimination lawsuit, which led to a settlement. He’s taught at UCCS for six years.
Besides noting Johnson’s limited teaching experience, which took place 25 years ago, Mullin questions her commitment to transparency. Mullin has tracked athletic spending and other academy data for years. But he’s run into roadblocks with the Air Force Academy Athletics Corp. (AFAAC), which runs academy sports programs. The academy’s director of athletics is an AFAAC board member and reports to Johnson.

Mullin’s records request for AFAAC information was met with an academy response that it had “no records” because they reside with the AFAAC, which the academy described as “a non-profit organization” not subject to disclosure laws. But the AFAAC also has cited its status as an arm of a government entity, the academy, as the reason it no longer files IRS Form 990s., which disclose financial and salary information, Mullin says.

Mullin is interested, because a USA Today survey shows the academy’s subsidy ranked among the highest in the nation, at $34 million during the 2014-15 academic year, among NCAA Division 1 schools. The academy disputes the subsidy is that large, and AFAAC chief financial officer Miles Mathieu declined the Indy’s request for an interview.

“It’s essential in doing the job of chancellor to make a commitment to be transparent in university governance and fiscal affairs,” says Mullin.

The academy’s slow responses to FOIA is well established. Last year, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation sued over a seven-year delay, and in February the academy settled by agreeing to speed up a response and pay MRFF’s $25,000 in legal fees.

After a feedback period ends on May 3, the chancellor choice is up to CU President Bruce Benson after consulting with the Board of Regents. Benson, named Colorado University president in 2008, received a bachelor’s degree in geology in 1964 from CU and was given an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from CU in 2004.

The other two finalists:
• Dr. Venkat Reddy, interim chancellor and dean of the College of Business Administration and associate vice chancellor for online initiatives. With UCCS for 25 years, he earned a master’s degree in agricultural economics and a doctoral degree in finance from Pennsylvania State University.
• Dr. Havidán Rodriguez, founding provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, Edinburg, Texas. He holds a doctoral degree in sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He’s served in leadership posts at the University of Texas-Pan American, the University of Delaware and the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez.

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