“Close Hold” Email Specifies Race, Gender Requirements for Promotion Board Membership


Earlier this year, Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James introduced a series of new personnel initiatives geared toward enhancing diversity, inclusiveness, and equality across the force.

At the time, I offered criticism that her ideas appeared more politically expedient than substantive, and that some of what she wanted to do would require contending with various legal obstacles and regulatory challenges. I also worried aloud at the time that implementation of her initiatives, if done clumsily, could prove divisive, and that this might trigger new backlash and disharmony across a force already exhausted from a solid decade of human resource malpractice.

Others came right out and predicted that these policies would lead inevitably to race and gender quotas, creating unintended consequences that should be carefully considered before implementation. 

“It’s quotas,” said retired Col. Terry Stevens at the time. Stevens spent 35 years in the Air Force and held a high-level post at the personnel center for 8 of those years. Stevens added:

“They won’t say that, but … [it’s] quotas. If you’re going to do that instead of picking the best qualified of any applicant, then you’re actually downgrading the quality of the force. A lot of people are not going to agree with that, but it’s true.”

Agree or disagree with Stevens’ perspective, there are fresh indications that his basic contention is accurate. In an email obtained by JQP, officials in the personnel directorate of the Air Combat Command staff solicit colonels to participate in a March 2016 officer promotion board at the Air Force Personnel Center. The request mandates, among other things, that one of the colonels must be black and that another must be female.

The email:

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Assuming the email is legitimate, it would appear James is operationalizing her diversity program by engineering the demographic makeup of promotion boards.

There are a number of arguments to be made for and against this idea, and we’ll explore those arguments in a subsequent column. Arguably, exploring arguments through a robust dialogue is the approach James and her team should take as she attempts to field a raft of policies many airmen are bound to find controversial. Directing such a policy through a stock, top-down, bureaucratic coercion model not only tends to create resistance, but starves the process of valuable input from the field important to both feasibility and acceptance.

The most remarkable aspect of the email is its insistence on secrecy with respect to board membership. While the precise identities of members arguably should not be disclosed in advance of a board process — given that this would create avenues for improper influence of a board member by interested parties — there is no justification for assigning such secrecy to this email or its substance. 

If the Air Force is manicuring board demography in this way, this is something airmen might not commonly know, and something they deserve to understand as they make choices about whether to continue their careers and seek promotion in the Air Force’s system.

Airmen are reassured at every turn that they’re operating in a meritocracy. Attempts to manufacture visible diversity through quotas could confound that longstanding assumption. Whether this is the case is an Air Force judgment and whether to pursue it is an Air Force decision. But such judgments and decisions cannot be kept secret from those who will be impacted, and will never be accepted willingly without an honest and transparent implementation effort.

If this is something senior officials believe is in the best interest of the service and consistent with its values, there should be a open and earnest service conversation that invites disparate views and seeks to either persuade resistant airmen to embrace the new policy or puts them on notice of the way the system will operate with or without their consent. Such open conversations and disparate views are, after all, among the worthy objectives sought in the service’s diversity push.

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