WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio – Dr. Walter Jones, Air Force Institute of Technology’s new director and chancellor, has already forged diverse channels to advance and promote AFIT’s work since his arrival in June.
From faculty positions at Clemson University, University of Tennessee, University of Florida, Texas A&M and Rice University to supervisory roles at the Office of Naval Research, Air Force Research Laboratory and the Pentagon, Jones’ experience across government, civilian, vocational and geographic lines led him to condense them all into his role as chancellor and stretch AFIT’s reach even further.
“I am really delighted to be here,” he said. “For me, AFIT is the perfect blend of the defense research and education that I’ve done for many years with the government and universities. It’s a foot in both camps.”
Even as Jones says his technical expertise in materials can collect dust after time in administrative pursuits, he offers the personality, friendships, fervor and scope to engineer relationships that hold the weight of AFIT’s growing demands and capabilities.
The biggest expertise and asset he brings to AFIT is making and drawing new friends, Jones said.
“I think my contribution is going to be partnerships,” he said. “Connecting this place with all the other places that I have been, attracting the best people and going out and finding us partners and people we can work with and learn from.”
Creating mission value
Jones’ office windows overlook Airmen in flight suits, camouflage uniforms and business casual passing on the sidewalks between AFIT and Air Force Research Laboratory, reflecting the new chancellor’s primary vision for the institute.
“There is no other university in the world that sits on a base right in the middle of the whole Air Force technology development enterprise,” he said. “Not just the lab but also Air Force Life Cycle Management Center and Air Force Materiel Command. Air Force technology development, sustainment, logistics and acquisition — it’s all right here. There’s no other place you can study in that environment.”
Extending far beyond AFIT’s next-door collaborators at Wright-Patt, Jones aspires to strengthen the ties between students and their defense careers, faculty to collaborators, school to school, lab to lab, service to service and nation to nation.
AFIT’s status as both a military and academic center already makes it matchmaker between its students and specific and current military needs.
“The work we do here tends to be a little bit more applied to real problems than research in civilian academic institutions,” Jones said. “The students we have, they can take that fundamental knowledge and either develop it or more likely apply it to a real Air Force or Space Force problem. When they leave, they’ve created something that has value for the military, and then they can take that knowledge right to the field and do the next step.”
Jones is proud of the students the AFIT atmosphere attracts and shapes.
“The students here tend to be very well-prepared, mature and organized, and they know how to meet deadlines. They have a finite amount of time to finish their degrees before their next assignments,” Jones said. “A military life typically requires you to look to someone else for your direction. Here is a chance to really do their own thing and get outside that box.
“I draw energy from them. They’re bright young people who are excited about what they’re doing.”
Crossing service boundaries
The new chancellor’s view for institutional academic friendships reaches outside AFIT walls and beyond the large network he brings from prior positions, too. Since June, Jones has already visited local Miami Valley universities to blaze relationships with faculty and students and plans to work his way out to more in the coming months.
He adds crossing service boundaries to his goals as chancellor. Previously serving as executive director at Office of Naval Research for 11 years, Jones said fulfilling both Navy and Marine missions there prepared him to guide AFIT through the Space Force standup.
“One organization can support two different services,” he said. “At ONR, I had a Navy two-star admiral sitting on one side of me and a Marine one-star general on the other side of me. We did basic research and applied research that supported both services. I got the thought that one school or one laboratory across the street can support both the Air and Space Forces.
The school already offers the foundation for Space Force support through long-standing education in both astronautics and aeronautics, orbital mechanics, satellite dynamics and more.
“We don’t need to spin up all new but equal things on the Space Force side,” Jones added. “We’ve got it covered here. I think the marriage is already there. We’ve just got to make some new friends, see how they operate and sort out what they need.”
Jones even seeks to draw more lines across the globe using the experience and contacts he gained at ONR and as a U.S. principal voting member of the NATO Science and Technology Board for almost a decade.
“We need to continue partnering with other allied nations through technology development,” he said. “This campus already has some international engagement. We have a Brazilian officer here on faculty, we have an Israeli student here, visiting faculty from Germany, another from France.
“I want students to leave here with an appreciation that you’ve really got to reach worldwide to understand state of the art technology. There’s nothing better than studying together to build partnerships that really last a lifetime. I think we could stand a few more international officers here, either as students or faculty.”
AFIT opportunity ‘too good to pass up’
Ultimately, Jones hopes his laid-back, friendly and decisive character behind the scenes is what helps him carry the institute through challenges to technological advancement and public recognition.
“I tend to be a pretty calm person. I guess you learn that in your years at the Pentagon,” he said. “We don’t have many big arguments here, but I like to use my demeanor to defuse situations just by calming people down, helping them feel good about their work and patting them on the back. At a place like this, if your people feel supported, just stand back and watch, because they’re very, very good.
“You empower people, you listen to them, you respect their opinions. But I think also, at the end of the day, being able to make a decision and stick to it is an important part of being a leader. They need to know where you stand.”
Although Jones says his pursuit to gain AFIT partners will take him off campus sometimes, he is especially eager to watch his faculty and students innovate in unmanned systems, artificial intelligence and his area of education, materials.
“We have two faculty now who are hypersonic specialists,” he added. “Developing things that go really fast is going to be exciting.”
When Jones isn’t building AFIT’s network of friends, he enjoys interacting more casually with speeds and waves, playing tennis, and playing 1970s pop music on the guitar and keyboard.
Jones’ personal history and bond with Wright-Patt called him back full-circle, he says. This isn’t his first lap on base.
“I spent two summers during my tenure at University of Tennessee right here in Area B as summer faculty,” Jones said. “The opportunity to lead this place and come back to Wright-Patterson was just too good to pass up.”