Air Force photo by Mike Kaplan
Air Force photo by Mike Kaplan

Forever Duke Q&A: Deborah Lee James '79

Sterly Wilder '83, associate vice president for alumni affairs, in conversation with the secretary of the U.S. Air Force
December 14, 2015

As the 23rd secretary of the U.S. Air Force,  James is responsible for organizing and equipping the nearly 664,000 airmen and women serving throughout the world. James is a former president at Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), a company that provides information technology support to the U.S. Department of Defense, and was the assistant secretary of defense for Reserve Affairs during the Clinton administration. James has served as secretary of the U.S. Air Force since 2013.

How did you get to Duke?

I grew up in a small town in New Jersey, and life was kind of confined to New Jersey for many years. When it came time for me to look at colleges, my first criterion was to get out of New Jersey. And of course I wanted to go to a great school. My major was comparative area studies with a concentration in Latin America, and my minor was Spanish. I graduated in three years and did some summer study in Spain and Argentina. Since my Duke days, I’ve traveled extensively. I’ve been to all seven continents. Duke was the first destination on this lifelong journey because it was the first time I lived away from home.

How did your Duke experience prepare you for public service?

It definitely solidified my love of international affairs and my love of language. To this day, I am fluent in conversational Spanish. At Duke I learned the importance of critical thinking, time management, having an inquisitive nature, and continual learning.

What’s the secret to becoming the leader of the U.S. Air Force?

Beats the heck out of me! Short story: I came out of Duke, I went to Columbia, got a master’s in international affairs, and promptly flew to the State Department. But I didn’t get picked to serve in the State Department. Instead, I got selected to work in the Department of the Army as a civilian. From that point forward, one thing led to the next. The thread that tied my experiences together was defense. Then, this very extraordinary thing happened: I got a call from the White House asking me if I would be willing to have my name on a list of candidates for secretary of the Air Force. I was just so blown away and flattered, of course I said yes, never dreaming that it would be me.

Thinking about your initiatives to increase opportunities for women and minorities—what makes you most excited?

I am a big believer in diversity— diversity of people and thought. I think that’s where you get the magic of innovation. I learned that at Duke. I experienced that at Duke. When we look at our Air Force, there’s both good news and bad news. We’re fairly diverse in the lower ranks— not as good as we could be but certainly the best of the services. We have about 20 percent women. But as we go up through the ranks, we start to get worse, which means both women and minorities are leaving us earlier than we would wish. That’s an important readiness issue. We need to do better.

What would you say is the most important work to be done by the Air Force?

We are involved with every operation that goes on at all times all around the world. Six hundred sixty thousand people make up our Air Force—that’s active duty airmen and women, the National Guard and Air Force Reserves, and civilians. The overwhelming majority is between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five. We put unbelievable confidence and authority and power in their hands. We have very young people who are maneuvering our satellites every day and who are standing watch on our nuclear enterprises. They are doing a great job and working very hard. A key mission of mine is taking care of them.

What is your advice to Duke students and alumni who would like to pursue public service?

Be prepared to zigzag, because whatever your original idea was may or may not work out. Ask people to have a cup of coffee and tell their story. That can create a mentoring situation. Competence also is really important because mentors and your network can open a door and get you a job interview, but unless you’ve got that competence, you’re not going to be able to get the job or hold the job.

Want to meet Secretary James? Register for Women’s Weekend February 18-20, 2016, at www.dukealumni.com. The fifth biennial weekend brings together diverse alumnae and students for learning, conversation, and networking.