15 years after 9/11, higher ed fills unique void in homeland security
Colleges have emerged as critical partners in advancing national security research, outreach
In the years following the September 11, 2001 terror attacks in New York City and Washington, DC, the federal government has spent more than $7.6 trillion on defense and homeland security research and development.
Spanning dozens of federal agencies, America’s effort to build civic infrastructure, emergency response and military improvements has served as one of the nation’s largest economic endeavors designed to protect domestic lives and interests.
Colleges and universities have been key partners in the movement, advancing the knowledge base and workforce development needs for an industry which employs more than 240,000 people across the country.
But over the last 15 years, universities have helped move the focus of homeland security from military and surveillance development to a range of community-based services and initiatives designed to improve emergency response, and even improve quality of life.
A multi-tiered agenda
J. Eric Dietz was on a military base in New Jersey as the planes hit the World Trade Center towers that morning. He remembers how quickly his team of researchers moved to figure out what the scientific community's response would be, and wondering about the level of engagement they would play in preserving domestic security.
“Purdue organized very quickly after Sept. 11, and [former Purdue President Martin] Jischke’s mission and guidance was pretty succinct: Figure out how academia can solve this problem,” says Dietz, now the director of the Purdue University Homeland Security Institute.
In the years since his arrival to Purdue in 2004, departure to serve as the Founding Director of Indiana’s Department of Homeland Security, and return to run the institute, Dietz says higher education’s role in homeland security has evolved in multiple directions outside of, but connected with, terror prevention.
“I came back to Purdue to look at challenges as practitioners and academics. The challenges of measuring security, how to better guide, model and optimize it are the ways we conduct a lot of our work today,” he said.
Dietz says that Purdue features a number of people on campus who work to develop and test materials and devices relative to commercial homeland security technology. Sensors, energy detection methods to find explosives and communications devices are just a few of the projects created in the institute, which he says remains fixed as an interdisciplinary research module instead of a degree program, in order to foster more creativity and more research autonomy than a traditional program might allow.
“Purdue has done a lot, and higher education has done a lot, and what we’ve tried to do most is to discover how to you use the university and its research to guide what state, local government should be doing. If we don’t force government to measure things, it doesn’t get better,” Dietz says.
The institute has broken new barriers in research on domestic terror issues, such as mass shootings in schools. In 2014, Dietz and the institute made headlines for research indicating that armed personnel in schools may help to reduce casualties in school shootings by more than 60%, and increase response time of police by more than 80%.
The institute has also built computer simulators currently surveying if the traditional ‘Run-Hide-Fight’ model is an effective preservation method for reducing deaths during school shootings. Both of these research efforts have encountered difficulties in attracting funding, a reality that Dietz says favors politics, but not realistic solutions for change.
“We have to continue to push ourselves to go where a lot of minds may think they may be made up, but may be further pushed with the help of data. We need to make sure that we don’t have any political barriers by saying ‘here’s a solution you would like to see, and here’s how that solution looks when compared to a different course of action.’ We’re not the policy decision makers, but we can analytically look at alternatives and allow decision makers to compare them.”
With 14 colleges and universities housing centers of excellence in homeland security, and hundreds of schools offering bachelor's, master's’ and doctoral degree programs listed among the DHS official program listing, the agency touts national gains in municipal emergency preparedness and crisis resilience, cybersecurity, international student engagement and community outreach from college and university homeland security hubs.
They have helped with solving additional domestic issues, such as human trafficking, tolerance and tabletop training for infectious disease response.
North Carolina Central University’s Institute for Homeland Security and Workforce Development has received more than $2 million in federal funding since 2009 to deliver emergency management training to underserved communities throughout the United States. Its latest round of funding will develop a collaborative network in association with religious institutions to help promote community best practices for crisis response, a concept that Program Director M. Chris Herring says is essential in providing equitable resources in the event of natural disaster or a large-scale security threat.
“When you think about minority leaders in emergency management, we’re producing the future, next set of leaders who understand the needs of underserved communities,” he says. “We shouldn’t have waited until Hurricane Katrina, or floods in East Carolina, to determine that different communities have different needs.”
Herring, a former police chief with executive stops in Hartsville, SC and Salisbury, NC., says the NCCU Institute “brings together the practitioners and the researchers” in a collaborative effort to offer communities comprehensive information on the value of emergency preparedness.
He cites funded graduate programs which have produced research on preparedness of students at coastal-based universities, and college students’ perceptions of terror-related fear, as an element of the the federal government’s investment in the Rural Domestic Preparedness Consortium, a five-institution collaborative initiative to deliver year-round emergency management training, which last year delivered workshops in 28 states to more than 2,000 participants.
“We know that historically, among minority residents, there’s a distrust of government. Who understands and works with this culture when people respond with ‘I don’t know you and I don’t trust you?’
Looking toward a localized future
Earlier this year, Arizona State University announced the launch of a collaborative, non-profit business structure aimed at leveraging the university’s research and philanthropic efforts under one organization. The ASU Enterprise Partners is an experiment in ‘revenue raising’ ideas and innovation, according to CEO Rick Shangraw.
A central part of the enterprise is ASU’s defense contracting, an intentional effort made by university officials to not only meet the national shift in institutional research imperative after Sept. 11, but to almost meet the national call of duty as citizens.
“Every university took a chance, not only to look at ways on advancing research and knowledge, but providing solutions back to our country,” he says.
Shangraw says that Arizona State researchers are developing ways to advance communication with allies and partners in Middle Eastern nations, with specific technology designed to read nonverbal cues and body language, defusing explosives, and technology which can instantly assess biothreats from a small saliva or blood sample.
Most of the university’s defense research is classified, which Shangraw admits is counter cultural to the mission of shared findings in higher education. But when asked about the transition of homeland security from an international monitoring and threat response industry to a community emergency response mission, he says that the culture and the funding mechanisms have matured, moreseo than shifted.
“There have always been a number of programs funded by the Department of Defense, and there were vehicles for universities to work on national issues. Homeland security is relatively new, and it has taken a little longer for funding mechanisms to pass money through to colleges and universities. So we’re seeing more availability of contracts and those initiatives being deployed by colleges to serve homeland security interests. And that mechanism, which wasn’t in place before 9/11, gives schools more ability to meet greater need.”
Dietz and Herring both say that homeland security should remain a national priority, but that research out of DHS, which can make better detectors for airports and better methods for screening immigrants, may be able to serve another important role in local security support.
“How do you provide better advice on inoperability? How do we provide better police or fire coverage? There’s no community that has a research budget to figure it out themselves,” says Dietz. “The idea of how to come up with the right kind of intelligence to do community based policing, and guiding law enforcement to problem areas. It seems to me that this would be a terrific place for more focus. We could get a lot more out of locals if resources were guided towards specific areas.”
Herring, who helped to create the North Carolina Institute for Community Policing in 1997, says an ideal example of DHS and university partnership extension could be engagement with residents in public housing, who often receive little to no information about disaster preparedness in rural or metropolitan areas.
“Folks who can afford to move out of flood zones and floodplanes, they leave. Poor people in poverty, where are they going to move and how are they going to move? In the US, you need a separate insurance for flooding. You need evacuation plans and kits to prepare for a storm. If you’re poor, how do you get access to those things? There are special needs, and while national research is extremely important and needed, more emphasis and funding should be applied to applied and practical solutions in minority communities. And HBCUs are positioned to engage those communities.”