Sunday, March 30, 2008

Terror U

What's behind the boom in homeland-security and emergency-management majors?

The traditionally slow-moving education industry is churning out a slew of students with specialties in "mass catastrophe" and "international disaster." More than 200 colleges have created homeland-security degree and certificate programs since 9/11, and another 144 have added emergency management with a terrorism bent.

Homeland security is outpacing most other majors in part because governments and corporations are hungry to hire professionals schooled in disaster. One-quarter of the top slots—from presidential appointments to high-level civil servants to scientific posts—at the Department of Homeland Security remained empty last year. And with one-third of posts at the Federal Emergency Management Agency vacant, thousands of graduates are landing lucrative government gigs before they've finished their weapons of mass destruction final. A student at the University of North Texas now works as an emergency planner in Florida when he's not tracking hurricanes for fun. A graduate of the University of Southern California's Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events is using his dissertation, rooted in game theory, to help police at Los Angeles International Airport improve inspections. Others are security directors on ships or bomb specialists at luxury hotels.

DHS has doled out more than $300 million since 9/11 to eight prestigious U.S. universities to open "centers of excellence" devoted to narrow topics like "the psyche of terrorists" or "microbial risk analysis." Though the funding is a pittance in federal-budget terms, the investment is a notable deposit into higher-education coffers and a forceful message to colleges: Build these degree programs and students will register.

Universities, which recognize a good business venture and an admirable mission, have spent millions of dollars trying to enhance their offerings with electives on cybersecurity and agricultural terrorism. Thousands of military and law-enforcement experts have also enrolled in certificate programs to expand their expertise.

Educators say terrorist training camps probably have rigorous curricula with hefty reading lists and hard-grading teachers. America could use an army of tech-savvy terror experts who have the smarts to thwart the next Chernobyl or to whip out an orderly evacuation plan when Katrina's sister arrives. It's fitting that the generation of American students that grew up with violent video games are the ones outsmarting the real villains.

Rarely has an academic field swept through American campuses this quickly. When the Russians beat America into space in 1957 by launching Sputnik, the first unmanned spacecraft to orbit Earth, Washington helped universities respond. The federal bounty boosted college science and technology programs to counter the perceived intellectual threat from the Soviets during the Cold War. Physics and astronomy programs flourished. Products like ready-to-eat foods, no-fog ski goggles, and water-resistant clothing were born.

The next time such a major academic shift whipped through university campuses, it was a product of rage rather than government investment. In the 1960s and '70s, students at colleges across the country rallied their schools to create African-American and women's studies majors to counter the prevailing white-male-dominated canon.

The ballooning number of homeland-security and emergency-management majors must be making some campuses feel like Terror U. Homeland-security majors type out term papers on how to identify and outwit America's foes. The inevitability of disaster permeates every syllabus whether the threat is al-Qaida or avian flu.

Students are learning lessons written by the same international security experts who also instruct ex-police-chiefs-turned-emergency-management consultants on how to respond to changing global threats. The Center for Homeland Defense and Security, funded by DHS and FEMA, offers a free, ready-made curriculum to more than 130 universities. Packed with critical expertise, the Naval Post Graduate School's curriculum has been a hit with university leaders. Most schools use bits and pieces to flesh out their existing courses. The University of Connecticut copied it almost exactly. Universities say they are vigilant in making sure courses in every major are written and taught to entertain all points of view, however unpopular. But homeland security, which is a young academic discipline still developing its faculty, tends to be especially welcome territory for disaffected Bush administration officials who talk openly about bureaucratic hurdles to preventing disasters. A respected doctor enlisted to lead major disaster-response teams vented in one seminar about the "inadequate" and "dangerous" decisions made by DHS leaders.

Lecturers with real-world know-how are in demand across campus. Since 9/11, professors in more established disciplines like international relations and criminal justice are taking time away from teaching students how to negotiate treaties or win legal arguments to quiz them on genetically engineered pathogens and dirty bombs. Other majors, studying everything from genetics to linguistics, are checking out homeland-security courses, too. Not since the space race have so many different disciplines abandoned their academic fiefdoms to collaborate. Emergency-preparedness and disaster-management classes might have geography majors and biologists, language majors and economists all dreaming about rescue scenarios in a mock situation room. An anthropologist might look at how culture makes people susceptible to foreign influence, while engineers look at a building's vulnerability to attack. Hopefully, these future spies, corporate disaster planners, and biohazard specialists will continue this multidisciplinary communication well past graduation.

The question is, Will federal-government bosses listen to these young advisers? Experts on counterterrorism and weapons of mass destruction were sidelined before the Iraq war. The President's Commission on Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction reported to Congress in 2005 that former CIA Director George Tenet failed to pass along a senior intelligence officer's doubts about the presence of WMD to former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell before the Iraq invasion. The 2003 estimate on Iraq intelligence produced by then-CIA intelligence analyst Paul Pillar found that a U.S.-led war against and occupation of Iraq would increase popular sympathy for terrorist goals. The government is encouraging people to gain academic credentials even after the establishment ignored advice from the existing experts after 9/11.

It's hopeful to think that by helping to create an elite squad of terrorism-savvy graduates, some government officials may be trying to correct that mistake. Listening to a fresh cadre of professional paranoids could help prevent an anemic response to a natural or manmade disaster. Not only could that save agency bosses from literal danger and the bad press that follows a botched operation—it could help them keep their jobs.

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