A Matter of Degrees

By Mary Alice Davidson

Academic programs in homeland security are springing up around the country, offering degrees at the undergraduate and graduate levels as well as certificates of study. Identifying exactly what courses should be offered in such programs is a subject for debate, however, and institutions of all types have taken a variety of approaches. The lack of consensus stems, many say, from the variety of ways homeland security can be defined. The result at many institutions is a multidisciplinary approach that reaches across a spectrum of academic disciplines, delivery methods, and target audiences.Research initiatives supported by the Department of Homeland Security have been the impetus for major universities to become involved in esoteric aspects of the topic affecting, for example, economic and agricultural terrorism. Ultimately, though, the longevity of this new academic discipline rests with job prospects for graduates, a point that is too new to assess.

DHS Goes in Search of Excellence

< The Department of Homeland Security’s Office of University Programs has engaged the academic community by creating Homeland Security Centers of Excellence. The centers are multidisciplinary partnerships between a lead university and a team of academics at between four and 10 other universities. Government and private sector participants are included either as principal players or as regional advisors. Each center has received between $12 million and $18 million for a three-year study on a selected topic.

The University of Southern California (USC) houses the first center, known as the Homeland Security Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events (CREATE). USC and its partners are completing a risk analysis related to the economic consequences of terrorist threats and events.

The research at other centers is equally specific. Texas A&M University and its partners have created the Homeland Security National Center for Foreign Animal and Zoonotic Disease Defense. Their research will focus on potential threats to animal agriculture. A team led by the University of Minnesota established the Homeland Security Center for Food Protection and Defense. This research will address agrosecurity issues related to postharvest food preparation.

A fourth center, at the University of Maryland, will study the origins of terrorism and the response to terrorism. A fifth center is expected to be announced shortly, says Melvin Bernstein, Ph.D., director of university programs in the DHS Science and Technology Division. “The centers will help identify gaps in knowledge and build on core capabilities,” he says. “The topics lend themselves to academic research but are mission-related.”

Whether these research projects have led to academic programs in homeland security is a matter of definition. Most of the universities receiving the grants had ongoing research programs that fit into the interests identified by the Department of Homeland Security.

For the major research universities, landing a major grant is “their measure of merit,” says Todd Stewart, Ph.D., director, program for international and homeland security at Ohio State University. In his view, the current interest is in funding applied research that will turn into practical applications in the near future, particularly in the physical sciences, life sciences, and engineering.

< Research “is the only way practices can improve,” notes Robert McCrie, Ph.D., CPP, professor of security management at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Jeremy Travis, the recently appointed president of John Jay, envisions establishing a national center for security issues that will support research efforts in a united way. As the former director of the National Institute of Justice, Travis funded major initiatives in security research.

That thinking corresponds to a viewpoint espoused by James Calder, Ph.D., CPP, professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio. He advocates establishing a security research center that would assemble currently available information, identify what is not there, and then work on filling the gap by moving across disciplines laterally, using the prototype established by groups such as the Rand Corporation or the Hudson Institute. This way, he asserts, research priorities can be established and a body of knowledge can be assembled for security and the homeland security field by extension.


Mary Alice Davidson heads a publishing consultancy based in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Before retiring from ASIS International, Davidson was director of communications for fifteen years.@ links to more information on advanced degrees in homeland security.



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