Q: What's Your Major? A: Homeland Security

By Joseph Straw

Since the emergence of homeland security as a practical discipline, academia has offered both expertise and educational opportunity in the war on terror. In the latter case, however, most course study has fallen under traditional disciplines, with awards in homeland security limited to graduate certificates. That is slowly changing.

Last year Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in Richmond granted the country’s first four bachelor’s degrees in homeland security and emergency preparedness, and graduate degree study is springing up there and at other schools around the country.

The Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, established the first post-September 11 homeland security degree program in 2002, offering a master’s degree at its Center for Homeland Defense and Security (CHDS).

Like the FBI National Academy, the CHDS program accepts leaders from the nation’s first response community, state homeland security and emergency management directors, and federal officials. More than 130 students have graduated, writing master’s theses about challenges encountered by their own agencies.

Thesis topics at CHDS have ranged from emergency response to communications interoperability to the effectiveness of the color-coded national alert system. The results have been more than academic; some student papers have been adopted as best practices by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), says CHDS official Heather Issvoran.

CHDS is scheduled to offer a cohort program in Washington, D.C., in June, catering mainly to federal officials.

VCU developed its undergraduate program with input from DHS, the FBI, and the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. The university hired as its star faculty member for the program William H. Parrish, a founding DHS official and the first associate director of the interagency Terrorist Threat Integration Center. He serves as associate professor of homeland security and emergency planning.

Parrish acknowledges that he has run into resistance among university administrators to offering a single, broad homeland security program of study. His counter to that resistance is that the same insular mentality resulted in a lack of cooperation between disciplines and agencies before 9-11. The system needs professionals who see the big picture, he says.

“Part of the problem before September 11 was all the stove piping, and people not understanding all the roles and specialties, and what the different agencies bring together,” Parrish says.

Core courses in VCU’s undergraduate program cover terrorism, incident management, risk and vulnerability assessment, and legal issues, while electives range from forensic science to introductory GIS mapping.

ASIS’s Richmond chapter regularly provides guest lecturers to VCU’s program and has awarded three $1,000 scholarships. Companies including Dominion Virginia Power, Wachovia, DuPont, and Verizon plan to offer internships, says chapter chairman John Donahue, a security compliance manager with Dominion.

VCU’s first graduates, from the Class of 2006, are pursuing careers in emergency management, government consulting, and intelligence; one has joined the U.S. Border Patrol, Parrish says. The school is expanding its security program to include a master’s degree in January.

Other universities are following VCU’s lead. Last year Georgia’s Savannah State University received state approval to offer an undergraduate program this fall, combining course study in the school’s colleges of business administration, liberal arts and social sciences, and sciences and technology.

Texas A&M University in College Station has asked the state’s board of regents to approve a master’s program to begin in the fall of 2008.

Many colleges are holding back, however. They are opting against degree programs in homeland security because the sector is a composite of specialties like criminal justice and public health, says Todd Stewart, director of the Program for International and Homeland Security at The Ohio State University.

Ohio State does not offer specific degrees in homeland security, but it hosts the National Academic Consortium for Homeland Security, to “promote, support, and enhance academic research, technology development, education and training.”

The consortium claims more than 350 members, ranging from two-year public colleges to military postgraduate schools to Ivy League universities.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), meanwhile, continues to focus funding on individual academic research and on colleges around the country designated as agency centers of excellence. (For more on these centers, see “A Matter of Degrees,” December 2005.)

DHS’s Science and Technology Directorate, the agency’s research and development office, has awarded 432 yearlong fellowships since 2003. DHS pays winners’ tuition and offers monthly stipends of up to $2,300 for graduate students.

Topics being researched by 2007 fellows range from the public’s psychological reactions to federal homeland security policy to development of an algorithm that may offer early detection of a disease outbreak scattered across different emergency rooms.


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