The 2001 terrorist attacks ushered in a major shift on U.S. college campuses, where domestic security has become, by some measures, the fastest-growing area of study, fueled largely by an explosion in federal money.
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — A few weeks ago, Amanda Stirrat, 24, completed her master’s degree in public health at Purdue University. Most of her peers struggled to find work. As for Stirrat?
“The job market seemed easy,” she said.
She credited her studies in Purdue’s homeland-security program for quickly landing her a job to help coordinate Indiana’s response to large-scale public emergencies. Purdue gave her the chance to work with retired military officers and other security specialists to write a thesis on disaster preparedness. The expertise set her apart, she said.
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The 2001 terrorist attacks ushered in a major shift on U.S. college campuses — tragedy giving way, 10 years later, to innovation and opportunity.
Today, domestic security has become, by some measures, the fastest-growing area of study, fueled largely by an explosion in federal money. Scores of programs have popped up, from community colleges to graduate schools.
Thousands of students across the country are enrolled in courses that didn’t exist a few years ago, delving into the psychology of terrorists and rogue regimes, or, as in Indiana, studying emergency response by simulating mass-casualty disasters at the site of the Indianapolis 500.
Disciplines that had lost relevance have been resurrected. Some microbiology programs were folding before Sept. 11. Overnight, studying once-obscure germs such as anthrax and Ebola became vital; National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding soared by a factor of 30, and students have been pouring into the field ever since.
Some of the programs have produced novel advances. At Texas A&M University, federally funded researchers have affixed radiation sensors to cockroaches — on tiny backpacks — that could be deployed to search for a “dirty” bomb.
Thousands of young people now view going to college as being part of “a mission,” said Dr. Tara O’Toole, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s undersecretary for science and technology.
The department has spent nearly $4 billion on research in the past five years, with hundreds of millions more pouring into colleges from other state and federal agencies, including the NIH and the Department of Defense.
The new focus at Purdue is largely the result of its Homeland Security Institute, established after the 2001 attacks to use campus resources to confront national-security threats.
The institute has developed courses set in “living laboratories,” such as large dairy operations, to study ways to prepare for, respond to and recover from terrorist attacks. New courses are being added and officials are weighing the possibility of creating a stand-alone homeland-security major.
The institute — run by two retired Army lieutenant colonels — also scours announcements of national-security initiatives and partners them with campus researchers. The result is a new emphasis on collaboration among the university, government and corporate financiers interested in security research.
Interest in national security “is beginning to influence the way we look at research in general,” said Alan Rebar, executive director of Discovery Park, a Purdue think tank that leads interdisciplinary research initiatives. “It invades every area of our research today.”
“Faster and faster”
The investment is paying dividends for the colleges at a time they need cash.
Purdue microbiology professor Arun Bhunia had long been developing nanotechnology to detect naturally occurring pathogens in food. After Sept. 11, Bhunia applied this technology in new ways to guard against terrorism.
The result: a machine that sends lasers through colonies of bacteria, creating a shadow “fingerprint” that could help investigators determine whether a pathogen has been intentionally introduced into the food supply. Recently, a corporation licensed the technology, a development, brokered in part by the institute, that could be worth millions to Purdue.
Chemistry professor R. Graham Cooks spent decades perfecting a mass spectrometer, a machine that calculates molecular weight and chemical structure. Before Sept. 11, he used it to analyze the molecular framework of strawberry jam and cactuses. He said he felt as if he had a fascinating piece of technology in search of a practical application.
Today, Cooks’ science has never been hotter. He and his students helped refine a machine that once filled a room into a handheld device that Purdue is preparing to license. The technology can be used to detect traces of explosives on suitcases and clothing or biological agents sent through the mail. The next generation will fit inside a smartphone.
“Everything is moving faster and faster,” Cooks said.
For decades, U.S. colleges have responded to crisis by recasting their curricula to meet national needs.
In 1957, for instance, much of the country was plunged into hysteria after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I, the first man-made object to orbit Earth. The United States appeared to be losing the space race and responded with a billion-dollar research and education initiative.
“It is just the nature of American universities. It is in their DNA,” said Irwin Feller, a professor emeritus of economics at Pennsylvania State University who headed a study on the impact of homeland security on higher education.
Plenty of jobs
At a time 2 million college graduates in the United States are unemployed, numerous fields related to national security are hiring. In 2009, for example, the National Cyber Security Division of the Homeland Security Department nearly tripled its workforce.
Purdue views its national-security work as a “differentiator” for students, “a way to sell yourself in a tough job environment,” said J. Eric Dietz, director of the university’s Homeland Security Institute.
Purdue graduate student Steve Riedel, 40, agreed, saying: “What my résumé looked like two years ago to what it looks like now — there is no comparison.”
Riedel was in the Navy for 11 years; the institute has recruited scores of military veterans. Riedel has taken three domestic-security courses at Purdue and is in the homestretch of a security-related thesis, with an eye toward a job in agricultural security. “The demand is phenomenal,” he said.
Numerous colleges have launched programs to take advantage of the research money flowing in since Sept. 11.
The University of Southern California operates one of the Homeland Security Department’s 12 university-based research units, known as centers of excellence. The university receives about $3 million each year in federal funding; its researchers investigate terrorism-related issues, including predicting the economic impact of an attack’s aftermath, such as port closures or disease epidemics.
In May, UCLA opened a $32 million Global Bio Lab, paid for largely by the state and federal governments, to target bioterrorist attacks and infectious diseases.
“A handful of universities have really hit the jackpot,” said Feller, the retired economics professor.
At Kansas State University (KSU) in Manhattan, Kan., taxpayers will spend nearly $1 billion to build the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility to guard the nation’s agricultural economy and food supply. Though it is a federal project, it is expected to have a deep and lasting effect on the university long before it becomes operational in 2019.
The facility’s scientists, for instance, will become adjunct KSU professors, enhancing graduate studies and creating new areas of collaborative research. The university is also using the project to develop a partnership with animal-health corporations that could result in lucrative advancements.
There is skepticism in the academic world that the sudden dominance of security programs is a good thing. William Chace, a recent president of Emory University and professor emeritus of English at Stanford University, said the shift risks turning colleges and universities into “servile mechanisms for state or federal interests.”
Chace spoke by telephone from London, where he was conducting a seminar for students studying “Four Quartets,” T.S. Eliot’s poetic treatise on philosophy and spirituality. It is the sort of study, he said, that will surely be pushed aside by the zeal for domestic-security programs.
Others argue that colleges are always evolving and that the ascent of one discipline does not necessarily mean the decline of others.
“The demand is going to continue for years to come,” said Penn State President Graham Spanier, who has long called for higher education to play a heightened role in national security. The university offers several certificate and degree programs, along with a homeland-security summer camp for middle-school and high-school students.