Op-ed: National security intersects with higher education

May 21, 2008

By Graham B. Spanier

The premise that higher education is connected in any meaningful way with national security interests might draw skeptical, if not hostile, looks from many Americans, including lots of university faculty, staff and students.

But connected we are, and always have been. To cite just a few points of intersection, our history of collaboration stems from the research of our scholars and the funding that supports it, our schools' roles in educating generations of workers who go on to careers related to national security, and the circumstance of universities being occasional targets of foreign governments wanting to exploit relationships, compromise information networks, or access intellectual property. 

There also is an unfortunate history of inappropriate U.S. government surveillance of lawful activism and other miscues that have created suspicion over the decades. Americans tend to be wary of government in the first place, especially on college and university campuses.   

So any assertion that ties together higher education and national security raises important questions about the nature of such relationships today. To what extent, then, should universities think of themselves as part of the "solution" to our nation's priorities in homeland security, defense, law enforcement, intelligence and related interests?

These are among the issues discussed regularly by the National Security Higher Education Advisory Board.  The board, now in operation for three years, consists of current and former presidents and chancellors of 20 of the nation's major research universities.

The board is hosted administratively by the FBI, which has set up a new section, the Domain Section, in part to facilitate better relationships with academe. The section has done an excellent job of connecting the board with officials from a broad range of federal agencies. 

The board has been a productive forum for discussion. Agendas are determined primarily by the interests and concerns of the universities and have led to changes in government policy and practice, greater understanding about the values and traditions of higher education, more open lines of communication when problems surface, the development of greater sensitivities about the domains in which we all operate, and some success stories resulting from greater cooperation.

There are many national security-related issues on higher education's radar screen at the moment. What concerns universities will change from time to time, but let me offer my current top 10 list.

*    Denial of visas to scholars who wish to visit the United States, especially when the denial is political rather than security-related;

*    Threats to faculty members and university property by animal rights terrorists and eco-rights terrorists;

*    Government-imposed protocols for restriction and/or prior review of unclassified but sensitive research;

*    Deemed export policy and regulations applicable to universities (Deemed exports refer to technology that resides in the United States, but is "deemed" to have been exported if a foreign national has access to the technology within the United States);

*    Rapidly increasing relationships with China throughout higher education and its juxtaposition to U.S. government concerns about China;

*    Growing concerns about cyber security at universities and the vulnerability of our information systems and networks in the face of potential intrusions by foreign governments, organized crime and hackers;

*    Sensitivities around faculty and graduate students who are approached for cooperation around intelligence and counterintelligence matters

*    Threats to the long-established concepts and protocols for reimbursement of overhead expenses (indirect cost recovery) on grants and contracts for defense-related research;

*    Increasing numbers of overseas campuses of U.S. universities, sometimes in parts of the world with strong anti-American sentiments, and the implications for security; and

*    Campus safety, especially vulnerability to acts of terrorism, psychologically-troubled individuals who are in the transition from adolescence to adulthood, and other crime prevalent around university communities.

There are a multitude of other potential topics that can benefit from mutually supportive discussions between academe and our government agencies. Among them are a renewed emphasis on foreign language instruction, refinements to ROTC education that can benefit our country, increased funding for universities in research and development, intergovernmental personnel exchanges, collaborative research projects, internships for students, alterations of government hiring practices to be more responsive to our graduating students, foreign student enrollments and visa services, and programs to increase international understanding.

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, there has been a renewed willingness in government and higher education to have meaningful dialogue. This will benefit our universities and our nation in the long run. 
(Graham B. Spanier, president of The Pennsylvania State University, serves as chair of the National Security Higher Education Advisory Board.)

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Last Updated March 19, 2009