History of the Graduate Program in Homeland Security

As presently configured, the national security institutions of the U.S. government are still the institutions constructed to win the Cold War.  The U.S. confronts a very different world today.  Instead of facing a few very dangerous adversaries, the U.S. confronts a number of less visible challenges that surpass the boundaries of traditional nation-states and call for quick, imaginative, and agile responses.

—9/11 Commission Report

How is the traditional university to respond to the needs of the public and private sectors in the post-9/11 era where quick, imaginative, and agile responses are called for to address the security challenges faced by the U.S. and international community?

Members of the Faculty at San Diego State University (SDSU) began to wrestle with this question immediately after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.  It soon became apparent to them that our security lapses were largely a result of stovepiping, a pervasive myopia that prevented bureaucracies from fully identifying and responding to security challenges.  Consequently, the ability to prevent, deter, preempt, defend against, and respond to attacks on the very people and institutions they were charged to protect was impaired.  Recognizing this, the question for us then became how could the university best assist students and the community to overcome stovepiping and positively contribute to the efforts of the public and private sectors as they confront the challenges of the post-9/11 world?

To answer this question, the founders of SDSU's Graduate Program in Homeland Security recognized that government, in the words of the 9/11 Commission, "should not settle for incremental, ad hoc adjustments to a system designed generations ago for a world that no longer exists." The founders of the HSEC Program also recognized that the university should not settle for such typical responses as well.  Instead, the university's response to the new security environment should be bold, innovative and constructive in meeting these challenges head on, whether it is for for man-made or (as the 2003 tsunami, 2004 San Diego wildfires, and Hurricane Katrina in 2005 would soon make so evidently clear) natural disasters and critical incidents.  

Instead, the founders of the HSEC Program believed that the university must boldly rethink traditional distinctions between disciplines, facilitate the cross-fertilization of knowledge and skill sets, expose the relationship between theory and practice, and encourage entrepreneurial and critical thinking that encompasses global perspectives and ethical context.  The university must also create safe environments where students can enjoy learning and researching the subjects and technologies they once feared, but now want to know so they can do their job more effectively and proactively.  Finally, the university must encourage the active involvement of students with the community from the local to global levels, giving them the satisfaction of making a difference not just after they graduate, but also while they are actively engaged in the learning process itself.

How does one achieve these objectives?  The answer for SDSU originated in the community we serve.  San Diego can best be described as a living laboratory for homeland security research and education, replicating security concerns existing in part or in full in communities across the U.S., with the addition of an extensive international border with the world's busiest border crossing.  Because of the security challenges evident in San Diego, the Department of Homeland Security views San Diego as a leading potential target for terrorist attacks and narco-violence, a focus for border and port security concerns, and a hot spot for major natural disasters like earthquakes, floods, and fires.  In the months after 9/11, two local congressional representatives, The Honorable Susan Davis and The Honorable Duncan Hunter, created the Regional Network on Homeland Security (RNHS).  The RNHS focuses on promoting security awareness and cooperation in the public and private sectors.  This committee identified a need to provide new educational initiatives to meet the homeland security needs of the region.  SDSU faculty members who served as members of relevant subcommittees of the RNHS seized the opportunity to rethink graduate education for security issues from the ground up, thereby avoiding we they viewed as traditional, discipline-based approaches to the subject that reinforce and, in some cases, encourage a stove-piped worldview that lead to security vulnerabilities.

SDSU responded by creating a graduate curriculum in homeland security in 2003, a program that necessitated a number of student-centered and technology-mediated educational initiatives and reforms.  The Program began as a specialization in SDSU's Interdisciplinary Studies program, but rapidly achieved full, independent Program status in 2007 due to its rapid growth and demand from our community for graduate level education covering the myriad of issues facing those with careers in the homeland security world.  The HSEC Program is the first graduate program at SDSU to require a study abroad experience for graduation (short 10-14 day programs are offered each summer and an HSEC border security course is offered annually in nearby Baja California Norte so that those with professional and family responsibilities can more easily meet this requirement; a number of traditional semester study abroad options are also available for  full-time graduate students ).

The "nerve center" of the HSEC Program is the SDSU Visualization Lab.  Dr. Eric Frost, Co-Director of the Graduate Program in Homeland Security, is the Director of the "Viz Lab."  The Viz Lab is the formal research arm of the HSEC Program and it provides graduate students with the opportunity to apply research and community service to real-world security challenges in real-time via data collection, management, and analysis; sensors; data fusion; visualization; communication; and decision support for humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and homeland security.  For example, the Viz Lab generated geospatial imagery used by first responders and decision-makers in such disasters as the tsunami in Indonesia (2003) and Hurricane Katrina (2004), three-dimensional imagery of Afghanistan (used for humanitarian and development initiatives) and Mars (used as part of the Mars Rover educational program),  visualization tools for research and educational efforts of the Italian Ministry of Culture and Heritage, and real-time imagery of wildfires and earthquakes around the globe. 

Funded by over $5,000,000 in grants per year, the Viz Lab provides practical assistance for natural disasters, pandemic response and analysis, humanitarian assistance, regional and global sustainability, global collaboration, domestic and international law enforcement, homeland and international security, global education, global business ventures, and product design and development.  Many class sessions are held in the Viz Lab. and the Viz Lab staff often provide assistance to graduate students on research projects.  Some graduate students with the appropriate educational and professional backgrounds are often hired to work on one or more of the many research projects funded by public and private sector grants. 

As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, the Faculty of the HSEC Program look forward to continuing their efforts to evolve, adapt, and innovate their research and educational efforts to ensure that HSEC graduate students are being equipped to be the best prepared leaders in the homeland security community.  The Program's motto says it all: Train for certainty. Educate for uncertainty.