Disaster 101: Preparing Students For A Scary Future

iStockphoto.com i

More American colleges are offering classes that teach students to deal with a shrinking and increasingly dangerous world. iStockphoto.com hide caption

itoggle caption iStockphoto.com
iStockphoto.com

More American colleges are offering classes that teach students to deal with a shrinking and increasingly dangerous world.

iStockphoto.com

When classes resume in the fall, the University of Maryland University College will be offering several courses in understanding terrorism, including "Counterterrorism" and "Terrorism, Antiterrorism and Homeland Security." Utah Valley University in Orem is looking for an assistant professor of emergency services. Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y., advertises that its environmental engineering majors will be equipped to tackle such frightening issues as global warming, acid rain and pollution.

More American colleges are offering classes that teach students to deal with a shrinking and increasingly dangerous world. Whole programs — anti-terrorism, emergency management, cybersecurity, environmental pollution control — are designed to prepare students for lucrative careers battling the things that scare us.

"Traditionally," says Gregory L. Shaw, co-director of the Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management at George Washington University in Washington, "emergency management has been primarily a second or later career for professionals from the first-responder community — fire, police and emergency medical services — and military personnel."

Smoke billows from the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001. i

The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks made emergency management a critical priority. Marty Lederhandler/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Marty Lederhandler/AP
Smoke billows from the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001.

The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks made emergency management a critical priority.

Marty Lederhandler/AP

But, he says, "more and more, careers in emergency management ... are becoming a first career for younger people entering the job market."

In 1994, there were four university-level emergency management programs in the U.S., according to Shaw. Today there are more than 150 and another 30 currently in development or approved. And, Shaw adds, his graduating students seem to be finding jobs.

Attackademics

There is a raft of reasons for the proliferation of security-related courses. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Homeland Security Act of 2002 established a dozen Centers of Excellence at universities and research laboratories around the nation. The centers were asked by the feds to increase the nation's understanding of various aspects of dangerous threats, including explosives, chemical and biological attacks, the behavioral side of evil and other alarm-bell issues.

The centers receive millions of dollars from the federal government each year to sustain and enhance their programs. According to a July 2010 report from the Heritage Foundation, "Academic institutions have become a core member of the national homeland security enterprise."

The Heritage Foundation report points out that emergency management and homeland security education programs teach students the key skills needed in emergency situations. The programs promote tried-and-true techniques that are useful for dealing with — and even avoiding — domestic emergencies. They encourage academics to develop applicable research in security-related areas. And, according to the report, "besides educating students, training current professionals, and fostering research, academia assists in homeland security planning and exercises and the sharing of best practices.”

Other factors feed into the increased number of programs. Continued unrest and hostilities around the globe create a sense of instability and danger that call for expanded roles of security corporations and emergency management organizations. Economies are faltering; the environment is threatened; technologies make waging war from long distances more possible. The media microscope focuses our attention on one cataclysm after another — the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the earthquake in Haiti and the Gulf of Mexico oil gusher in 2010. As natural and human-made disasters abound, we look for fast-responders and problem-solvers.

When life gives you lemons, secure the lemonade stand.

At Purdue University, courses in homeland security are woven in among various disciplines. "Our goal is to ensure the engineer, political scientist or management graduate can consider homeland security issues and make appropriate decisions in their fields to improve overall public safety," says James Eric Dietz, director of the Purdue Homeland Security Institute."All of our students have secured jobs in their fields of study using the homeland security training as differentiators from other students."

Oh, The Humanities!

Because finances are finite in academia, when there is a trend toward certain pursuits, there is a concomitant trend away from others.

"There is a drift away from the humanities today, as there has been for at least three decades," says William M. Chace. "The shift is almost always to the practical, to majors that seem to lay the path to jobs, and to the more expedient and the less abstract."

Chace speaks from mega-experience. He is the author of 100 Semesters: My Adventures as Student, Professor, and University President, and What I Learned Along the Way. He has taught at several universities and been president of two — Wesleyan University and Emory University.

Institutions of higher learning do not resist the trend toward practical-minded, career-oriented training courses, Chace says, "but rather speed it on by supplying more internal resources to those disciplines that themselves can capture external support. As educational institutions more and more conceive of themselves as corporate entities and less as citadels of learning across a wide spectrum of knowledge ... the result is to become more and more like trade schools."

Chace adds: "The awesome influence of money — or the lack of it — is felt everywhere in higher education, and this is the reality that will dominate the schools for decades to come."

Ergo, the offerings in crisis management and anti-terrorism will likely continue to proliferate. Only time will tell if there is job security in our national insecurity, and whether the well-prepared students will deal thoughtfully and successfully with future threats — and maybe even eradicate them. Or if a new caste of crisis-management professionals will constantly need new crises to manage.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.