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As Anxiety Grows, So Does Field of Terror Study


Published: September 1, 2004

On a summer evening in a TriBeCa classroom at Metropolitan College of New York, graduate students pored over spreadsheets, calculating how prepared the elderly residents of Harlem would be for a dirty-bomb attack. In a course titled "The Impact of Disaster on Communities," the students analyzed the catastrophic possibilities for New York City and its residents.


Motivated by the terror attacks of 9/11, colleges have rushed to create counterterrorism and homeland security courses, and thousands of students in New York and elsewhere are pursuing degrees in that area, making disaster one of the fastest-growing fields in academia.

Drawn together under the unofficial banner of homeland security studies, these programs, which include undergraduate degrees as well as master's and doctoral programs, use an interdisciplinary approach, teaching students how to psychoanalyze terrorists, conduct crowd control and remain calm in front of reporters.

"You are dealing with the dark side of humanity," said Olymar Alsina, 27, who will graduate next spring from Metropolitan College with a master's degree in emergency and disaster management. "But the fact that you are addressing it or minimizing the damage reflects some sort of hope that what you do will have an outcome."

Over the last three years, nearly 100 private and state colleges have introduced programs in terrorism and emergency management. In New York City, both Metropolitan College, which changed its name from Audrey Cohen College in 2002, and John Jay College of Criminal Justice have introduced master's programs that specialize in terrorism and disaster management. New York University is putting together a certificate program focusing on homeland security.

Other private and state colleges, from North Dakota State University in Fargo to George Washington University in Washington, have introduced doctorate programs in terrorism and emergency management.

B. Wayne Blanchard, who heads the Federal Emergency Management Agency's higher education project, said that when he began his job almost a decade ago, four programs in the country focused on disaster management. Today, there are 115 degree programs, with 100 more colleges considering adding them.

The study of terrorism and emergency management has grown out of traditional disaster studies, which were once the domain of community colleges and focused on managing "first responders" - the police, fire and paramedic forces that responded to hurricanes and riots. But in recent years, major state and private universities have joined in, offering courses like "Public Health and Disasters" and "Terrorism and Apocalyptic Violence."

With its focus on worst-case planning, the field often attracts the highly pragmatic.

"I am somewhat of a perfectionist," said Kristy Ashberry, 25, who graduated from the University of North Texas with a bachelor's degree and then a master's in emergency preparedness. Today she is an emergency management coordinator for the city of Rockwell, just outside Dallas. "Some people's brains aren't wired to deal with all the details, but I am," she said.

Ms. Alsina, the New York student, combines her studies at Metropolitan College with a full-time job teaching at Edward A. Reynolds West Side High School in Manhattan. For her master's project, Ms. Alsina, who once worked at the World Trade Center, is writing a manual for her high school on responding to an attack, be it from a terrorist or a student.

The aim of most of these programs is not to train the next generation of C.I.A. terrorism analysts, but to educate local officials and corporate managers who have largely been given the task of mitigating disasters.

This year, the Department of Homeland Security has doled out about $70 million in grant money to colleges and universities. With the agency's annual budget of $32 billion, there is the powerful lure of new jobs at state and local agencies, as well as corporations that benefit from its grants.

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