Tuesday, August 23, 2005

What responsibilities do universities have in fighting the war on terror? Most professors have not even thought to ask the question.

The arrest of an Egyptian chemistry Ph.D. who studied at universities in Leeds in Great Britain and North Carolina in connection with the July 7 bombings highlights the potential vulnerability of academic institutions to wannabe terrorist organizers.

Five factors make universities especially vulnerable both to direct attack and to being used as a cover.

Academic Freedom. A relaxed tolerance of diversity of opinion, even extremist rhetoric, provides an excellent arena for those seeking to quietly turn impressionable young minds in classrooms, in campus meetings or in student societies. What might be termed odd behavior in the “real world” is excused in academia as eccentric and benign.

Open Campuses. Urban universities that coexist with neighboring communities attract hangers-on, both individuals and institutions.

Unaffiliated language schools, religious centres and “institutes” seek to boost their appeal by living in the university’s shadow. Young people, not enrolled as students, often working in bookstores and bars, pushing propaganda or drugs, blend easily into the environment.

Population Churn. At larger, second-tier institutions, there is a constant turnover of students and increasing use of part-time and visiting faculty, often from overseas. People rarely know everyone in their department and supervision is often slack. A graduate student who keeps himself to himself can easily go unbothered.

Globalization. Academia is now a global business with more students and faculty than ever before crossing borders to teach or study, conduct research or attend conferences.

Second-tier universities have been known to relax their admissions criteria when they can charge higher fees to foreign students.

Resource Access. Graduate students and faculty working in laboratories often have unreasonably easy access to dangerous substances that are not always properly inventoried. Access control procedures should be tightened with fingerprint or iris recognition systems used in critical areas.

Security plans at universities have understandably focused on the safety of individual students and, in some cases, protection against theft of intellectual property. Plans typically emphasize response rather than prevention and rarely address terrorist attacks or undercover terrorist activity.

Security plans need to be reviewed by university governing boards. In an era of reputation risk management, no university trustee or alumnus wants the publicity received by the University of South Florida for the vitriolic rhetoric of a now dismissed Palestinian professor. Or that sadly received by the London School of Economics which graduated the killer of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.

Here are five recommendations:

Set standards for campus discourse. University leaders must show courage and confront professors — tenured or not — who preach hate, usually on subjects unrelated to those about which they are being paid to teach. They may self-destruct in their pursuit of personal notoriety but that does not mean that they should not be fired first.

Student groups that endorse terrorism or use university facilities to link to Web sites that do should also be disciplined. A healthy university is a cauldron of ideas but not all ideas are grounded in intellectual decency.

Behavior pattern recognition. Enlist the police to educate the university community, including campus security staff, about the early warning signs of terrorists-in-the-making in the same way we teach about spotting drug and alcohol abuse. Offer a confidential reporting procedure.

Recruitment screening. Share information with the authorities on prospective student admits and staff hires so they can be checked against international watch lists. To avoid embarrassment, do not extend invitations until individuals have been cleared. This may be controversial but universities and international foundations that fund visiting scholar programs must do more than review academic references. Otherwise, as in Colorado, state legislation may require them to do so.

Student performance. Conduct exit interviews with undergraduate and graduate students who drop out. And if a student’s grades drop unexpectedly, seek to understand why.

Research funding. Do what universities do best: encourage deep thinking, serious discourse and rigorous research on the causes of and responses to terrorism. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has funded several terrorism research centres at major universities. More needs to be done.

In implementing these common sense measures, there must be no witch hunts, no unreasonable curtailing of academic freedom and no reduction in the global exchange of ideas.

Academics who oppose their countries’ policies are not to be branded as unpatriotic. Educational and cultural exchanges with the Muslim world must be expanded, not curtailed, not to win hearts and minds but to develop a shared understanding.

But no university can be an ivory tower in the war on terror. We know that many suicide bombers are well-educated. Civic duty demands that professors and administrators be vigilant and be prepared to do their fair share for the greater good.

John Quelch is senior associate dean of Harvard Business School.

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