The Day That Changed a College

September 11, 2006

Five summers ago, John Jay College of Criminal Justice brought 500 New York Police Department officers to its campus on Manhattan's Westside for a two-semester certificate course in leadership training. It was the first year of the seminar, and coordinator Maki Haberfeld had high hopes.

But retention quickly became a problem. By the middle of September, only three students were coming to class. Something had happened, and Haberfeld knew it had nothing to do with the quality of instruction. The students, as officers, simply had more pressing obligations.

They were working near Ground Zero -- the World Trade Center site.

“I was thinking, that’s the end of the program,” said Haberfeld, chair of the Department of Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice Administration at John Jay College. 

In the weeks after September 11, students trickled back to class, telling their tales of rescues and reactions. The officers needed information. They wanted guidance. Why were we attacked? What's the story behind the terrorists? How do we handle emotional family members wanting to know about victims?

"What we were teaching," Haberfeld said, pausing to collect her thoughts, "it was so relevant. I couldn't think of better timing. [The students] were stressed and extremely confused."

After that point, the certificate program changed course, dealing largely with issues relating directly to 9/11: counterterrorism, the USA Patriot Act, post-traumatic stress disorder.  The class had a clear mission; retaining students no longer was a concern.

A few miles and dozens of skyscrapers separate John Jay from Manhattan's financial district. It isn't the closest college to the former World Trade Center site (Pace University and Borough of Manhattan Community College, among others, are closer) but five years ago today, John Jay was the first place many in higher education thought of after the terrorist attacks, because of its longstanding mission to train students in the public safety fields.

A large percent of first responders that day had a connection to John Jay, a four-year college that is part of the City University of New York system. Sixty-seven students and alumni died in the World Trade Center attacks, and countless others suffered immediate injury and lingering health problems because of their proximity to the scene. September 11 took an emotional toll on the college, but officials there weren't looking for sympathy.

“Everyone in the city knew someone who died," said James P. Levine, dean of research and graduate studies. "That's not what set us apart."

What did was the college's response.

The First Response

On a soggy early September morning, one day into fall classes, students wearing NYPD apparel and flat-billed New York Yankees caps swipe their security cards inside John Jay's main classroom building. They walk down steps toward a narrow corridor decorated with glass-encased police and fire uniforms. There is no official 9/11 memorial on the ground floor, but the subject isn't far from anyone's mind. 

“It is very personal,” said a history professor, Charles B. Strozier, who was in his West Village office on the morning of the attacks. "We have a deep institutional involvement in 9/11. I knew right away that I’d be studying this.”

Strozier, whose research focuses on apocalyptic violence and issues of terrorism, began interviewing survivors a few days after 9/11. John Jay's top administrators didn't wait long to talk about their college's future. They met in a college conference room, knowing that they had key curricular decisions to make -- most pressingly, how to reflect in coursework post-9/11 changes to the public safety fields.

Later that semester, John Jay made its biggest public move by opening a Center on Terrorism, with Strozier as director. The center conducts original research, sponsors fellows who investigate aspects of apocalyptic violence and hosts a bi-monthly Friday seminar series featuring experts in biological weapons, Constitutional law, torture and related fields. The center also hosts Ph.D. students and mid-career professionals wanting to enter careers in government agencies.

Strozier wanted to take the study of the post-9/11 world a step further. He pushed the college to offer a Certificate in Terrorism Studies, which students can receive along with a master's degree in a particular discipline. The certificate program has grown from about five to 120 students since its inception.

As part of the program, Strozier teaches a two-course sequence on terrorism. (There is also a third terrorism course.) The first semester focuses on issues of politics and history; the second on psychological aspects of terrorism and apocalyptic violence. Students read newspaper accounts of terrorism and contemporary authors' analyses of world news.

“The world always provides good examples, unfortunately,” Strozier said. “It hasn’t failed me yet."

Strozier said some of his favorite students are firemen who were on duty during 9/11, or foreign law enforcement officers who regularly take his classes. It's not uncommon for the seminar to be interrupted -- a female student recently burst into tears because her uncle died in the World Trade Center. 

“That kind of response happens all the time,” Strozier said. “The whole subject has a kind of immediacy and relevance here.”

Shifting Interests, Adding Courses

John Jay College has seen a significant increase in terrorism-related scholarship in the past few years, mostly in the form of original research from professors and graduate students, and visits from experts outside the academy. Last fall, the college hosted a conference attended by myriad Ivy League professors about the practical methods to prevent a nuclear or bioterrorism attack on New York. This November, the college is hosting college presidents to discuss how to teach terrorism in the classroom.

Strozier pointed to two recent hires of leading experts on Islamic studies and suicide bombers as evidence that the college is positioning itself as not only a leader in the field of public service training, but also the study of the post-9/11 world.

The demand for the latter is growing, said Levine, the John Jay research dean. Three times as many students are taking Arabic courses at the college than did before September 11, he said.

Surveillance and interrogation methods are hot topics in the classroom, and an international criminal justice graduate program that had been in the works before 9/11 has been popular,   he added. A new class on "Terrorism and the Law," in Haberfeld's department, examines the history of emergency government actions and the legal statutory process.

Haberfeld counted eight terrorism-related courses now offered at the college, compared with one before 9/11.

"We can barely run enough classes to meet the interest level of students," Strozier said.

Those numbers are consistent with a new survey of private college presidents released last week by the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities that shows an increasing body of international course offerings and heightened student interest in all things related to 9/11. A report released two years ago by the American Association of Community Colleges also showed that colleges had added -- or had begun to add -- more courses in security training.

Strozier said he has seen a shift in students' career choices, as well. Some who would have gone into the private sector in fields such as business administration are more often opting for jobs in the public service fields, he said.

Danielle Wilson considers herself among the changed. Before September 11, Wilson focused her studies as an undergraduate at John Jay on juvenile delinquency. After the attacks, she decided on a master’s degree in criminal justice and wants to become a criminologist.

Wilson said she sought out any terrorism-related course she could find, including two with Strozier -- the psychology of terrorism and apocalyptic violence and 9/11. Her thesis, recently completed, is on the impact of the attacks on college students. Wilson said the survey of hundreds of students revealed that those who had lost family members, or said they had felt immense stress after 9/11, were the most likely to change their careers to service-related fields.

“Because I had been so greatly impacted, and had changed my degree and area of focus, I wanted to find out if others had been changing their minds, as well,” Wilson said.

Remembering Victims

Each fall, John Jay College honors its fallen alumni and fellow 9/11 victims with a ceremony. In 2002, Princeton University gave $250,000 to establish a scholarship program at John Jay to honor the memory of the college's alumni who died in the terrorist attacks. Five scholarships of $2,000 are given out in each class to students who show an interest in public service.

Haberfeld said the college can still do more to adapt to the times: She suggests a mandatory intro to terrorism course for every entering student.

Sitting in an office dominated by a bulletin board of colorful police badges, Haberfeld recounts her work as a consultant to a variety of law enforcement agencies. In the Israeli Defense Force, she was assigned to a counterterrorism unit to prevent attacks in Israel.

This year, Haberfeld is supervising two doctoral students who are doing their dissertations on terrorism-related topics. You must, she tells the students, be more knowledgeable than the growing number of "so-called experts on terrorism," she said.

That's where John Jay can help, Haberfeld said.

“For better of worse, terrorism is a new area of considerable research,” Haberfeld said, ”and we are in the middle of it" -- geographically and otherwise.

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