Last Updated: 6/28/06
National Security and Academic Freedom: Defining the Limits

Balancing security and academic freedom
June 19, 2006
By Graham B. Spanier

A few months after Sept. 11, 2001, a few visitors stopped by my office in the heart of Penn State's University Park campus. My administrative assistant was a bit nervous when she told me, with raised eyebrows, that two gentlemen from the Federal Bureau of Investigation wanted to see me.

If special agents of the FBI pop in for a visit, you can be pretty sure they aren't there to congratulate you on your stellar class of incoming students. Needless to say, they were there on official business.

In fact, in the aftermath of Sept. 11, communications with federal security agencies have become more common for college and university administrators as we collectively deal with issues such as terrorism, cyber-security intrusions, immigration policy and visa regulations, deemed exports, handling of chemical and biological agents and classified or sensitive research.

While our country struggles to strengthen homeland security, we in academe are especially attuned to the matter of balance: the balance between our government's duty to provide for the security of our nation and higher education's historical commitment to academic freedom and openness, our long-standing open door policy with scholars from around the world and our strong inclination toward civil rights.

Colleges and universities in particular have fostered a climate of free inquiry and discovery. As a core ingredient of American higher education, the free marketplace of ideas has led to vast technological breakthroughs and new discoveries that have translated into tremendous progress for our nation.

In fact, the research conducted at American universities has played a significant role in ensuring our nation's security.

Historically there has been a certain level of distrust between universities and the nation's defense, law enforcement and intelligence establishment. New regulations have intensified those feelings as many academics fear that an overly restrictive atmosphere will lead to cultural isolation and the loss of our worldwide pre-eminence in critical areas of science and innovation.

These are reasonable concerns. That is why a new advisory board was formed last year to open the doors of communication between higher education and the nation's national security, law enforcement and intelligence communities.

In an unprecedented move, the FBI has taken the lead on behalf of other partner government agencies to establish The National Security Higher Education Advisory Board. Consisting of presidents and chancellors of 17 prominent U.S. universities, the board is expected to foster outreach and promote understanding, as well as develop opportunities through research, education and public-service collaboration to further aid our nation's security interests.

As chair of this advisory board, I have seen a remarkable and productive dialogue begin to flourish in the first year of our work.

Through the National Security Higher Education Advisory Board, we are generating meaningful discussion on a broad range of issues including the importance of international students and scholars; immigration policy; implications of the Patriot Act; the dissemination of research data; export policy; security of information networks; our leadership in science and technology; and the best use of the extraordinary talent found in our universities to mitigate any new security threats.

This advisory board is creating a cross-fertilization of ideas that can only come from informed and ongoing discourse.

Finding the proper balance between national security mandates and the fundamental values underlying higher education is critical to U.S. leadership, economic strength and productivity, as well as the potential of our universities.

Higher education has a critical role to play in the national security of a free society. In fact, we were part of an exciting announcement with the launch of a new International Center for the Study of Terrorism dedicated to reducing the global threat of terrorism and minimizing its impact on society by an international alliance of leading universities. Led by Penn State, researchers from the United States, United Kingdom, Europe and People's Republic of China will investigate the root causes of this worldwide phenomenon, understand its long-term effects on society and identify new ways of safeguarding individuals, organizations and communities.

The National Security Higher Education Advisory Board promises to help universities and government work toward a balanced and rational approach that will allow science and education to progress and our nation to remain safe.

Graham B. Spanier is president of Penn State and chairman of the National Security Higher Education Advisory Board.

This article was originally published by the Centre Daily in State College, PA

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