An interview with the new Director of the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies: Neil Shortland, Ph.D.

What is the UMass Lowell Center for Terrorism and Security Studies?

The Center for Terrorism and Security Studies (CTSS) is an interdisciplinary, cross-campus research hub aimed at bringing together people who focus on a diverse range of topics that in some way relate to international/domestic security. We focus on issues such as the military, civil wars, WMD [weapons of mass destruction] protection; it’s just a hub. CTSS is not bound by a discipline.  It’s not a criminology center; it’s not a psychology center, cyber center. But its goal is to be a place where all of these people come together. And you don’t just have to study security and terrorism. It can just be a part of your portfolio. But if an area you’re working in could be useful in this field, it’s somewhere you can come to and find a network of like-minded individuals to try and flesh that out. And that applies to both the professional level and the student level. We don’t just work with criminal justice students; we work with psychology students, political science students. We’ve worked with cyber security students and mathematicians. It’s for anyone at any level who has interest in national security and terrorism to come and let those interests flourish.

What do you hope to accomplish as the new director of the Center?

For me it’s about diversity. Terrorism is a very narrow focus and I think it’s a disservice to those that we hope to benefit to only be focused on one kind of type of security or one kind of type of action. So one of my big areas is I want to diversify what we do, what we work with, the people we work with, and the projects we bring through the door. The real-world programs that we’re involved in implementing. I want to cover a much wider remit. I want to be more involved in cyber, I want to be more involved in how we recover from humanitarian disasters, and I want to be more involved in WMD’s and long-term issues of protection. We have amazing philosophers and I want to work with them to understand the issues that we will be talking about in 50 years time. It’s about growing our interests to meet the diversity of things in the world that create security challenges. They don’t always have to be caused by malevolent actors with an ideological intent, it can be anything. It can be storms in Texas. That has important implications for the world and I think that it’s something that we need to be more visible in.

What are some of the current research projects within the Center right now?

I would say right now we’re working on two areas. The first is domestic security and I would say right now one of our biggest pushes is trying to understand what the virtual space means for security. So we have several projects that are funded, academic projects and student based interactive projects that basically try and answer basic questions around what is the virtual world doing to people. And what part does it play in their movement towards violence and their decision to engage in kind of threatening or risky behavior. And the second area we’re working in at the moment is around decision-making. It’s about how do people make good decisions in complex security environments. And that covers government decision making, so how does a bomber make a decision to intervene or not intervene in Syria, and what derails that decision. But that goes all the way down to individual who is implementing that strategic vision. How does he make the decision? To do an action or not do an action, and there we’re working with police, we’re working with soldiers, we’re involved in training; really trying to understand how we can best equip people to make very hard decisions that have very significant implications to the world.

How does the Center work with other departments on campus at UMass Lowell?

So the way it works right now is we have core faculty, which is made up of people predominately from Criminology and Justice Studies. But then, we have a wider ring of associated faculty that is people in Political Science, Psychology, and Global Studies. If they have an interest or they have a project or idea that they want to kind of test out and see how it works with Security Studies then we normally partner with them. We work on grants together, we win projects together, and we work as an interdisciplinary team and all that the Center brings them is the expertise and the contacts, and an idea of who would be most interested in these ideas. Right now we have collaborations with the Psychology Department, with political scientists, we’re all working together on the same issue.

Where will the Center be in five years?

So for me there are two priorities in terms of developing the Center. The first is our reach within the school. We need to do more with our own faculty and we need to do more with our students. Right now I think we do a wonderful job with our internships, but we have some incredible students on all the campuses that have very innovative ideas that have huge potential in the security realm and we don’t yet know how to tap into North Campus, and tap into computer scientists and the chemistry students. So we need to do a better job of diversifying internally to make sure we are a platform for all students, on all campuses, on all levels. I think that’s the definitely the first change we’re going to make. And we’re making positive strives towards that. If you look at the number of honors students who have been supervised by the center in the last 12 months, exponentially increased, if you look at the number of co-op students we’ve engaged, research assistants we’ve hired, internal projects we’ve run with students; all of those have massively increased in the last 12 months. And it’s a testament to the fact that we’re committed to being involved with as many undergraduate and graduate students as we can possible be. The second thing we need to do in the center is we need to work with other centers. It’s not a zero sum game. We’re not competing. We need to work with other centers that have expertise in other areas and bring these together. So one thing I think we’re looking to do is to collaborate as a center of centers and all work together towards much wider, common global issues such as security at large, rather than domestic security or international security. So it’s an expansion internally and externally.

How does the Center play into the overall counterterrorism goals of the United States of America?

Our mission is to help with security, and we do it in many different ways at many different levels. The results of our research, we hope, will inform policy and will inform the way we talk about problems, think about problems, research problems and understand problems. But then, we also do a lot more work with the individuals. So the peoples whose daily job it is to make the country more secure, we’re increasingly involved in training and lectures and workshops so that we directly teach them and directly work with them to help them solve real world problems that they’re facing. Finally, we do a lot with the wider community to make them more resilient. In the last 18 months we have launched three community-based organizations, each of which is attempting to make society safer through a different way. One of these is classroom education, one of these is online learning, and our newest one is making the community more civic minded. So we do a lot of things, you know, we can only do a small amount, because it’s such a big problem. But we try and do what we can at many different levels.