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Tenth anniversary of 9/11 is an occasion to reflect on how much UB changed in intervening decade
Story by Charles Anzalone, MA '00
The world changed Sept. 11, 2001. And so did the University at Buffalo. In the tradition of great research universities, and on the most collectively pivotal day in recent history, UB truly reflected the community it serves. In a few moments, America’s veil of invulnerability dissolved, perhaps forever. Initial reaction among many in the UB community who would shape a new post-9/11 university was much like those around them: sorrow, fear, confusion. Were the attacks an end or a beginning? And then came a terrible feeling of helplessness. Then something notable happened. People in the UB community went into action. They did something, and what they did has lasted.
School of Social Work Dean Nancy J. Smyth heard about the first plane crashing into the top floors of the World Trade Center when she was entering a UB North Campus parking lot. When she learned about the second plane crashing into the second tower—she had just gotten to her office on the sixth floor of Baldy Hall—she knew this was something she had never seen in her lifetime: an unprecedented attack on American land.
“My first response was horror,” says Smyth, an expert on psychological trauma and post-traumatic stress. “I thought the first plane to hit the towers was a small plane. I thought it was an accident. It was clear after the second plane hit this was an organized attack. My second response was to create a handout in about an hour on how to talk to children on this. And then I emailed it to my human services and academic colleagues in New York City because a lot of them were working with kids in schools and human services agencies.”
The events of 9/11 would inspire Smyth and colleagues to focus their research more acutely on human response to trauma and human resilience in the face of unthinkable tragedy.
Mark G. Frank, BA ’83, a behavioral scientist and professor of communication at UB, was on the faculty at Rutgers University within 35 miles of Ground Zero when the Twin Towers collapsed. Like so many Americans, Frank experienced that terrible feeling of helplessness, both for his family in New Jersey as well as for relatives living in Buffalo. He still remembers the “heartbreaking” parade of people wandering the streets of lower Manhattan, hanging fliers, asking if anyone had seen their loved ones, many of whom had been killed when the towers collapsed.
“It used to be our students had to be sold on the fact that this was a global world, that we are interconnected. It’s not a hard sell anymore. Our students now come in very aware of that global perspective. And 9/11 is one large piece of that.” —Nancy Smyth, Dean of the School of Social Work Douglas Levere, BA ’89
“The first thing was, you want to get the animals who did this,” Frank says. “The second thing is, ‘What can I do to personally get them or make sure this never happens again?’”
Before 9/11, Frank’s groundbreaking research on behavioral and physiological clues to human deception was utilized by traditional law enforcement and was beginning to draw interest from transportation security agencies.
If Frank’s post-9/11 research could help the authorities spot a terrorist before he carried out his crime, perhaps future tragedies would be averted.
“A lot of our research [before 9/11] was used by the government and law enforcement. They always found it helpful,” Frank says. “So if we could swing that around to work with counter-terrorism, that would be a contribution I could make.”
What followed was the most profoundly satisfying work of Frank’s career—behavioral identification research that has led to focused research programs, jointly funded government projects and several national media appearances. More importantly, it gave him a true sense of making a meaningful contribution toward keeping the people he loves safe.
Every person interviewed for this story made it unequivocally clear that the coordinated terrorist attacks of 10 years ago left the university fundamentally different from before. From curriculum to research priorities to the attitude toward personal safety, the university has undergone a significant transformation, just like the world around it. While logging every change would be nearly impossible, this sampling shows how commitment, knowledge, some well–placed federal grants and a fierce imperative can lead to a better university, and a better world.
Frank Douglas Levere, BA ’89
UB’s nationally prominent School of Social Work, for instance, already had a well–established trauma-based curriculum before the term “9/11” became part of the American lexicon. The shock waves and anxiety the nation shared watching that endless video loop of jets exploding into the World Trade Center towers accelerated a direction the school already had started.
“We had a trauma counseling certificate in our school before 9/11,” says Smyth. “But that event catapulted interest forward. Everyone became aware of the fact we are vulnerable not just to natural disasters, but to manmade ones, as well.”
Indeed, the School of Social Work’s trauma-informed emphasis (which, simply put, means most people social workers try to help have experienced significant trauma) also dovetailed with the school’s social justice/human rights component.
“When you really look at 9/11, you start to ask yourself the questions, ‘Why were we targeted by these groups? Why were we so hated? What is going on internationally?’” says Smyth. “It’s impossible to answer those questions without figuring in a social justice agenda.”
That “catapulting of awareness” of the school’s trauma/social justice elements merged with students’ changing perspectives, Smyth explains. “It used to be our students had to be sold on the fact that this was a global world, that we are interconnected. It’s not a hard sell anymore. Our students now come in very aware of that global perspective. And 9/11 is one large piece of that.”
Examples of ways to achieve this global interconnectedness include more School of Social Work students doing internships at local agencies with an international context, such as at VIVE Inc.’s refugee shelter in Buffalo called La Casa, or requiring incoming students to read “Half the Sky” by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, which details the victimization of women and girls around the world. Yet despite all the curricular innovations, adaptations and growth Smyth has tried to bring to her school, the memory of that sunny morning 10 years ago remains.
“To this day, when there are planes I can hear where you are not expecting them, there is this fleeting thought, ‘Is that plane where it’s supposed to be?’ says Smyth. “And you listen and wait to see what happens.”
Reflecting on the impact of 9/11, Chief of University Police Gerald W. Schoenle points to numerous ways that the university has made its campuses safer, from increased police officers to its network of cameras outside buildings on both North and South campuses (as well as plans to include cameras when completing the Downtown Campus) to different procedures police follow when supervising a large event.
“Nothing like 9/11 has ever happened on American soil before, but our university has put significant resources into training and enhancing security on campus. That’s the positive that has come out of this.” —Gerald Schoenle, Chief of University Police Douglas Levere, BA ’89
But the most telling and maybe most influential change since Sept. 11 has been attitude. “People are more likely to contact us now and are more aware of their surroundings,” says Schoenle. “They are more accepting of having a visible police presence and security on their campuses than they were years ago. They are happy to see us. Things have changed.”
That in itself has been something that has made Schoenle’s and his department’s crucial task much easier. Schoenle was director of training at the Erie County Police Academy when he saw the second plane crash into the second World Trade Center tower. A retired chief master sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, Schoenle remembers thinking this was going to mean a real difference in how the country does business.
Now he is responsible for the safety of UB’s campuses in an age in which universities have become targets of impersonal violence and shooting rampages. The 9/11 attack was just one element that made security and safety one of the university’s top priorities.
“As important as 2001 was, the shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007 [during which a gunman killed 32 people and wounded 25 others before killing himself] was what caused major changes in university policing,” he says.
Schoenle is consistently upbeat and reassuring about the mood and climate at UB and other American college campuses. “College campuses do tend to be among the safest places around,” he says. “You actually have more of a chance of being struck by lightning than being a victim of violent crime on campus. Campuses remain relatively safe places, and UB is among the safest.”
Nevertheless, the security business at UB is different. For example, security at large events has dramatically changed. Other community law enforcement agencies usually are involved. Bomb-sniffing dogs are available to search during special events. And the university has hundreds of security cameras on the South Campus; a similar number is being installed on the North Campus. Furthermore, UB became one of many universities to incorporate a timely early-warning system in the case of any emergency. A civil disturbance team of 25 officers is specially trained to handle a major disruption that could occur on campus. The team conducts periodic drills on campus, practicing their response to sudden, unforeseen crises.
“Nothing like 9/11 has ever happened on American soil before,” Schoenle says. “But our university has put significant resources into training and enhancing security on campus. That’s the positive that has come out of this.”
The UB Center of Excellence in Information Systems Assurance Research and Education (CEISARE), headed by computer science and engineering professor Shambhu Upadhyaya, has a name many people would pass right over.
But don’t be fooled. This center of excellence is a post-9/11 creation. It has everything: a big-picture relevance that could have profound impact on keeping the society safe and successful, substantial job-growth potential, and high-tech drama that mixes cutting-edge technology with the edges of human emotions. There’s a great next generation novel here.
Upadhyaya Douglas Levere, BA ’89
CEISARE was one of a handful of national centers established in 2002 to train students in the art of information assurance or IA. Some people describe IA as cybersecurity, protecting computer systems from hackers, whether they be mischievous teenagers or extremists half-a-world away determined to destroy Western civilization.
Upadhyaya says the cybersecurity label doesn’t do information assurance justice.
“IA is a much broader umbrella,” Upadhyaya explains. “There is network administration, firewall protection, security practiced at the basic level when you are writing programs and codes. It’s about building better systems, computer forensics, establishing best practices for these systems.”
Imagine someone getting into the intricate computer network of the U.S. Naval Air Systems Command, or the electric grid that powers a major city, or a commercial airline reservation system. Now imagine someone with a job designated to design its security, or protect it once it’s up and running. That’s IA.
“The area itself is interesting,” says Upadhyaya, who this semester begins his 26th year at UB. “It’s challenging with all its science and math.”
And then there is the job market. IA seems destined to become one of the age’s real growth industries. The number of IA jobs available in government and the private sector announced by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security: thousands. Estimates of how many qualified people—including the crucial security checks—to fill them: hundreds.
“There is definitely a big gap,” Upadhyaya says.
“On top of that, there is the sense of protecting the country,” he says. “These attacks happen. And they keep coming.
You’re providing the technical support to protect infrastructure that is critical to the nation and people’s lives.”
The intensity of Mark Frank’s feelings after 9/11 directly led him to study ways of identifying behavioral traits that law enforcement officials could use to detect people lying, including potential terrorists. His work on involuntary facial expressions that tip off lies has been featured prominently on CBS News, NPR, CNN, the Discovery Channel and USA Today, among other media outlets. He also has been a key player in government conferences trying to understand the minds of terrorists and how to “take the oxygen” from the extremist arguments that breed radical behavior.
More importantly for him, his research has been an example of how in the post-9/11 world, academics and government counterterrorist officials can work together and “shake the best out of each other.” That’s another example of what Frank calls the “sea change” that occurred in research as a result of the terrorist attacks 10 years ago.
Frank often felt that good behavioral science wasn’t taken seriously by the people who tackled the hands-on work of homeland security. Now there is a natural connection. Today, Frank works alongside computer scientists, engineers and chemists in UB’s Center for Unified Biometrics and Sensors (CUBS), which launched after 9/11 to find new ways to measure and detect the physiological and behavioral characteristics of identity—fingerprints, voice, handwriting and facial expressions, for example.
“As an academic, [I saw that] our work tended to be a few steps removed from the action,” Frank says. “Being able to work directly with these folks puts you that much closer to where the rubber meets the road. To be able to have some kind of influence on them and for them to trust me with helping them, as well, and for me to develop the type of partnership that ultimately is going to be an essential element in making us more secure is very fulfilling. That to me has been one of the most satisfying things of all.”
Charles Anzalone, MA ’00, is senior editor in University Communications and adjunct instructor in journalism in the UB Department of English.
As early as the summer of 2002, UB was among several prominent universities across the country that made counter-terror research a priority.
UB’s leadership identified “mitigation and response to extreme events” as one focus of its UB 2020 strategic plan for academic excellence. And UB researchers across several academic disciplines—engineering, computer science, biology, chemistry, psychology and urban planning among them—began working collaboratively on ways to reduce risks from natural and human-caused hazards.
Douglas Levere, BA ’89
At that time, the late Bruce Holm, then UB senior vice provost, headed a newly formed SUNY-wide taskforce on bioterrorism, a period when attention was focused on fears of bioterrorism agents like anthrax and smallpox. UB researchers sought to develop methods to make vaccines more potent and more useful in the face of feared attacks using such agents.
UB biologists and biochemists were studying the effects of certain biological agents on cells—information that is used to develop mechanisms to block those effects—and their colleagues were developing fast and effective devices for detecting bioagents in the air. To this end, some worked to bring to market a hand-held device that combined commercial “lab-on-a-chip” technology with the work of UB microbiologist Anthony Campagnari. Others at UB were developing handwriting-recognition software to find the source of biological materials that had been sent through the U.S. mail.
Meanwhile, UB engineers applied earthquake-engineering technologies to the development of terror-resistant structures, based on an assessment of damage done to buildings surrounding the World Trade Center. And UB researchers, in an investigation funded by the Federal Aviation Administration, studied how baggage was inspected at airports. Also during this decade, UB informatics scientists worked to discover how to efficiently organize and interpret massive amounts of information, such as that gathered and transmitted following complex disasters like 9/11.
As time went on, concerns expanded to include changes in law and society provoked by the attacks, specifically those concerning civil liberties, immigration restrictions, ethnic bias, the psychological and physical effects of trauma, the dissemination of accurate information despite the proliferation of secrecy efforts, and a consideration of ways in which 9/11 had influenced a range of individuals and groups emotionally, physically and socially.
—Patricia Donovan, senior editor, University Communications