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September 17th, 2003 Amy Roe | News Stories
 

Doomsday U

Portland State makes a play for the anti-terrorism jackpot.

     
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Doomsday U
IMAGE: MARTINTHIEL.COM
Two years to the day after the attacks of Sept. 11, 30 people sat in PSU's multicultural center to hear a State Department official describe how the tragedy had changed government.

Although few in that room knew it, the events of Sept. 11 were simultaneously setting the stage for great change at the university. Sitting in the audience, front and center in a dark suit, was the man who would make it happen.

Ron Tammen is the director of the 3-year-old Mark O. Hatfield School of Government.

He is also president of the board of the Critical Decision Institute--a project that would turn PSU into the nation's leading crisis-management training institute for business and government leaders. Using computer simulators, students would learn how to respond to such disasters as a terrorist attack, a blackout or an epidemic of hoof-and-mouth disease. Think War Games meets Outbreak meets Earthquake or, for that matter, any 1970s disaster movie starring George Kennedy.

Backed by U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Gordon Smith, Tammen is awaiting $5 million from Congress for the first year's expenses. He has the support of a good deal of the Portland business community, who are confident the Institute would bring thousands of high-level professionals to the city to spend what Tammen calls "high-quality dollars"--$22 million to $25 million per year in restaurant entrees, hotel suites, Pendleton blankets and marionberry jam.

And Tammen's working to ensure PSU's Hatfield School--named for Oregon's famously anti-war former senator--remains first in line to become the Harvard of Homeland Security.

His goal is to lead PSU into the top ranks of what is undoubtedly a growth industry. In the next three to five years, the federal government will require certification for everyone employed in Homeland Security, he says.

"As of today, the moment we speak, it's a unique idea," Tammen says. "There is no other institution doing this, and there is no other institute with a publicly announced plan."

On campus, however, Tammen's pet project has a surprisingly low profile. Even among his Hatfield School colleagues, few are familiar with the idea. Of those in the university who are aware of it, many are baffled, if not alarmed, by the plan. Tammen's own boss, Nohad Toulon, dean of the College of Urban and Public Affairs, expressed ambivalence about inaugurating a field of study along those lines. Such skepticism prompts a broader question: Do the nation's civic leaders really need a high-tech disaster training center, or are PSU and city leaders simply cashing in on the latest Homeland Security sweepstakes?

About six months after the Sept. 11 attacks, then-Lieut. Greg Hendricks of the Portland Police Bureau was sitting in his office. "The chief walked across the hall of my office and said, 'Here, read this,'" Hendricks, now a captain, recalls.

Kroeker handed Hendricks a stack of about 50 typed pages, bound together like an overgrown term paper--which, in a way, it was. While with the Los Angeles Police Department, Kroeker had completed a research project that described a lack of training in the arena of critical decision making. Kroeker proposed setting up an institute where government officials could practice managing mock emergencies. (Kroeker, who resigned as police chief July 31, declined to be interviewed for this article. He will not take a paying position with CDI.)

Hendricks' reaction was immediate: "I walked back across the hall and said, 'When we are going to build this?' And he said, 'Well, I think we're going to start today.'"

Kroeker then summoned the Hatfield School's Tammen, whom he had never met.

Ron Tammen is a balding, bespectacled 59-year-old with a gentle manner, pale, soft hands and an air of gracious formality. He keeps his business cards on a silver tray engraved with his name, preceded by the title "Dr.," and describes his recruitment to PSU as "this great, pot-au-feu dance." Even on a sweltering 90-degree afternoon, he wears a suit and tie and puts his jacket to greet a visitor.

Tammen's office in PSU's $40 million Urban Center happens to be on the sixth floor of the newest, priciest real estate at the fastest-growing public institution in the state. PSU's motto is "Let Knowledge Serve the City," and the view from Tammen's floor-to-ceiling window--looking downtown, over 6th Avenue--seems custom-made to fit this description. Situated on 48 acres in the city's center, the school has a diverse, politically active student body of 21,000 that's decidedly urbane--and about as far as one gets from an ivory tower.

A career civil servant who taught would-be diplomats and top military leaders at the National War College in Washington, D.C., Tammen was poised for greater prestige; he turned down a position as Dean of Claremont College to come to Portland in 2000. He did so, he says, on the strength of one name: his former boss, Mark Hatfield, the legendary Republican senator who retired in 1997 after 46 years of public service.

Although it is only three years old, the Hatfield School contains some of PSU's most ambitious programs, including the popular graduate studies in public administration as well as the graduate and undergraduate programs in the quasi-professional subject of administration of justice. The school offers bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees and counts among its faculty Hatfield himself, former congresswoman Elizabeth Furse, former City Commissioner Gretchen Kafoury and former Gov. Barbara Roberts. Under Tammen's leadership, it has recently forged, or is building, initiatives with institutions in Vietnam, China and Japan.

Upon interviewing for his position at PSU, Tammen informed the search committee he would not be a "status quo leader." True to his word, colleagues credit Tammen for his aggressiveness in establishing new, innovative programs, or, as Tammen puts it, building the "brand."

It's no surprise then, that when Tammen first learned of Kroeker's plan he encouraged the chief to "mobilize" immediately. They formed a nonprofit organization, created a business plan and recruited Oregon Health & Science University president Peter Kohler and PSU president Daniel Bernstine to the board. They also secured the services of Conkling, Fiskum & McCormick to do pro bono lobbying. Board members took five separate trips to Washington to meet with Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and his second in command, Asa Hutchinson. Sens. Wyden and Smith were early supporters, but the clock was ticking: "I worked in Washington for many years, and I know the good ideas are rare and get snapped up in the marketplace," Tammen says. "There's no doubt in my mind other states, other organizations, will see the need and want to jump on it."

Oregon's delegation has brought CDI to the Senate and in July confirmed that the Department of Homeland Security has the authority to fund it. However, the appropriations bill that would accomplish that has not yet been scheduled. "We expected it this week," says Norm Eder, a partner in Conkling, Fiskum & McCormick. "Next week, who knows? There's a chance that it could happen next week. Nobody knows. It's the stuff of rumor in Washington."

For all its futuristic action-movie allure, CDI relies on the simple Boy Scout motto: Be prepared. Saving lives and minimizing harm is the stated goal of the Critical Decision Institute. In order to do that, students would practice managing all kinds of emergencies.

Tammen envisions classes, expert instructors, credit offered through PSU along with a follow-up distance-learning curriculum and a theater-in-the round "command center." Inside this facility, which might be located at the city's planned Macadam project, or perhaps at PSU, plasma-screen televisions would flash information to the student--the mayor of Topeka, for example--about a railroad tanker car that has apparently crashed, or the discovery of anthrax. The player must act fast, and his decisions are charted to multiple and infinitely varying computer-generated outcomes, much like the popular video game Sim City.

Who will pay to play? Tammen says students will come mostly from state and municipal governments around the nation, newly flush with Department of Homeland Security grants earmarked for "first responders" such as cops and firefighters. "All of their training budgets have been augmented almost exponentially in the aftermath of 9/11," Tammen says. "Most of it's for first-responder training, but we think they'll have flexibility to use it on a number of things."

George Beard, director of the Electronic Government Program at the Hatfield School's Executive Leadership Institute, says CDI could signal a new direction for the school. "Maybe we're on the verge of creating a broader and deeper discipline," Beard muses. "Everybody's going to be branding their products and services around Homeland Security because it's the perception of where the money is."

The prospect of creating an area of study based on Homeland Security doesn't impress everybody at the Hatfield School. Barbara Dudley, adjunct associate professor of political science, worries that programs like CDI only demonstrate the desperation of the cash-strapped university.

"Since the taxpayers are no longer willing to pay for public education, the university has to go wherever the money can be found," she says. "Last year it was sustainability. It would be a shame if this year it turned to security."

Dudley worries public-private partnerships like CDI may lead to the kind of dependence on defense spending that jeopardized California's university system.

"If that's how we start funding our university, it's the old military-industrial complex," she says.

Moreover, Dudley isn't convinced that disaster training for the nation's mayors ought to be a priority. "We've become so overwrought about terrorism," she says, "we're beginning to lose perspective."

Off-campus critics are more pointed. Steven J. Milloy, a fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, Fox news columnist and frequent critic of what he calls "junk science," says CDI is a cash grab founded on irrational fear, not fact. For one thing, he says, local governments have no business "gaming" scenarios involving bioterrorism, which he sees as wildly unlikely.

"The sort of bioterrorism that the public has come to expect, smallpox and anthrax from some Middle Eastern group--we haven't seen it. If not now, when? Why ramp up concern about these things when they're becoming more and more improbable?"

Milloy says CDI's target market, local government leaders, has no need to play games involving mock terrorist attacks or pseudo-tsunamis.

"That is absolutely ridiculous. What does the mayor of whatever city need to know? And what they going to do? What is a mayor going to do about smallpox? Same with anthrax--as soon it happens, the feds are going to swoop down. He's going to be completely left out. He's not going to have any decisions to make. It's going to become a federal issue so fast it'll make his head spin."

Milloy can, however, understand the political motives for the Oregon delegation's support of CDI: "No politician wants to be caught flatfooted.

"Most politicians are also banking on the public's fear," he adds. "Politicians look good by giving money for bioterrorism preparedness."

Milloy says these days no one wants to risk dissing a risk-management proposal, no matter how preposterous it may seem. "People are afraid to criticize any of this stuff," he says. "It's a win-win for the politicians and the institutions, the organizations that get set up. This is just wealth transfer from taxpayers to the institutions."

He doesn't believe CDI's nonprofit status gives it any particular integrity.

"The only difference is they don't have to pay taxes--they get to keep their money," he says. "Executives get sweet deals, good compensation--plus they have all sorts of connections with private companies promoting homeland security. It's the homeland security-industrial complex."

Fault-finding outsiders notwithstanding, what really matters to CDI is the opinion of the university's own leaders--like that of Toulan, Tammen's boss.

Toulan bristles at the idea that the Hatfield School would offer credit in Homeland Security studies, or any such sort of certification.

"I don't have discussions on these lines," Toulan told WW. "And there are requirements for developing any academic programs on campus," he added curtly.

But Toulan stopped short of rejecting Tammen's ideas outright.

"Am I opposed to this? I don't know. I have to see what is being proposed. We are a public university. We do have many courses in areas that relate to security," he says.

Still, the idea of forming a new discipline centered on homeland security would be venturing into murky academic territory. "Sometimes I don't know how to define homeland security," Toulan says. "We have a criminology program here. We are not a police academy, however."

The Hatfield School has already added a Homeland Security-style program to its curriculum--its first-ever crisis management course, which was held winter term, 2003.

"The focus was to help senior executive leaders, public-and private-sector, to learn how to be better leaders before, during and after a crisis," says Alison Kelley, a lawyer specializing in mediation and management issues who taught the course and developed the curriculum.

Students--most of them mid-career and almost all working in some form of emergency management--used real-world examples from events like 9/11 and the Columbia space-shuttle explosion. Kelley, an instructor in the Hatfield School's public administration division, is taking the program on the road this fall, offering crisis-management classes in eight Oregon cities a well as in Washington, Idaho and possibly Alaska.

"There are a lot of universities getting into this business right now," says Kelley, but she says nobody is this far along. "I don't know of anybody who offers a course quite like this. I think this is very unique."

Back when the Critical Decision Institute was in its infancy, Tammen, along with Kroeker and Hendricks (who may one day draw a salary from his present position as CDI's executive director) went to Hatfield, Tammen's friend and mentor, for his blessing. Hatfield doesn't recall meeting with Tammen specifically, but the concept behind CDI remains fresh in his mind.

"My reaction was it could be very helpful in saving lives," Hatfield says, giving the Columbus Day storm of 1962 as an example.

"The state was not organized for an emergency at that time," says Hatfield, who was governor at the time. He says lessons learned in that crisis helped the state be better prepared the next year, when a severe flood drowned the city. Hatfield says any kind of advance planning for disasters is a wise idea, and he dismisses criticism that CDI is an attempt to bring pork to Portland in the form of Homeland Security funds.

"I think that's fiction," Hatfield says testily. "The fact is, you need resources to develop these preparations. If you don't have them at the local level and you can prove your case as a wise plan, the federal government can step in."

Tammen's memory of his meeting with Hatfield is also a bit blurry, but he does recall that the former senator's only concern was whether CDI had the political backing it needed. Tammen assured him that every member of Oregon's delegation had pledged support for CDI. "He thought that was key," Tammen recalls.

Tammen doesn't find it at all out of character that Hatfield--a World War II veteran and outspoken critic of the Vietnam War who supported nuclear disarmament, helped end U.S. nuclear testing and favored peaceful solutions over military intervention--would in his retirement endorse an initiative to be funded by the Department of Homeland Security. Hatfield did have a reputation for being a consistent opponent of defense spending, but, Tammen added, "Sen. Hatfield also had a reputation for being extremely good about bringing resources back to the State of Oregon."


The University of Denver's School of International Studies began offering a "homeland security" certificate this fall.

Tammen's former National War College colleagues Randy Larsen and David McIntyre are members of the ANSER Institute for Homeland Security. ANSER is lobbying in Washington for CDI and will help develop the curriculum.

In August, leaders of the ANSER Institute visited Portland and spent three days briefing Mayor Vera Katz. ANSER CEO Dr. Ruth David also visited the Oregonian editorial board. A few days later, columnist David Reinhard endorsed the Critical Decision Institute.

This summer, ANSER conducted a mock smallpox attack, "Dark Winter," for government and military leaders. The simulation prompted a wave of media stories about the threat, but critics said it overstated the rate at which the disease would spread.

Two years ago, Tammen approached Gary Perlstein, PSU professor emeritus in the administration of justice, about starting a terrorism institute at the Hatfield School. Perlstein says the plan was jettisoned due to a lack of interest among his colleagues.

 
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