After Nearly 60 Years, National Intelligence University Moves to ODNI
“We're one stop on that journey for developing that future officer, that future leader,” said the university president.
The National Intelligence University transitioned this month from the Defense Department, where it’s been for its nearly six-decade history, to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to better serve students and the work they go on to do.
The university, established in 1962, is the only accredited, federal degree-granting institution for the intelligence community and is the only higher education institution in the country that lets students study and do research in top secret/sensitive compartmentalized information facilities. The main campus is in Bethesda, Maryland and there are also academic centers in Fort Meade, Maryland; the MacDill Air Force Base in Florida; Quantico, Virginia; and the Royal Air Force Molesworth station in Huntingdon, England.
The transition was initiated by Congress in December 2019. The majority of staff and faculty are transferring to ODNI and “students will not be impacted by the transition,” said a press release from the university in May. There are about 650 students and about 90 faculty members at the university. The official transition happened on June 20 and there will be a formal, closed ceremony on Tuesday.
“We pride ourselves in the intelligence community on building very specialized humans with deep expertise, but we also see ourselves, especially in the post-9/11 order where DNI exists, as needing to have that broader context and understanding where each piece of mission fits in with the [intelligence community] enterprise,” said ODNI Chief Operating Officer Lora Shiao. “So [the National Intelligence University] was a great way of reinforcing the concept of [intelligence community] officers and one of the best parts about it is an opportunity for our big thinkers to step aside to participate in cohort learning where they're going to build bridges and network with officers from around the [community].”
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence was established in April 2005 in the wake of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 and the 9/11 Commission report’s recommendations. The first incoming class at the National Intelligence University when it has moved under ODNI will arrive as the 20th anniversary of the attacks approaches.
On Monday, Government Executive interviewed Shiao and National Intelligence University President Scott Cameron about what the university’s curriculum is like for students, the transition process and their hopes going forward. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
GE: So, before we get into the transition, I'd love to hear about what the curriculum is like at the university and any other background information about it.
Cameron: We have three degrees. One is an undergraduate degree in strategic intelligence and that degree is, essentially, if someone has completed most of a degree over their lifetime, they can finish in a year. It's kind of a cohort arrangement where it's very similar to graduate education and actually prepares our undergraduate students very, very well for graduate programs at NIU. Those may be people who may be the first in their family to do college education and at the same time, it postures the workforce, very very well; it's a long-sought degree for them, so there's great stories coming out of that program.
We have two graduate programs: a master of science of strategic intelligence and the other is a master of science and technology intelligence, and they are exactly as they sound. This university is committed to the mission of the intelligence profession and its functional disciplines. This is a broadening and deepening experience to understand the role of intelligence and national security as well as understanding the roles and responsibilities, statutory authorities of all the partners that make the community come together. We also have a couple of certificate programs that rotate various topics, including regional functional topics.
GE: Now, can you talk about how and why the university moved from Defense to ODNI and what the benefit is from that?
Shiao: Well, this move really positions NIU to be the [intelligence community’s] university. The DNI, as you know, has a role of leading and integrating the IC and the DNI also leads community governance with the IC leaders. So this is a chance for the IC leaders to discuss their priorities, and ways that they can position their officers to answer and understand future threats through an ongoing conversation with Dr. Cameron, as the university's president, and his board of governors.
We think that it fosters our ODNI ethos, which of course is about building bridges and really reinforcing from the earliest days of an officer's career that they are part of a larger IC enterprise. So, we pride ourselves in the intelligence community on building very specialized humans with deep expertise, but we also see ourselves, especially in the post 9/11 order where DNI exists, as needing to have that broader context and understanding where each piece of mission fits in with the IC enterprise. So NIU was a great way of reinforcing the concept of IC officers and one of the best parts about it is an opportunity for our big thinkers to step aside to participate in cohort learning where they're going to build bridges and network with officers from around the IC, hopefully relationships that will serve them well throughout their careers and give them people to reach out to when they need to coordinate and collaborate across our enterprise.
GE: Can you talk about how long the transition has been in the works and what the process was like?
Cameron: Lora was talking about why this was such an important move for the university's trajectory to serve the intelligence enterprise. [For its] long standing, nearly 60-year history, most of it was committed to military intelligence education, but a lot of IC officers did take advantage of that under DoD. In 2010, when the National Defense Intelligence College became the National Intelligence University, a few things changed. We expanded our programs to include the master of science and technology intelligence, as well as we became a rural research university. Our mission for research was actually formalized, so that was actually a transformational move by creating a university for the intelligence community.
And there was a study in 2017, about the time I started, looking at what the future of the institution was under the executive agency of [Defense Intelligence Agency] and [the Defense Department] or what the future would look like in ODNI and clearly the benefits of being in ODNI were laid out in that study...So for the ODNI, if everyone who comes to work every morning is from all over the enterprise and all over the community and we're working together to come up with solutions together, then [the university] really belongs here we are...The class of ‘21 will graduate under ODNI, we’ll have the incoming class be our first full class.
The government did a great job of transitioning us as a government entity, our people, our budgets, but there was a parallel process that took several years, working with the Department of Education [and] working with the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, because our programs are approved by the Department of Education.
The Hill authorizes me to confer degrees on our graduates and then our accreditors, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, actually ensure that our academic standards are high as we deliver those educational programs. So, this process was rather unprecedented in terms of moving the governance of an institution like ours, from one place to another. This is very rare. Actually, for the Department of Education, this was quite unprecedented and a great learning experience for all of us. It was a strengthening exercise for the institution. We understand ourselves a lot better than we did before we started.
GE: In terms of recruitment, are you going to be doing anything different now that this transition has taken place?
Shiao: I think one thing is we're very focused on the idea of talking to IC leaders to prioritize sending officers into the full-time program…[Many officers] take advantage of going through these degree programs while also doing their full-time day job.
But of course, being part of a cohort and part of a network of sitting side-by-side with experts in policy, with operators, with analysts to get that full benefit, we do believe it’s beneficial if the officer can step away and do the big thinking as a full-time responsibility...As someone who grew up working in the counterterrorism space, given the demands of the daily press of business, we did prioritize sending our officers out to NIU...where they actually have the time and the flexibility to be strategic, without the daily grind of missions. So, I saw the benefit of that firsthand. We would bring those officers back from NIU, have them brief out their projects and ideas and we would often incorporate those thoughts into how we were doing business and it made us better.
Cameron: All communities that thrive have to bank knowledge. We're a closed community, in many ways, so our ability to understand ourselves has a lot to do with creating a jigsaw puzzle. Every enterprise, every statutory authority, every functional mission, if they're there, their voices are there. The people who run the mission, who lead the mission, who drive the mission everyday are there, they know what the challenges are, they understand what some of the emerging solutions will look like. And when you get a group of people like that, at that stage of their career, talking in a classroom and discussing the current state and where it needs to go, you're awakening leadership skills in people, who don’t, as Lora said, have time necessarily...to actually walk through that conversation and they're doing it while broadening the Rolodex, and this allows them to go back into the workplace, kind of leading with new ideas, new thinking and empowered to do that.
GE: Is there anything else you’d like to add about the transition or the university overall?
Shiao: I would just emphasize that this is the one university where you can do your research and thinking in a classified setting, and as a lifelong intelligence professional, and somebody who tends to geek out about knowledge, I think that's pretty extraordinary. And to have access to this epic library of classified material, going back decades and decades in our nation's history is truly extraordinary.
Cameron: Part of this is also about looking at the higher education needs of our workforce…We're one stop on that journey for developing that future officer, that future leader, and our ability to be able to do what we can only uniquely do at NIU compared to other institutions, that’s our mission and being able to then look at the challenges in higher education that our workforce has...Being able to provide opportunities for people to study the way that they need in balancing their personal lives, those are also high priorities for us.
Shiao: And the fact that, I just emphasize that from the perspective of our students, this is an education that comes at no cost to them, so we’re removing those socioeconomic barriers that prevent many people from pursuing higher education and also giving them the time to do that big thinking in a safe space.
Cameron: Topping it all off for me, I’ve had four years to anticipate what the last 10 days would be like and the experience has been so far beyond anything that I had walked through and imagined. Director [Avril] Haines has been tremendous as has Lora and the staff here to ensure that our transition is smooth and that the mission here is integrated with the community and I'm just very excited for the future.