Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
The noxious influence of the defense industry and the military at the University of Maryland hasn’t gone unnoticed. My colleague Max Foley-Keene has criticized this university for its continuing ties to major defense contractors in light of the profits they’ve turned from aggression in Yemen, for one. Former Diamondback columnist Jack Lewis implored this university to stop developing drones for the military in a piece last year.
There are few programs on the campus where the presence of the defense industry and the Defense Department is more apparent than the Advanced Cybersecurity Experience for Students honors program. Part of this university’s honors college, ACES is a living-learning academic program that provides students with training and preparation for careers in the field of cybersecurity. Notably, it was founded in 2013 thanks to a $1.1 million donation from its “founding sponsor,” defense technology giant Northrop Grumman.
As a major defense contractor, Northrop Grumman manufactures weapons and technology for militaries. For example, it produced some of the drones used to carry out the bombing campaigns that many legal scholars say violate international law because of their practically unlimited scope and immense threat to foreign civilians. The company is a quintessential part of the military-industrial complex, whereby close collaboration between the defense industry and the government results in the perpetuation of violence in the name of power and profit.
Not coincidentally, ACES also has a “close partnership” with the National Security Agency, the Defense Department agency widely known for its overreaching surveillance practices. Just this week, ACES hosted an event with the NSA in honor of their relationship, featuring a conversation with an agency official.
ACES is surprisingly forthcoming about the fact that the defense industry and the DOD exert influence over the program’s mission and direction. According to its website, “ACES was built with external partners in mind … Because of the unique nature of the creation of this program and the rising costs of instructors and materials, we request a monetary donation from corporate collaborators.”
Northrop Grumman’s donation to help launch the program ensured they can provide guest lecturers, advisors and internships. When ACES was founded, the company was also permitted to sit on its advisory board. And for its partnership with the program, the NSA also supplies instructors, research advisors and internships to students.
The close relationship between these defense organizations and an academic program at this university is deeply troubling. While other programs, such as the honors college’s Entrepreneurship and Innovation program, have corporate sponsors — objectionable in its own right — ACES is unique in that it was practically founded by Northrop Grumman and serves to meet their needs as well as those of the DOD.
The inordinate power Northrop Grumman and the NSA wield in ACES is badly out of place at an academic institution. Students can’t expect to receive a balanced education and acquire critical thinking skills when their curricula are designed, in part, to please a defense contractor and an intelligence agency — not to mention the fact that their instructors often come from those same organizations.
Any attempt by outside organizations to influence the structure and curricula of academic programs should be met with scrutiny. But these aren’t your run-of-the-mill organizations: Northrop Grumman stands to profit from war and military aggression around the world, while the NSA’s various spying and surveillance campaigns on civilians — including activists such as Martin Luther King — have been well-documented.
Academic programs must treat these institutions critically, not partner with them. If students receive training in cybersecurity in college and go on to work in the defense industry, so be it. But by no means should a university’s programs be tailored to accommodate the DOD and defense contractors.
Many departments and programs on the campus have an eye toward professional development and preparation for entering the workforce. They host companies at career fairs, facilitate internships and help students build a network. But there’s a point at which an ostensibly academic program is simply too cozy with unsavory corporations and intelligence agencies — and ACES is well beyond that point.
Zachary Jablow is a sophomore economics and government and politics major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.