Home > Uncategorized > Why Purdue’s CERIAS Program Has Dropped out as a “Center of Academic Excellence”

Why Purdue’s CERIAS Program Has Dropped out as a “Center of Academic Excellence”

In 1998 the US National Security Agency (NSA) started a special program in response to Presidential Directive 63, which stated that there was a shortage of well-trained information assurance professionals and advocated national standards in IA/IS educational programs. This program gives US universities and colleges with information assurance (IA) or information security (IS) programs recognition as “Centers of Academic Excellence (CAEs)” for meeting Committee on National Security Systems (SNSS) requirements regarding IA/IS course curriculum and library holdings.

Purdue’s CERIAS program was one of the first to receive recognition as a CAE. Over time, nearly 100 programs at various universities and colleges have also been granted this status. Interestingly, however, several months ago when it came time to renew, CERIAS declined to do so. One of the major reasons cited by CERIAS director Dr. Gene Spafford is that the term “Center of Academic Excellence” is inappropriate and misleading. Many academic marginal programs at universities and colleges, including some that have the reputation of being little more than “diploma mills,” have nevertheless been awarded CAE status. “Excellence” should mean far out of the ordinary; as such, very few programs should be awarded this status. But let’s face it—not all that many truly excellent IA/IS programs at institutions of higher learning exist. Instead, achieving CAE status has served only to “put lipstick on a pig”—programs with marginally qualified faculty, inadequate laboratory facilities, and only a few hundred information security books in their libraries appear to be far higher in academic quality than they actually are. CAE status has thus become more of a travesty than anything else. To remedy this sad situation, the NSA should instead certify IA/IS programs for meeting minimum requirements.

I’m not sure what effect CERIAS’s dropping out as a CAE will have on the CAE program. Given that being awarded CAE status is not all that advantageous in helping programs obtain funding, I wouldn’t at all be surprised if faculty at other truly excellent programs came to their senses and then followed CERIAS’s example. At the same time, however, I strongly suspect that academically marginal programs will continue to enthusiastically participate in this program for as long as it exists. After all, the CAE label is very useful when it comes to recruiting students, and the competition among universities and colleges in recruiting students has for several decades been intense.

As far as the CAE program itself, I would not expect things to change any time soon. Government employees who grant CAE status to IA/IS programs are usually so far removed from the academic mainstream that they cannot begin to comprehend the meaning of “academic excellence.” Even if they did, there would be many barriers to dropping the CAE program, one of the foremost of which would be objections from the programs (and, in particular, Congressional representatives from the states in which these programs exist) that so unjustly enjoy its benefits.

Meanwhile, I strongly suspect that Purdue’s CERIAS program will not at all be adversely affected by its having dropped out of the CAE program. Virtually everyone who knows about IA/IS programs at universities and colleges is aware of the excellence in research and teaching that CERIAS has achieved. Whether or not a plaque attesting that CAE status has been achieved hangs on a wall somewhere on campus should and does not make the slightest bit of difference.

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