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06 March 2006

The latent university

Ms. Rantingprof has once again raised a key and unconsidered issue in public risk communications regarding terrorist events. In this case, it is the unique dynamics within the university campus environment. These are a special sort of Herd: easily radicalized, quickly polarized, and with a latent energy and capacity for unexpected and sometimes violent actions derived from the youth and fervor of newly formed intellectual beliefs. When addressing such audiences, these considerations begin to weigh quite heavily. Key among them is selecting credible and effective communicators. (Campus security type organizations are clearly not among these.)

Interestingly enough, these Herd characteristics have been the historical guarantee of the university’s autonomy from local governance and other forms of political interference, especially in the early days of university formation in Europe. It was the quasi-military power represented in the latent capacity for violence by the student body, kept in check by the university scholars, which originally suffered no interference in university affairs. Political autonomy has been enshrined now (thankfully) through more robust and enduring traditions of free speech and free inquiry, however the underlying demographic and social dynamics that enabled ancient campuses to wield the mob remain.

From an IO perspective, our enemies understand this well. The university has formed the centerpiece of radical Islamist activities, from Al Azhar to Qom; and many of the key enemy leadership figures have personal, visceral experiences with the power of the mob in the Islamic street. Their reach into Western institutions has been deliberately crafted, and seeks to appeal to exactly the sort of disaffected individual that offers the potential for violent action.

The enemy’s actions in these areas leave the Western world facing a very difficult problem set. The intellectual tradition of the university has been declining in the face of political correctness and moral equivalence; and absent a strong set of unifying core values many students are lost in what have become diploma mills offering little more than a rubber stamp and empty platitudes in the post-modernist style. We as a free society depend on a free marketplace of ideas in which inaccurate, irrational and harmful concepts will be displaced through consideration and debate. If this does not occur, and if the very centers of such debate become refuges for ideas that cannot survive elsewhere (such as happened with Communism’s economic theories, for example), how then can we as a society preserve our intellectual advantage?

For those unfamiliar with the concept of Herds (once again drawing from Proteus: Insights from 2020 as we are often wont to do), consider the following lightly edited extract from that study's text:

At length we came to recognize that the emerging power and influence of nontraditional organizations matters far less than the underlying movement of people and ideas - how people see themselves and their place in the world financially, socially, and spiritually. In each of the Protean worlds, the intersection of changes in such forces as demographics, economics, and technology led to the creation of influential transnational and sub-national groups that reshaped how people viewed their loyalties. In those futures, the loyalties and affinities that bind people to organizations and groups-corporations, religions, gated enclaves, factions or advocacy groups-are complex and dynamic.

In particular, across the worlds, we found three common themes:
  • That the sheer number of identities and loyalties an individual possessed increased, with a concurrent tendency toward confliction. Schizophrenia of a sort set in for many.
  • That in an open world of instantaneous information exchange where perception changes rapidly, skittishness among groups became apparent. Already torn by multiple loyalties, the presence of powerfully presented ideas was almost always persuasive.
  • That, for some, the reaction to complexity was not schizophrenia but deep entrenchment. For these people, continuity dictated extremely narrow and rigid loyalties that shifted only under extreme pressure.
For the Intelligence Community, there were three central implications of the phenomenon we call Herds. First, in three of the worlds, it became very clear that the Community's public reputation as a forthright arbiter of truth not only mattered; it became central to its effectiveness. Second, intelligence leaders will have to think a lot more about people and how people view themselves in the future than they do today. Power … arises from values. Finally, the conflicting loyalties of the Protean populations made it very difficult to retain high-quality, multidisciplinary talent. This difficulty… may become a central challenge to the Intelligence Community.