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Future Shock

Boston Strong: First responder spirit thrives in American higher education

University Business, July 2013

As the rest of world gets on with their lives, those of us who call Massachusetts home are reminded daily of why the Bay State has always been Boston Strong. Speaking at a national interfaith service after the Marathon bombings, President Obama remarked, “We may be momentarily knocked off our feet. But we’ll pick ourselves up. We’ll keep going. We will finish the race.” On international news channels, former Chief Strategist to the White House and Director of the Institute for Politics at the University of Chicago, David Axelrod, responded by simply declaring, “Let’s just make it clear that we’re going to get the people responsible.”

Indeed, we did, because Boston Strong’s first responder capacity is cemented by the true intellectual grit of world-renowned teaching hospitals, and importantly, the nation’s most venerable colleges and research universities—like Harvard, MIT, Northeastern University, and Boston University, and on the public side, University of Massachusetts at Lowell and Middlesex Community College. Boston’s tradition of graduating competent first responder professionals provides a symbol for what makes our Massachusetts higher education system the most coveted in the world.

In the Marathon Bombing case, the speed with which the alleged perpetrators were identified and captured reflects the preparedness, nimbleness and forensic ingenuity of local and state law enforcement. At the end of the ordeal, the alleged marathon bombers were captured in Middlesex County – a Greater Boston metropolitan region populated by first responder colleges and universities.

A best practice case in point. Over the past five years, Middlesex President Carole Cowan and University of Massachusetts Lowell Chancellor Martin Meehan focused on developing mission complementary programs in the several fields of criminal justice, nanotechnology, biotechnology, and forensic science.

By way of example, Middlesex graduates have fueled workforce development at corporations like Raytheon and Mitre, industry leaders in defense weapons, imaging, and information technology. Beyond government defense, Middlesex and the Lahey Clinic have partnered to offer innovative nursing and first responder courses and programs. Most recently, the College has partnered with North Eastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council, in providing leading edge forensic courses for first responder law enforcement personnel. Middlesex President Cowan reported that, “Our homeland security program offers conferences for first responders dealing with improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and pre-hospital treatment for blast victims in collaboration with State Police and the FBI.”

At UMass Lowell, Chancellor Meehan has led the development of new interdisciplinary and inter-professional criminal justice, forensic science, and technology programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels. These academic programs also include a unique Peace & Conflict Studies. In his remarks to the Class of 2013, Chancellor Meehan spoke about what the marathon bombings have taught us, “We all saw how important it is to help each other.”

A sentiment conveyed, as well, by Boston Police Commissioner, Edward Davis, as he returned to his hometown to accept an honorary doctorate degree from UMass Lowell. At commencement, Commissioner Davis told the Class of 2013 that, “Every decision I made was based on the totality of my life’s experiences that spanned the three decades since I earned my college degree. That same template is going to hold true for you as well.” Having majored in criminal justice and human services, Davis has repeatedly credited his undergraduate experience as laying the groundwork for his law enforcement leadership. A longtime champion of community policing, Commissioner Davis raised the bar for educating the next generation of first responders.

In the aftermath of the bombings, these multidisciplinary and inter-professional first responder connections between law enforcement, criminology, catastrophe management, civil defense, emergency medical practice, EMT personnel, and homeland security have redefined institutional and system wide disaster management team building in a new world order for protecting peace and justice.

James Martin and James E. Samels, Future Shock columnists, are authors of The Sustainable University (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012). Martin is a professor of English at Mount Ida College (Mass.) and Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance.