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University Course offers timely exploration of global security, leadership

Students in "Global Security and Leadership in a Complex World" listen to a presentation from guest speaker Al Amado, a consultant for the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative. The University Course brings together faculty and students from across Emory's undergraduate, graduate and professional schools. Emory Photo/Video

As an active duty infantry officer in the U.S. Army, Emory MBA student Will Mergl knows first-hand the challenges of addressing global security on an international stage fraught with shifting complexities. 

Past assignments have found him engaged with cultural and humanitarian issues in both Iraq and Afghanistan, working alongside a myriad of organizations, from the U.S. State Department to an assortment of coalition agencies.

“More and more, the Department of Defense is doing a lot of things beyond directly defending the country, including humanitarian aid work and helping fledgling governments,” he notes.

So when Mergl had a chance to enroll in “Global Security and Leadership in a Complex World,” a University Course offered at Emory this spring that promised a deep, interdisciplinary exploration of key global security issues, he was intrigued.

Coordinated through the Center for Faculty Development and Excellence, the University Course program was first launched in 2011 to bring Emory's faculty and students together to study important topics from multiple intellectual perspectives. Each University Course focuses on a specific subject and is open to all students: undergraduate, graduate and professional. 

Once a week for three hours, Mergl and other students from across the university gather to examine global security issues.

Their disciplines are diverse. Some are from the Emory School of Law, Goizueta Business School and the Rollins School of Public Health. Others are studying developmental practice through Laney Graduate School. Several are military veterans; one is a first-year Emory College student.

Under the leadership of an interdisciplinary team of four Emory professors, the students are taking a sweeping look at issues straight from the day’s headlines: cybersecurity, intelligence, immigration, nation-building and humanitarian intervention, international law, global economics and development.

For Mergl, it couldn’t be more timely. “I’ve been dealing with global security for over a decade, but these issues are in the news more than ever these days, in part because of the recent presidential transition," he says.

Case in point: The day before President Donald Trump issued his Jan. 27 executive order banning immigration and travel from seven Muslim majority countries, University Course students were participating in a conversation steeped in issues of sovereignty, borders and immigration.

Guest lecturers that afternoon included Emory Law professor Polly Price, an expert in citizenship and immigration law, and Carey Davis, director of field operations for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Atlanta — a lynchpin for Homeland Security operations throughout the Southeast.

Readings, speakers cover current topics

As questions surrounding Russia’s possible role in influencing U.S. elections began to swirl throughout international media reports, the class was hosting intelligence and cybersecurity experts from the Office of the Director for National Intelligence and the staff judge advocate for the U.S. Cyber Command.

Students joke that weekly reading assignments don’t rise from research papers and news articles published months or years ago so much as developments breaking within the past 24 hours.

That kind of real-world relevancy is exactly what faculty members were hoping for, says Laurie Blank, clinical professor of law at Emory Law School, and one of the four co-conveners who devised the course.

“Week after week we’re bringing in really interesting people straight from the trenches to talk about this work,” says Blank. “Our goal is not only to give students access to those issues, but to hear about the challenges firsthand.”

“It’s the difference between sitting in a classroom hearing how it’s supposed to work and understanding what it means to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty,” she says.

For students who may come from their own specific perspective or discipline, “it’s a chance to see the real world as a complicated place, to understand how things fit together, and see how what happens here can affect what happens over there,” she adds.

Although the class syllabus has been set for months, Blank says it highlights a “tour-de-force of topics” that have proven especially relevant for both students and faculty. “As far as our own academic interests, I think we’re geeking out every week,” she laughs.

Fellow co-conveners for the course this semester include:

  • Dabney Evans, assistant professor of global health, Hubert Department of Global Health, Rollins School of Public Health, and director of the Center for Humanitarian Emergencies
  • Ken Keen, associate dean for leadership development, Goizueta Business School
  • Edward Queen, director, Ethics and Servant Leadership Program, Emory Center for Ethics

National and international perspectives

Call it interdisciplinarity with a real-world perspective.

With disparate backgrounds and scholarship, faculty expertise has been supplemented with a lineup of guest speakers who bring key national and international experience.

A class discussion on democratization and rule of law promotion featured a speaker from the U.S. Institute of Peace. A session on humanitarian intervention and nation-building included remarks from the associate director of conflict resolution for The Carter Center. 

And a special public panel discussion last week exploring military and civilian perspectives on “Managing and Responding to Humanitarian Emergencies” featured four-star Gen. Charles Wilhelm, former commander of the U.S. Southern Command, and Liesel Talley, team lead on humanitarian health at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The program was moderated by Keen, a retired lieutenant general who has told the class about his own role coordinating U.S. response efforts to the 2010 Haiti earthquake as commander of the Joint Task Force-Haiti.

“Our speakers are really making it current for our students,” Keen says. “But I honestly think I’ve learned as much as they have.”

Students apply to be selected for the classes, which heightens the classroom experience, notes Queen. “The students themselves come with a tremendous variety of experiences, knowledge and interests,” he says. “What they bring to the conversation with each speaker illuminates new facets of the topic each week.” 

Queen recalls one speaker from the U.S. Army War College discussing the role his battalion had played building schools and infrastructure in Iraq. A class member confessed that he had no idea that’s what soldiers did.

“The value of the course is giving students a very real glimpse into the complexity, the realities, the struggle and the challenges of addressing these issues,” Queen says. “Because the issues are so meaty and complex, you get very thoughtful engagement.”

Access to real-world experiences

Evans notes that students also benefit from learning how to interact with people from “different disciplines and starting places, modeling skills they’ll need to do this kind of work out in the real world.”

With plans to major in international studies and human health, first-year Emory College student Johnna Gadomski says the experience has been amazing.

“It aligns directly with what I’m interested in pursuing in a career,” she says. “I’m learning things in class that I’m directly applying to what I’m reading in the news and talking about with my friends — we’ve been able to pull in so many current events.”

Another bonus: Being able to interact with students outside her major, as well as international students who’ve provided their own unique perspectives. “As much as I’ve learned inside the classroom, I’ve learned at least that much from my peers,” she says.

For Elizabeth Baiyeshea, an Emory Law student from Nigeria, that’s been a two-way street. “As an international student, if you want to gain anything in this country before you return home, you have to get to know the people,” she says.

“I saw in this course a lot of guest speakers and an opportunity to learn from people I probably never would have had the chance to meet in my regular course of study,” she says. “All told, I’ve gained a lot from the class. Every piece of this experience has moved me forward.”

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