Renewed Recognition for Academic Excellence in Cybersecurity

December 17, 2014

The National Security Agency (NSA) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) are once again recognizing Northeastern University for its strength in cybersecurity. After the government agencies adopted new and more rigorous criteria for selection, Northeastern was awarded a seven-year designation as a National Center of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance (IA)/Cyber Defense (CD), valid through 2021.

The University first gained the designation for its educational programs in 2008, the same year it was named a National Center of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance Research. In 2012, Northeastern received an additional designation as a National Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Operations.

“We are one of the very few universities in the country with all three designations and the only one in New England,” says Agnes Chan, the College of Computer and Information Science (CCIS) professor, associate dean, and graduate school director who spearheaded Northeastern’s application process, with assistance from Themis Papageorge, director of the information assurance graduate programs, and members of the faculty.

In awarding the most recent designation for excellence, the NSA and DHS considered Northeastern’s cybersecurity programs, student activities, external support for research, publication output, number of PhD graduates, and collaborations with other universities. Chan points to several reasons why the evaluators came away impressed.

“We announced our B.S. in computer science with a concentration in cyber operations three years ago, and 40 students have already declared this major, which is a lot,” says Chan, noting that Northeastern is among only 13 universities nationally to hold the designation for academic excellence in cyber operations. “There’s a surge of interest among students because of the shortage of human resources in cybersecurity, and students know Northeastern provides the activities to allow them to learn what’s needed in the field.”

Among these activities are competitions in which teams of CCIS undergraduate and graduate students tackle practical cybersecurity challenges, such as detecting and responding to external threats while maintaining essential internet functionalities. They participate in prominent cybersecurity events, including the Defcon Capture the Flag hacking competition and the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition in which a Northeastern team topped all others in the country in 2010.

“All of these activities are important to the NSA,” Chan says. “What they’re looking for other than academics is interest in cybersecurity and whether the activities on campus are vibrant and supported from top to bottom at the university.”

Explaining that collaborations with other institutions are also highly valued, Chan highlights a new research course that will be taught for the first time in spring 2015. Northeastern is among a handful of universities—Purdue University and the University of California, Davis, are among the others—to receive National Science Foundation (NSF) funding for this course in which teams of students will work on cybersecurity problems proposed by the NSA or a national lab and be supervised remotely by researchers there. Overseen on campus by Chan, the course is open to graduate students in the computer science or M.S. in Information Assurance (MSIA) programs as well as to advanced undergraduates.

“Northeastern students will be thrilled to be involved in real-world problems and supervised by the people who actually work on them,” Chan says. “They’ll be helping the country find out about vulnerabilities and may be able to come up with solutions.”

Now that Northeastern’s excellence in cybersecurity has been reaffirmed, Chan sees ongoing benefits for CCIS and its students and faculty. She explains, “This places our graduates in a good position. Graduating from Northeastern validates their work. There’s a shortage of trained personnel, but companies and the government are selective in who they hire. The designations also help in demonstrating our capabilities when we apply for NSF grants and in attracting students and faculty. We’ve seen a surge of interest among students, and we’re actively looking for faculty members. The research designation indicates that we’re active in the field, and that will help us recruit good people.”