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Last Updated

04 Feb 2003

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, February 4, 2003

Top Colleges Offer Few Courses on Threat of Weapons of Mass Destruction, Study Says


Despite rising student demand, relatively few of the nation's top colleges and universities offer specialized undergraduate courses that focus on the threat of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, according to a new study.

An article in winter 2002-3 edition of Nonproliferation Review, a journal published by the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, describes findings from a survey that analyzed undergraduate programs at 78 institutions, including the top 25 national universities, the top 25 public universities, and the top 25 liberal-arts colleges, as listed in U.S. News & World Report's 2001 rankings. (Some institutions were ranked in more than one category.) It also examined curriculums at the four U.S. armed-services academies.

The first part of the survey collected data on undergraduate courses offered during the current and previous academic year that included content about the threat of weapons of mass destruction, as well as efforts to combat their proliferation and use. A second part of the study, which looks at the issue of nonproliferation in graduate programs, will be released in the next issue of Nonproliferation Review. The survey was produced by the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, part of the Monterey Institute of International Studies, a private graduate school based in California.

The undergraduate portion of the survey showed that 22 of the top 25 national universities offered two or more undergraduate courses that contain some content on weapons of mass destruction. Of those, 12 universities offered students at least one specialized course on the subject.

According to the study, which relied on a questionnaire and interviews with faculty members, Yale University had the greatest number and diversity of relevant undergraduate courses, including specialized courses in its political science, history, and history-of-science departments.

At the public universities surveyed (which include 27 institutions because of a four-way tie for 24th place in the U.S. News rankings), 25 offered two or more courses dealing with the topic at some level. Of those, only 9 universities included at least one specialized course concentrating on weapons of mass destruction. The University of California at Berkeley -- the nation's top public university in the U.S. News rankings -- had no specialized courses on the topic, according to the survey.

The survey found that top-ranked liberal-arts colleges appeared to devote even less attention to weapons of mass destruction than either national or public universities. Among the top 25 liberal-arts colleges, only 10 had two or more courses that touch on weapons of mass destruction. Only 4 of those offered a specialized course; none had more.

Leonard S. Spector, deputy director of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, said that one of the study's most interesting findings was that many institutions took a similar approach on how to teach courses dealing with weapons of mass destruction. Most courses presented the information from a national-security perspective, rather than from a peace-studies perspective, he said. That, Mr. Spector suggested, could be attributed in part to the gradual shift in the orientations of political-science departments throughout the early 1990s, when they became less policy-oriented and more quantitative and theoretical.

Mr. Spector also noted that institutions weren't very creative in their handling of the subject matter. "There hasn't been much innovation," he said. "By and large, it's lecture, traditional reading, and some seminar discussions." He said that while isolated professors use creative techniques like real-life or computer simulations and student debates, "there's room for improvement."

Other highlights of the survey:

*Anecdotal interviews suggest that student interest in issues regarding weapons of mass destruction has increased since the September 11 terrorist attacks.

*Only 10 of the 78 institutions surveyed offered more than one undergraduate course that focused on weapons of mass destruction.

*The four U.S. military academies each offered both a generalized course and a specialized course on the topic.

*A number of physics courses focused on nuclear weapons, but instruction regarding biological weapons is only beginning to be offered in departments of microbiology.