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Special Ops university opens today at MacDill

Published: April 4, 2011
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Source: Tampa Tribune

Tampa's newest university doesn't have a football team.

It doesn't have a mascot.

But it does have the most restrictive admission process in the state.

If you want to enroll in the Joint Special Operations University, which officially opens today with a ceremony, you better be a member of the world's most elite military units or a security decision-maker.

The university is aimed at teaching tactics and strategy in a world where the enemy often is no longer a standing army, says university President Brian Maher. "We don't teach them what to think," says Maher. "We teach them how to think."

The university is located, for now, just outside the Dale Mabry gate at MacDill Air Force Base in a former Special Operations Command acquisition center. Some of those who enroll are nominated by their respective branches. Others apply.

Some courses, such as Introduction to Special Operations Forces, don't require any security clearance. Others require secret or even top secret clearance.

The course list includes Counter Threat Finance Educational Seminar, Irregular Warfare Course, Joint Civil-Military Operations Campaign Planning Workshop, Joint Contemporary Insurgent Warfare Course, Joint Special Operations Forces Senior Intelligence Leaders Orientation Seminar and Joint Special Operations Irregular Warfare Advanced Course.

Not all the participants are military. Some are from the State Department, CIA and the United States Agency for International Development. All the agencies can learn from each other, Maher says.

The university has a $10 million annual operating budget. It's goal is to "educate special operations forces executive, senior, and intermediate leaders and selected national and international security decision makers â€" both military and civilian â€" through teaching, outreach, and research in the science and art of joint special operations," according to its mission statement.

In addition to providing courses on campus and elsewhere, the university commissions publications for special operators, with titles such as "Innovate or Die: Innovation and Technology for Special Operations."

Joint Special Operations University opened in September, 2000 at Hurlburt Airfield in Okaloosa. It was the brainchild of Army Gen. Peter Schoomaker, former commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, who promoted the philosophy that facing a non-traditional enemy takes a non-traditional approach to warfare.

Schoomaker was ahead of the curve. Less than a year after the university opened, the nation was attacked by a non-traditional enemy using non-traditional weapons â€" hijacked jets. "After 9/11, the demand for education increased," Maher says.

As the university grew and special operations forces played a major role in Iraq and Afghanistan, it was only natural to move to Tampa, where Special Operations Command is headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base, Maher says.

The senior commanders are here. The experts in special operations warfare are here. A large percentage of potential students cycle through here as well. And students are usually experts in the field who can teach courses.

"Being tied to headquarters is very important," Maher says. "We are here all the time instead of quarterly or bimonthly."

There's another benefit as well, says Maher, a retired Air Force colonel and renowned special operations innovator.

Bringing the Joint Special Operations University to Tampa created about 60 new jobs here. All told, there are about 100 full-time employees and 40 part-time instructors, he says.

Moving the university wasn't easy, even for those used to setting up operations in the most hostile conditions.

"It's been a challenge," says Joe Kilgore, dean of academics.

Kilgore, a former Green Beret with a doctorate, likes to joke that, "I am your worst nightmare. I can kill you and bore you to death."

As he talks, workers are feverishly trying to get class and conference rooms ready for today's ceremony. The university started moving its operations to Tampa in August.

"We are very proud that we have continued to have classes during the move," says Kilgore, who serves as chief information officer in addition to his role as head of faculty development.

Kilgore is in charge of the university's outreach effort â€" mandated by its recent accreditation by the Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training, a nationally recognized organization by the U.S. Department of Education.

That means working with the University of South Florida, the University of Tampa, St. Leo's University, Hillsborough Community College and others, sharing faculty and ideas, he says.

Though there's a major effort to move into what those who work here refer to as "the schoolhouse," it is likely a temporary effort. There's a $34 million plan to move the university to a yet-to-be-built 87,000-square-foot building inside MacDill's gates. The hope, says Maher, is that the plan is approved in the 2013 budget, construction begins in 2015 and the university can move in by 2017.

But that's a few years away.

Right now, the concentration is on having the existing facility presentable today.

The opening, says Maher, was scheduled, in part, to accommodate Special Operations Commander Adm. Eric Olson, who is retiring this year and will attend the ceremony.

"As commander, he has been a big believer in education," says Maher. 

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