Fort Hays State University today unveiled one of the most advanced laboratories in the United States for the teaching of information security, computer networking and web development.
"Almost 20 years ago, the Kansas Board of Regents gave our university a unique statewide mission in the integration of computing and telecommunications into education and the Kansas workforce," Dr. Edward H. Hammond, FHSU president, said during a news conference this morning in Room 125 of Tomanek Hall. "Our university has taken that mission very seriously. We have sought to provide both our on-campus students as well as students from across the state with cutting-edge learning tools."
The Ambassadors group from the Hays Area Chamber of Commerce conducted a ribbon-cutting ceremony during the news conference to show the importance of the new lab to the state's business community.
"We intend for our unique academic programs to serve as catalysts for the Kansas economy," President Hammond said. "That was the reason we started the Information Networking and Telecommunications Program in 1995. That program started with 18 students and now has more than 100 students on campus and 250 distance-learning students. We have grown not only in numbers, but we have achieved excellence. This is evidenced by the fact that this past spring the International Telecommunications Education and Research Association named the FHSU program the 2008 Undergraduate Program of the Year. The excellence of our Department of Networking and Telecommunications is also demonstrated by the nearly 100-percent job placement rate of its graduates."
He said that even with the significant growth of the INT program, Kansas employers said they wanted all of the quality graduates that FHSU could produce and more. "Local employers, including Nex-Tech, Eagle Communications and Hays Medical Center, are major beneficiaries," the president said. "Kansas employers such as Cargill, Koch Industries, Coleman, Blue Cross, Payless Shoe Source, Garmin and Spirit, as well as cities, counties, school districts, hospitals and many small businesses, benefit from the graduates of this program."
He continued: "A few years ago, the INT faculty began to receive feedback from businesses that the digital age required a new type of specialist, one who can design, implement and protect secure networks and to protect information transmitted or stored in databases. This type of activity is called 'Information Assurance.' We looked around the country and found that the National Security Agency and Congress had this same concern and had begun to seek the creation of National Centers of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance at a higher education institution in each state."
The middle part of the country lacked a Center of Academic Excellence. There were none in Kansas, Missouri or Nebraska, and the only one in Colorado was at the Air Force Academy, which prepares military officers, not employees for industry.
"Therefore, we took an initiative to the Kansas Board of Regents, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and the Kansas Legislature in what was an 18-month process to seek funding that would allow the university to build toward this important goal," President Hammond said. "We were successful in obtaining funding, partially because the Kansas private sector strongly supported our effort. Legislators relied on private corporate promises to commit resources and the university’s commitment to hire outstanding faculty and to develop and teach a world class curriculum.”
In the summer of 2007, following a national search, FHSU hired Keyu Jiang from the private sector. He had previously been on faculty at Cal Poly and has his doctorate in Information Security from Arizona State. Jiang, INT Department Chair Mark Bannister and several faculty members, including Kevin Shaffer, Jon Tholstrup and Angela Walters, as well as adjunct faculty and consultants, focused on curriculum development last academic year. FHSU took the first major step toward becoming a Center of Academic Excellence when it submitted a curriculum to the Committee on National Security Systems for 4011 and 4013E standards. FHSU was certified at 100 percent on its first attempt.
"We know of other universities who have submitted curriculum for certification multiple times and have failed multiple times," President Hammond said. "This was an outstanding team effort and is one that we commend our faculty for achieving."
Bannister said his department had benefited dramatically from the help of alumni and industry partners. "The Information Assurance initiative was a catalyst for private industry," he said. "It showed that the Kansas Legislature believed in our program. After the legislative commitment we had a number of key partners step forward to equip our program at world-class standards."
He said that more than a million dollars of new equipment and software had been donated toward equipping new labs.
"Nortel Networks and Juniper Networks are new partners to our efforts and have donated significant equipment," Bannister said. "Oracle has been a longstanding and major partner. Cisco System has provided us with more than $700,000 worth of equipment -- that filled six forklift pallets. Cisco also provides content material for use in classes and lab exercises. Recent gifts total more than $1.1 million of in-kind donations. This equipment and software will allow our faculty and students to design, build, test, defend and even attack a variety of networks, websites and databases. Our on-campus students have an amazing array of routers, switches and other equipment they can assemble for different lab exercises. FHSU distance-learning students have access to real equipment, not simulations, in a manner that may be unique in the world based on the breadth and depth of available lab exercises."
Bannister said that in the efforts to develop programs, no industry partner had been more important than a local company, Nex-Tech, and its parent company, Rural Telephone.
"Nex-Tech has provided advice, connections, real-world feedback, internships and part-time employment for students, jobs for graduates, scholarships, capstone project support, and cash donations to pay for the state-of-the art racks needed to mount and deploy donated equipment in the new labs," he said. "Nex-Tech’s innovative approaches and growth have mirrored our own and have stimulated and supported our efforts. We have even arranged periodic lunches between our faculty and Nex-Tech’s technical leadership to exchange ideas and to forecast technology trends and opportunities."
Larry Sevier, the CEO of Nex-Tech, said that Nex-Tech and Rural Telephone shared FHSU's mission of serving western Kansas. "We benefit from hiring talented and capable FHSU graduates," he said. "Having a university partner helps drive our businesses forward and helps us as we continue to expand both the Nex-Tech service area and the breadth of technology services that we provide to businesses and families."
Hammond invited attendees at the news conference and ribbon cutting to explore the labs. "For many bright students, these labs are both their 'home away from home' and the launching pads for their careers," he said. "The labs allow faculty and graduate students to conduct a variety of research projects. These labs are part of the university’s commitment to excellence under our Dare to Dream Initiative and will be key as FHSU applies in January to become a National Center of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance."