By Karl J. Paloucek
To those on the outside, the Academic Sector might sound like a relatively benign area over which to preside. But those familiar with all that it encompasses know that it’s a considerable responsibility. As Academic Sector Chief, Dr. Nancy Zarse knows the full dynamics and dimensions of her role, even as she seeks to learn more and expand her involvement in it. In part because of this demonstrated positive attitude that resonates in the work she does both with InfraGard and as full professor in the Forensic Department of The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, Zarse was recently awarded the 2015 Distinguished Faculty Award for Excellence in Public Service, an award she also claimed in 2011. We took the opportunity to speak with Zarse about the honor, about the importance of securing the Academic Sector, and her vision for the future.
IMA: How did you come to the career path you did?
Nancy Zarse: Well, it’s a pretty long career at this point, unfortunately, which makes me sound old. I guess the best way to explain how I ended up here is, this is my alma mater. I’m a graduate of the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. I had been home full time with my boys for about eight years and was looking to get back into the workforce with a position that utilized my clinical experience, but also gave me a little bit of flexibility with regards to my children. So I reached out to the Chicago School and started in January of ’07. Started first as an adjunct — did that for two semesters — and then I worked part-time for a year; then I went full-time in the fall of ’08.
IMA: What’s your specialty within the field of professional psychology?
NZ: I’m a forensic psychologist, so my specialty areas are in the field of forensics — hostage negotiation, violence and risk assessment, psychology of law enforcement, psychology of terrorism, evaluation and treatment of the adult offender.
IMA: What does the threat to Academia include? What all does that encompass?
NZ: Some of the threats that Academia could face are violations of visa. Like there was that very famous terrorist who came over to Bradley University, and then went back to the Middle East, and re-enrolled again. He was actually prosecuted. And he was here on a visa, and then engaged in terrorist activities. So one of the things we want to be careful about are the people who are visiting our country, and the academic environment has a lot of freedom — and understandably and justifiably so. We just need to make sure that people are here doing what they are intending them to do, and what we are intending them to do. That’s one of the threats that can be to the Academic Sector. It can also be property — intellectual property. One of the things that happens with academia, sometimes we’re rather free with our information — is any of that being misused?
IMA: What are you working toward now?
NZ: Part of what I want to do is to build a better — and I haven’t done near enough — I want to build a better sense of who the Sector is, who actually is in Academia. What are the strengths that any of us bring, and what are the individual concerns that we have? So I need to do a better job at reaching out to the Sector to say, “This is who I am, and this is where I’d like to go, and what ideas do you have?”
IMA: Are there are large number of people in the Academia Sector?
NZ: It’s not one of the larger ones, no. But it can be vital because — the thing of it is, the information needs to go both ways. It’s not just about what does the FBI have that they can share with us and we can then disseminate, but it’s also about what concerns do we have, or what knowledge or information? There might be a faculty member somewhere in Academia who’s doing research that has great relevance to the field of counterterrorism. We take that information and pass that along to the FBI. Or let’s say someone like myself: If I’m doing a study-abroad program and I get information that would be relevant for the FBI, again, that is something to pass along. There are a lot of schools doing a lot of international work. The whole international focus is expanding exponentially in academia. So it’s just something that we need to be really careful about. Where are our students traveling to, and are they doing so safely and legally? And vice-versa: Who’s coming to our academic institutions, and are those valid academic sources?
IMA: Let’s back up just a bit. How did you come to be involved in InfraGard in the first place?
NZ: I am a colleague of the former coordinator of InfraGard, and the current coordinator. The former coordinator, Jason Leifer, had asked me to do maybe one or two presentations for InfraGard. Then the current coordinator — because I do a lot of training with law enforcement, so I’m resource staff with the FBI’s hostage negotiation, so my relationship with both of them goes back many, many years. Then I joined InfraGard, and then Kathy [Hug] asked me if I would be interested in being the Sector Chief.
I think part of that is not only my work in forensic psychology, but also in things like hostage negotiation, but also because of my work with Israel.
IMA: That sounds fascinating — could you please elaborate a bit about that for us?
NZ: Well, I created a course that focuses on terrorism, trauma and resilience within the context of Israel. So it’s a semester-long course — we meet every week for three hours — and then it culminates in a 10-day study-abroad trip. It’s based highly on experiences and experts in the field. For instance, in Chicago, the Honorable Council General of the Israeli Consulate speaks to my class; I have an FBI agent who speaks on the history of Israel. The president of TLOC [Terrorism Liaison Officer Committee] speaks to my class. I have a victim of secondary trauma — her sister was shot in a terrorist attack in Jerusalem, pronounced dead on the scene and then survived. We tour the Holocaust Museum; I have a Holocaust survivor who speaks to my group. Basically, however I can get at terrorism, trauma and resilience. Then, in Israel, we stay several days in Tel Aviv, several days in Jerusalem, we stay on a kibbutz, and we again hear from experts and government officials in the area. We tour the ministry of foreign affairs. Obviously, we tour Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Israel, but we also visit the mass-casualty trauma unit at Shaare Zedek, which is a world-renowned mass-casualty unit. They came over to consult with us after 9/11. I’m on their American board of directors, so I’ve done speaking engagements for them as well. But anyway, we hear from the chief psychiatrist for the southern half of Israel. We spend an entire day in Sderot. Sderot is the town that is closest to Gaza, and so experiences the highest number of direct missile attacks from Hamas, and has the highest rate of PTSD in the world. We spend about 10 hours in the town of Sderot. So it’s very focused on the people, on the experiences, on the experts there, and I’ve now taught that class five years, and led five study-abroad trips.
IMA: What have you seen on those multiple trips to such high-stress places?
NZ: I’ve seen a very different Israel than what is portrayed in the American media. I am — I think I can safely say the word is outraged, by the BDS movement, the attempts to de-invest from Israel. I see a phenomenal resilience. The response of the Israeli people, both the government and the military, the law enforcement, the civilians, the psychologists, the social workers, is just impressive. It doesn’t mean that I glorify the state. It’s not like I don’t see the same kind of faults that I see in America. But their resilience in the face of sustained terrorism and trauma is simply impressive to me. I also think, on that note, separate from that, their respect for religion and for cultures is also, in my opinion, impressive. And not just their own. It’s not just a respect for the Jewish faith. I think their respect for religion far exceeds that of what I see in America. As long as it is religion that is peaceful in its pursuit. I go to the Western Wall — this is a goofy story, but we go to the Western Wall every year, and you can put prayers on a piece of paper and actually slide them into the wall. And as you walk up to the wall, there’s an inordinate amount of prayers there. Some have fallen on the ground. We did a tour of the tunnels that are under the Western Wall, and one of the questions I asked was, “What do you do with all of these prayers at the end of the day?” And they said, “We gather the prayers every day, and then we bury them.” And I just thought, they have such respect for anybody who has traveled to that country to put their prayers into that wall, and I don’t know that we would do that in America. I’m not sure that we would bury, out of respect, the prayers from these people from all over the world.
IMA: They would probably just get left there, is my guess.
NZ: Or thrown away. There was another instance that we heard of just this past year, that there was a prison, and somehow, they were digging under the prison, and they discovered these extraordinary ruins. And so the prison moved — they moved the prison so that they could honor the history and the culture of whatever they were discovering underneath there. And again, I’m struck by — not that we would have those kinds of ruins in America, but if we did, would we pay to move an entire prison?
IMA: I think there are some precedents in which things have been discovered where they say, “OK, we can’t build here,” but I think more often than not, the business interests win out.
NZ: Right! And you think about that — I mean, I worked in corrections. The expense of moving an entire prison — building another one and moving it — would be extraordinary. So that’s part [of it]. The other thing is that the people — I’m very big on sustained relationships. I believe in reciprocal relationships. If there’s something I can do for you, that’s terrific. I’ve gone back to many of the people as I’ve developed these relationships. Some of the people that I’m having my group tour with in Israel, I’ve been working with now for four and five years. What they are willing to share in terms of their actual experience — one of the psychiatrists we talk to there, he lived in Sderot, and his house was bombed. And so he talks about the effect on his children, of that attack. Last year we toured and I met a woman, and this year when I came back to Sderot, she invited me and my group into her home. So we went into an actual home of an average citizen in Sderot, and she talked with us about the war this past summer, and 60 days of being out of her home, showed me the bomb shelter where her and her daughter lived. They moved into that shelter, this room that’s smaller than a prison cell. That’s where they lived before they were actually evacuated from the town, because the missile attacks from Gaza were so severe. So people are just willing to really open themselves up to other people who really want to learn. It’s amazing.
IMA: You received another award for your service recently.
NZ: I’ve actually been quite fortunate and I’ve received a number of awards now, at my school. In 2010, I received the Distinguished Faculty and Excellence in Teaching Award. And then I received the Excellence in Public Service Award. You can’t get that award for three years after you’ve been awarded it. And then in 2014 — so it must have been 2011 I got the Teaching Award — then in 2014 I received the Teaching Award again. And this year, the Excellence in Public Service Award.
IMA: You’re on a roll.
NZ: I am — I’m pretty active! It’s a goofy thing, but I have this philosophy that to those to whom much has been given, from whom much is expected. So I feel like I’ve been blessed. I’ve been very fortunate, and I want to give back.
IMA: What about your own personal plans beyond your work or InfraGard?
NZ: I think for me — I’m going to answer that professionally — professionally, I would like to get into even more training and consultation in the areas of terrorism and threat assessment, and violence- and suicide-risk assessment. That sort of thing. I thoroughly enjoy doing presentations. I do a fair amount traveling around the country — a little bit internationally, but mostly around the country. And I really enjoy taking information that, for a lot of people, seems confusing, and try to make it manageable and relevant to their actual everyday lives, in their jobs. And I try to infuse some humor in that, so that we can have a little bit of fun. Some of what I talk about — even when I do media interviews, rarely do people call me to talk about love and peace and friendship. I’m called on serial murderers and suicide, and terrorist attacks, and mass school shootings. So sometimes I just think we need to remember to infuse a little bit of lightheartedness in the topics. But I love that. I love taking difficult material and making it manageable. And if I can help people to do that — I think a lot of this stuff is far more preventable than we think. Not so much on a global issue, but on each individual issue. You know, 81 percent of all mass-casualty incidents — in 81 percent of mass-casualty incidents, somebody knew something. So how can we get those 81 percent to come forward? Part of what I do, when I do a presentation on violence risk assessment is, I have a piece where I talk about, let’s do some brainstorming on why we think those 81 percent aren’t coming forward, and what can we try and do to get those 81 percent to come forward. But we all have a piece of that. Me as a mom, if I’m concerned about my son, I’m not going to call my son’s school to say, “Hey, I’m worried about my boy,” unless I think that both me and my son are going to be treated professionally and compassionately. We all have a piece of that. That’s not just pointing the finger at moms or at schools, or at law enforcement. We all have a piece of that. And I think that’s part of what I really like to try to get across is, let’s not just stay focused on that 81 percent. What do we do with that? And how can we try to overcome that barrier to keep our society safer? And what do we want people to report? Again, if I’m a mom and my boys are sitting at the kitchen table and they’ve got friends over, and they’re talking about something that’s going on at school, what is it that we actually want the parents to call the school and say, “Hey, this is what I heard.” So we need to educate people. I love that. I love that part of my job, and I would be thrilled to be doing more of that.
IMA: What do you like to do in your downtime? Is there anything that your InfraGard compadres would be surprised to learn about you?
NZ: It depends on how well they know me! [Laughs.] Obviously, I love spending time with my boys. I love movies, so I got to movies a lot — the Academy Awards is the biggest single day of my year outside of my boys.
IMA: What sort of movies do you prefer?
NZ: I love dramedies. My favorite is when they take a really complicated subject and the human dynamics and the relationships … let’s laugh a little bit and let’s cry a little bit. Those are my favorites. I have to go to a lot of violence movies because of what I do, but I love dramedies.
And I love the beach. Caribbean is my favorite, but I don’t discriminate. I love going to the dunes, I love Cape Cod, I love Florida — I love Destin. I love the Caribbean. I love beaches. And I love to read.
IMA: What do you like to read?
NZ: Mysteries … probably mysteries and fiction are my favorite. In fact, pretty much anytime you see me, I’m going to have a book. If there’s a wait in the doctor’s office, I’m reading a book. My children make fun of me. If I get stuck in a train, well, I might read a book. I love to read. If I’m on a plane, I’m reading.