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Former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Speaks at St. John’s

Saturday, January 27, 2018

St. John’s University welcomed one of homeland security’s most distinguished leaders to the Queens campus for a discussion on the nation’s continuing efforts to combat terror networks and the future of counter-terrorism. 

“Fifteen Years after the Creation of the Department of Homeland Security: Reflections Past, Present, and for the Future” featured Jeh Charles Johnson, J.D., who served as the fourth United States Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) from 2013 to 2017. Mr. Johnson discussed his experiences as the head of the DHS and the many challenges the department has faced since its creation in November 2002. 

“The essence of the job is finding the right balance between basic physical security and preserving civil liberties in a free and democratic society,” said Mr. Johnson, “and it is a great challenge.”

Held in Marillac Auditorium, on Thursday, January 25, the 90-minute event was attended by more than 400 members of the St. John’s community and local media

“The Department of Homeland Security has one vital mission—to secure the nation from the many threats we face,” said Katia Passerini, Ph.D., Dean of the College of Professional Studies (CPS), in her opening remarks. “The department’s duties are wide-ranging, they are complex, but their role is very clear—to keep America safe.”

The discussion was moderated by Michael A. Simons, J.D., Dean and John V. Brennan Professor of Law, St. John's School of Law, and James O’Keefe, Ph.D., ’79NDC, Vice Provost at the Staten Island campus and Professor of Homeland Security and Criminal Justice within CPS.

“This timely and experiential panel discussion with Jeh Johnson is just another example of the essential learning for real life that happens each day at St. John's University,” said Conrado "Bobby" Gempesaw, Ph.D., President of St. John's University. In addition, Dr. Gempesaw stated, “Mr. Johnson has left an indelible mark in both the public and private sectors and his distinguished career and path to success are an inspiration for all of our students.”

Mr. Johnson detailed how the homeland security threat to our nation has evolved significantly since 9/11. “We used to take the fight against terrorism to the enemy overseas—and those efforts continue to this day. However, today one of the biggest threats is from terrorist-inspired attacks, where someone living on US soil is inspired by something they see on television or read about.”

Prior to his service as a cabinet member during the Obama administration, Mr. Johnson served as General Counsel of the Department of Defense. He currently serves as a partner in the Litigation Department at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP. 

While defending against the threat of physical attacks continues to be a top priority for the DHS, according to Mr. Johnson, the future of homeland security is in defending against cyberterrorism. “Cyber threats are the predominant threat to our homeland,” he said. “I used to say that counter-terrorism must be the cornerstone of Homeland Security’s mission. Now, cybersecurity is the other cornerstone—you can have more than one cornerstone.” 

During his visit to St. John’s, Mr. Johnson toured the University’s new state-of-the-art Homeland Security/Emergency Management Simulation Lab, the first of its kind in the Northeast, and the new Cyber Security Lab. 

“When I was Secretary, I used to preach all the time the need for training, and I am glad to see that is happening here at St. John’s,” Mr. Johnson observed. “I was very impressed with the technology in the labs and with the curriculum. We need centers like this that are dedicated to training people—not just in straight law enforcement, but in homeland security and cybersecurity as well.”

The University recently announced the Homeland Security, Doctor of Professional Studies program. St. John’s is one of the first traditional, brick-and-mortar, nonprofit educational institutions to offer a doctoral degree in this area. 

Kevin Magee, a Homeland Security major who attended the discussion, was inspired by Mr. Johnson’s words. “He really motivated me to continue my studies and pursue a career in serving others,” said the senior, who is the son of a New York City police officer. 

Lewis Rice, Jr. ’74SVC, a member of the St. John’s University Board of Trustees and former Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent, was moved by Mr. Johnson’s praise of public service. “As Mr. Johnson said, as a public servant you get to do work that can really touch your heart,” he noted. “Life is about building relationships and hearing someone’s story. The University now has a relationship with Mr. Johnson, and the students have heard his amazing story.” 

Mr. Johnson encouraged students in attendance to pursue careers in public service. “The world needs smart young people who are interested in serving their city, their state, their country, and their fellow citizens,” he said. “By far, the most gratifying part of my professional career has been my time in public service.”

“Those in national security are the guardians of people’s safety and security,” Mr. Johnson added, “but they are also the guardians of your freedom to travel, your freedom of religion, your freedom to associate, and they are the guardians of our diverse heritage in this country.”