By Mark Barrett, originally published by Carolina Public Press. Carolina Public Press is an independent, in-depth and investigative nonprofit news service for North Carolina.
State legislators want to skip over six public colleges and universities in North Carolina that offer federally recognized programs in cybersecurity to instead give $20 million to a small private college in Buncombe County to establish a center to train people to protect digital information and systems.
The money contained in a stalled budget bill that passed the General Assembly would go to Montreat College, a school in eastern Buncombe County with an enrollment of fewer than 1,000 students.
The $20 million for Montreat is not yet guaranteed because of the budget standoff between Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and the Republicans who control the General Assembly.
However, the funding for Montreat is not a dividing point in that stalemate. Cooper did not request money for Montreat but offered to go along with funding legislators approved for local projects.
Ehab Al-Shaer, a professor and director of the Cyber Defense and Network Assurability Center at UNC Charlotte, wondered in an interview with Carolina Public Press why legislators want to reach outside state government to do a job he said UNC schools are well equipped for.
“I don’t really know what the state is going to do, but I think it is good to leverage your existing capacities,” he said.
UNCC’s cybersecurity program has been going for about 20 years and is one of the oldest and best regarded in the country, with roughly 150 students currently seeking degrees, he said. Ten faculty members specialize in cybersecurity, and five more teach some cybersecurity classes, he said.
The Davis iTEC Cyber Security Center at Forsyth Technical Community College has identified a building on the school’s Winston-Salem campus as a possible location for a center similar to what Montreat plans and is seeking funding for.
Associate Dean Deanne Cranford-Wesley told CPP that the program today has 14 full-time faculty members and more than 300 students.
“I just don’t know if the legislature knew we were here,” she said.
Montreat began offering a cybersecurity major in 2014. Its cybersecurity department has five faculty members.
Why Montreat College?
Sen. Ralph Hise, a Mitchell County Republican whose district lies just a few miles from Montreat, said during a May 30 Senate debate he believed that N.C. State University in Raleigh is the only school in the state besides Montreat that is recognized by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as having special expertise in cybersecurity.
In fact, the National Security Agency and Department of Homeland Security have recognized five UNC system universities, two community colleges and Montreat as National Centers of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense. The list includes UNCC and Forsyth Tech, and Forsyth Tech helps schools in eight states apply for the recognition.
While there are other private and religiously affiliated schools that have achieved these recognitions in cyber defense, Montreat is the only such school in North Carolina.
Hise told the Senate the designation is “one of the most important” honors for a cybersecurity program, that there is a strong need for training in the field, and the Montreat center “will allow us to extend our capacity across the state, but particularly in Western North Carolina.”
Why not a state college?
Hise was speaking against an amendment offered by Sen. Kirk deViere, D-Cumberland, that would have shifted cybersecurity funds to the UNC system.
“North Carolina stands poised for growth in cybersecurity, and the UNC (schools) have already made significant investments in the training of the needed workforce,” deViere said. He added that giving the money to a private school means the state would “have less oversight” over its use.
Cybersecurity workers try to thwart hackers who attempt to steal private information, spread computer viruses or shut down corporate or government computer systems until victims pay ransom. Demand for people with cybersecurity skills has grown rapidly.
This year’s $24 billion budget bill has been criticized by both liberals and conservatives for numerous provisions earmarking state money for legislators’ pet projects.
Given that UNC schools have cybersecurity programs, “I think there are valid questions about how this was outsourced,” said Leah Byers, a policy analyst with the conservative think tank Civitas.
Rob Schofield, who heads the news and commentary service of the left-leaning N.C. Justice Center, said the appropriation to Montreat “raises some red flags.”
He and Byers said there are situations in which it makes sense for state government to partner with nonprofits, but decisions on allocating such funds should be made by professionals in state government through a formal grant-making process and not based on the whims of a few legislators.
Montreat College asked for state and federal funds
Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Henderson County Republican who is a chairman of the House committee that writes the budget bill, said the explanation for the decision to give Montreat funds is simple.
“How it got in the budget is Montreat asked for it,” he said.
“It is a little unusual in that it is a private college, but … the program they were trying to put into place is something that had national and state implications,” McGrady said.
He said he knows of no effort by a UNC school to create a similar cybersecurity training center: “It’s not like we chose Montreat over UNC. The only proposal that was on the table was Montreat’s.”
He referred more specific questions to Rep. Jason Saine, R-Lincoln, who he called the project’s chief advocate in the House. Neither Saine nor Hise responded to repeated requests for comment.
Montreat has hired a lobbyist to seek federal money for the project also. Lobbyist David Thompson said those funds have not yet been approved.
The $20 million in state money alone would be more than Montreat College’s total budget for the 2017-18 fiscal year.
College President Paul Maurer declined an interview request. In a written statement, he said the center will “ensure that industry, state and local agencies, and teachers and schools have a locally based cyber training resource.”
“Montreat … has created the vision for this first-of-its-kind national demonstration project,” he said.
College spokeswoman Sara Baughman said the Montreat center would be modeled on the Georgia Cyber Center in Augusta, Ga., but have services that center does not offer and smaller physical facilities.
Government funding at faith-based college
Maurer wrote that the center would be “a separate entity” from the college. He did not otherwise address how Montreat will balance its Christian mission with restrictions that come with government funds.
Montreat, while denominationally independent today, has a history of affiliation with Presbyterianism. “The college seeks to honor Jesus Christ and our Presbyterian and Reformed heritage while remaining uninvolved in denominational politics and administration and welcoming students without regard to religious affiliation,” the school’s website says.
However, the school requires faculty to sign their agreement with a detailed statement of faith.
Religious institutions can use government money to fund services, such as a drug treatment program, so long as those programs are not restricted to people of a certain faith and do not include efforts to share religious beliefs, said William Marshall, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law.
The question of a whether faith-based organization can require employees paid with government money to share its beliefs is “a gray area,” Marshall said.