Friday 17 August 2012

Mercyhurst's Heibel receives honors - Times-News

The first class Bob Heibel taught in the intelligence studies program he founded at what was then Mercyhurst College was held in a home economics classroom.

Robert Heibel
A group of would-be intelligence analysts gathered around kitchen tables while Heibel, a 25-year veteran of the FBI and former deputy chief of counterterrorism, gave a presentation in front of the sink. Eleven students enrolled in the program that year.

Much has changed in the two decades since.

Twenty years after its founding, Heibel's brainchild has grown to become the world's largest full-time academic program educating analysts for the government and private sector by enrollment and has helped put the renamed Mercyhurst University on the international map. It is now one of the most popular -- and competitive -- programs on campus, with a total of 350 students currently enrolled in the undergraduate and graduate programs.

More than 500 students have graduated from the on-campus program and another 300 from an online certificate program since its inception.

"I never imagined what would happen," said Heibel, 74, who now serves as director of business development for the Institute for Intelligence Studies. "A lot of us have ideas, but to be able to take an idea from its very beginning and see it through ..."

Heibel was honored Wednesday for his contributions to the university with an endowed chair in his name: The Robert J. Heibel Distinguished Chair of Intelligence Studies.

Mercyhurst University President Tom Gamble made the announcement during the grand opening and dedication of the new Center for Academic Engagement, a $10.5 million building that will house the intelligence studies and hospitality programs, as well as the Mercyhurst Center for Applied Politics and the Evelyn Lincoln Institute for Ethics and Society.

"I'm honored," Heibel said. "I did not expect that. How's it get much better than that?"

At the time Heibel proposed the program, no one was exactly sure what intelligence studies was, Gamble said. But he laid out a convincing argument about the need for a program that would combine a liberal-arts background with solid, hands-on field training to produce top-flight intelligence analysts.

"Colleges are full of liberal people but conservative as institutions," Gamble said. "Bob's naiveté about how slowly universities change, his fresh thinking about it, his sense of the possibilities ... that's what made this happen."

Any initial resistance to what some on campus were calling the "spy program" vanished.

The success lies in Heibel's vision and in the students the program produces, said James Breckenridge, the executive director of the institute and an associate professor in the program.

"In the end the exponential growth is due in large part to the fact that our students have been so successful," Breckenridge said. "They're our credentials. Without their good work and good will and character, we can't continue to grow and be successful."

Today, graduates from the program hold jobs at agencies readily identified by their initials -- FBI, CIA, NSA -- as well as at Northrop Grumman Corporation, General Electric, Exxon Mobil, and Procter & Gamble.

In March, the university announced the opening of a new international center in Dungarvan, Ireland, that will serve as a European base for the Center for Intelligence, Research, Analysis and Training, or CIRAT, among other functions.

Founded by Heibel, CIRAT is a nonprofit organization under which Mercyhurst intelligence studies students and staff produce analytical products for clients.

"What I see is an opportunity to spread the gospel, and the gospel I'm spreading is the applied gospel," Heibel said, emphasizing the importance of hands-on, real-world training.

The new Center for Academic Engagement will also help spread that gospel, Heibel said, providing a state-of-the-art space for those would-be analysts -- a far cry from his program's humble beginnings.

ERICA ERWIN can be reached at 870-1846 or by e-mail. Follow her on Twitter at


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