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Special Ops Forces: A University of Their Own

The Tampa Bay area will soon become home to a new university. It is not another state university like Florida Polytechnic. Instead, the university has a highly-specialized curriculum with a global reach.

A hub campus for the Joint Special Operations University (JSOU) is under construction near the U.S. Special Operations Command on MacDill Air Force Base.

There was a symbolic groundbreaking Thursday, but the JSOU has been holding classes for the past three years in a former bank building just outside the Tampa air base. The school is working on accreditation, but is not yet a degree-granting university.

Dr. Brian Maher, president of the Joint Special Operations University, said the curriculum is at the core of the Department of Defense’s plan to use more teams of special operators.

Credit Bobbie O'Brien / WUSF Public Media
WUSF Public Media
Dr. Brian Maher, president of the Joint Special Operations University, says their new facility withstood budget cuts because Dept. of Defense plans to use more special ops forces in the future.

“The secretary of defense just the other day said, ‘Hey as we’re cutting back some of the forces, we’re going to see the special operator on the battlefield,’” Maher said. “And they’re going to be in small teams and they’re going to be needed to have the skills and that intellectual capacity to talk back to chiefs of staff of services and ministries of defense and be able to help formulate and articulate what the United States is trying to do.”

The JSOC was created to train special operations forces in 2000, a year before the 9-11 terrorist attacks. But what started as training courses and workshops has developed into an educational institution.

Now, it serves special forces and conventional forces as well as interagency and international partners.

“We want to take the niche, and it will be primarily for the non-commissioned officers,” Maher said. “Help them get a higher level education, but in the things that are going to be meaningful for the rest of their career - critical thinking skills, solving complex problems.”

Maher said a majority of the special operators’ work is building security cooperation and partnerships with other government agencies and nations and that only 5 to 10 percent of special forces’ work is “direct action.”

Credit Bobbie O'Brien / WUSF Public Media
WUSF Public Media
Left to right: Command Sgt. Maj. David Betz; JSOU President Brian Maher: Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn; retired Army Gen. Doug Brown; Army Lt. Gen. John Mulholland; Retired Vice Adm. Joe Maguire; Air Force Col. Andre Briere; Army Lt. Col. Thomas Nelson.

“It’s something that we call phase zero or before the bang,” Maher said. “We don’t ever want to get to where there’s an armed conflict.”

Instead, the aim is to provide training and work with partner nations to solve local problems before they grow into regional conflicts.

The university facility is being built as an extension of the U.S. Special Operations Command where Army Lt. Gen. John Mulholland is deputy commander.

“Nowhere in the world, literally, will you find such an academic institution dedicated to the professional study and practice of special operations,” Mulholland said at the symbolic groundbreaking. “This building will support JSOU evolving into a fully-accredited, nationally-recognized degree granting university. Providing a variety of academic programs and electives specifically designed for special operators.”

The new 90,000 square-foot JSOU facility is scheduled to be completed in 2015 and become home to 130 faculty and staff.

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