University of Idaho promised $2.5 million for cybersecurity

Sharon Fisher//May 6, 2020

University of Idaho promised $2.5 million for cybersecurity

Sharon Fisher//May 6, 2020

photo of cybersecurity lab
The University of Idaho is partnering with Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories on a $2.5 million cybersecurity program. Photo courtesy of SEL

Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories (SEL) and the University of Idaho are partnering on a program to fund cybersecurity education that will help train future workers in the field.

SEL and U of I have entered into a rolling five-year agreement, with a commitment of $500,000 per year for those five years. The $500,000 is a mixture of gift funds and commitments for research projects — a total of $1 million in gifts and $1.5 million in research contracts.

“We decided to lay out a long-term strategic roadmap of partnering with excellent research and marry them with critical industry needs that we see,” said David Whitehead, chief executive officer at SEL, which is headquartered in Pullman, Washington, but also has a Boise office.

The University of Idaho also just got approval to offer a bachelor of science degree in cybersecurity, as well as the master’s level program it is working on with Boise State University and Idaho State University.

Cybersecurity is critical to the electric power system, as well as to other infrastructure systems such as water, wastewater, petrochemical and chemical for which SEL makes control systems, Whitehead said.

SEL has been partnering with the U of I on research topics for three decades, he said.

“The core of our products is what they refer to as protective relays, which monitor currents and voltages,” he explained. “If we detect a problem, we isolate the damaged part and send out commands to redirect power.”

photo of david whitehead
David Whitehead

For example, if the lights blink at your house when someone hits a power pole, that’s typically an SEL device detecting a fault, opening the circuit, and closing it back down again to clear the problem, Whitehead said.

Increasingly, though, there’s been a concern about the vulnerability of such systems, either to natural causes or hackers.

“There are frequently cybersecurity breaches, and we take it very seriously,” Whitehead said.


That’s where the University of Idaho comes in. The institution has been working on cybersecurity research projects for years with the help of industry partners like SEL, using six-month and 12-month contracts, said Larry Stauffer, dean of the U of I College of Engineering. But the university wanted to think bigger.

photo of larry stauffer
Larry Stauffer

“When it comes to cybersecurity, they’re frustrated with the ‘whack-a-mole’ approach everyone gets into,” Stauffer said. “You come up with a solution, and the bad guys come up with another approach. We thought we’d put this big audacious goal out there and figure out how to make industrial control systems cybersecure so we don’t get into that situation. We know we’ll never get there, but it’s a good goal to focus on.”

But to do that, the school needed more than six- and 12-month contracts.

“We needed to have a stable relationship,” Stauffer said. “With that stable partnership, we can recruit post-docs and graduate students who may take two or three years.”

Students may shift back and forth between being funded by gifts and funded by research contracts, depending on where they are in their studies and what projects are available, he said.

Degree programs

The bachelor of science degree in cybersecurity, as well as the master’s level program, will generate trained graduates who can go on to work for companies like SEL.

“We get access to collaborate with some really smart professors,” Whitehead said.

And the students as well.

“Hopefully they’ll be working with us and come and work for us when they graduate,” he said.

There’s not currently a defined bachelor’s-level cybersecurity program, he said.

“Kids learn about computer security and operations,” he said. “When we hire them on, we work with them specifically on cybersecurity needs. This will give them a head start being that further ahead in cybersecurity.”

“We’re pretty confident we have a high-quality offering, and I have zero concern about job prospects,” Stauffer said. “They’re going into a really high-need field. You’re going to see more and more programs coming, but we’ll be one of the first.”