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Innovative national security course helps Penn State Law students build leadership skills

Students enrolled in Leadership in Crisis Simulation participate in a series of simulations designed to replicate the policies, politics, and processes familiar to practicing national security lawyers.
Students participate in a mock presidential debate

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – War abroad and terror at home. Emergency meetings with the U.S. president and National Security Council. Congressional hearings. Prime-time media coverage. Leaks and election-year politics. These are the issues lawyers working on U.S. national security policy deal with every day. While most students never get close to these real-world events, students taking an innovative Penn State Law course get the next best thing.

National Security Law II (Leadership in Crisis Simulation) takes students “inside the Beltway” without leaving University Park. The course is taught by Vice Admiral James W. Houck, who came to Penn State after serving as the Judge Advocate General of the Navy. After 32 years in the navy and four years as Penn State Law’s interim dean (2013-2017), Houck created the course to help students develop not only their national security knowledge, but their professional skills as well.

“I’ve heard people describe leadership, collaboration, and communication as so-called ‘soft skills,’” Houck said. “In my experience, there’s nothing ‘soft’ about them—they’re core skills. New lawyers who can’t collaborate, communicate and lead, will fall into a deep hole in their first jobs. This class creates a laboratory where students can develop these critical skills before joining their first employer.”

Penn State Law students participate in a simulated prime-time news panel
Penn State Law students enrolled in Leadership in Crisis Simulation debate the legality of U.S. intervention abroad during a simulated prime-time news panel. Left to right: Ryan Stanley, Haeyeon Kim, Dane Brock, and Alice Gyamfi. IMAGE: Penn State

Students enrolled in Leadership in Crisis Simulation participate in a series of simulations designed to replicate the policies, politics, and processes familiar to practicing national security lawyers. After learning the fundamentals of national security law in a traditional three-credit prerequisite course, 24 students rotate through lawyer and client roles that mirror those in the executive branch, congress, courts, media, human rights organizations, and the military.

“The simulations are incredibly realistic and complex,” third-year (3L) law student Cameron Puckett said. “Students learn quickly their decisions have consequences. There’s no predetermined script.” 

“The leadership and teamwork aspects of the course are impressive,” Hannah Bennett (3L) noted. “The course teaches basic leadership principles, but also drives home the message that there are many ways to lead beyond formally being in charge.” 

For Justice Kaufman (3L), public speaking is a key element of the course. 

“We did a lot of extemporaneous public speaking and thinking on our feet,” Kaufman said. “It’s helpful to build these skills in a classroom where we can try something, learn from it, and try again.”

The course is essential for those who want to pursue a career in national security, but Houck emphasized it is beneficial for others as well; no prior national security experience is necessary. 

Recent graduate Kazi Ahmed (’19) agreed. 

“I’ve always planned on going to a law firm, but the skills I’ve improved in this course are transferable to private practice too. It’s an intense experiential course [that] focuses on leadership, teamwork and different sets of oral and written skills.”

Behind the scenes of the simulated prime-time news broadcast
Behind the scenes of the simulated prime-time news broadcast, which was staged at Innovation Park on the set of Centre County Report. IMAGE: Penn State

Because so much of the course involves international affairs, LL.M. (master of laws) and School of International Affairs students fit in easily. For LL.M. graduate Heidi Egeland (’19), the class complemented a more traditional U.S. classroom experience. 

“This was a fantastic opportunity to solve problems alongside our U.S. counterparts,” Egeland said. “The hands-on work and feedback we received made this class uniquely valuable.”

Houck has seen firsthand how much students benefit from direct feedback during and after the course. In addition to two mentoring sessions with each student during the semester, he provided detailed comments on writing assignments and an individual evaluation at the conclusion of the course. He plans to integrate more feedback mechanisms the next time the course is taught, in spring 2020.

“Giving honest but constructive criticism takes time, but when you see the response, it’s very motivating for everyone involved,” he said. 

For some students, the course is as much about personal growth as it is professional.

“I’ve learned a lot about important national issues, but even more about myself,” Rebecca Spinner (3L) said. “Everything we did was geared toward building on things we did well and learning from the things we needed to improve. My confidence has grown a lot.

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