I have served 22 years as a senior administrator in both public and private higher educational settings - 10 years as provost. Such seasoning has provided a unique perspective on the overall operation of the academy and its nuances. As a result, and with the encouragement of the Board and President of American University, I have embarked on creating a center dedicated to three fundamental issues bedeviling higher education – 1) intensified polarization and extremism; 2) analysis of mechanisms to promote student success; and 3) academic infrastructure and technology. While three distinct areas of emphasis, they are inter-related and hence the inaugural Director of Research for the Center for University Excellence (CUE) selected to help build the institution is someone who brings academic strengths well beyond my own, Cynthia Miller-Idriss. Our new collaborative capability is designed to intersect with scholars who study higher education and societal polarization, as well as practitioners who seek to ameliorate deep-rooted structural causes of individual and institutional stressors.
Director of Research
My interest in higher education is related to its role in capacity-building and knowledge-dissemination on issues of critical national and global import. How can higher education institutions improve and strengthen democracies, local communities, and the wellbeing of all youth? These are the questions that motivate my engagement in CUE, especially in the three areas CUE will be focused on in our first few years: polarization and extremism in education, undergraduate student wellbeing, academic progress and inclusion, and efforts to rethink the use of technology in the academic infrastructure. Within CUE, I’m especially excited to be leading the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab (PERIL), which will pursue out-of-the-box, empirically testable and scalable research, intervention, and public education ideas to reduce rising polarization and hate. My hope is that the PERIL approach will be a model for how CUE can connect innovative academic research with the public in a variety of areas in the years to come.
Director of Operations
Katie Spann, known for her collaborative skills and community involvement was born and raised in New Jersey and holds a Bachelor’s degree in Business Finance from Upsala College and an MBA from the University of Maryland, Global Campus. In her spare time, Katie volunteers for the Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless, Manner Food Bank, and the DC Diaper Bank. Her successful professional career of over 20 years in Finance, Event Management, Community and Faith-Based initiatives, and most importantly as an educator for the Montgomery County School Systems has provided her a broad perspective on the importance of inclusion and diversity. She enjoys traveling domestically and abroad, and she has resided in many parts of the United States to include Colorado, Nebraska, and North Carolina.
ASSociate Director of PERIL
Brian Hughes is a doctoral candidate and lecturer at American University. His work explores the impact of communication technology on political and religious extremism, terrorism and fringe culture. His work has addressed the impact of communication technology on the ideology of violent lone actors, media ecosystem of ISIS, the political economy of early "Alt-Right” media, and more. This work seeks to identify the technological, psychological, and political-economic commonalities between extremists of differing ideologies, cultures, times, and places. His work has appeared in the International Journal of Communication, Interventionen, and numerous publications with the Center For the Analysis of the Radical Right. He has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered, Al Jazeera Inside Story, and the NPROne Team Human podcast. He is a Doctoral Fellow with the Center for Analysis of the Radical Right. His chapter “Brand of Brothers: Marketing the Islamic State” appears in the Indiana University Press collection The Media World of ISIS.
Caleb Cain runs the YouTube channel Faradayspeaks and works as an independent researcher investigating radicalization online as it pertains to the far right.
Caleb Cain runs the Youtube channel Faradayspeaks and works as an independent researcher investigating radicalization online as it pertains to the far right. He was featured on the front page of the New York Times after the release of his video, "My descent into the Alt-Right rabbit hole," in which he describes the process by which he began to adopt increasingly radical far-right beliefs due to his time spent on Youtube.
Caleb now runs an online de-radicalization project that helps young people leave extremist movements. His method focuses on utilizing compassion, empathy, and reason, to reach people on their level and humanize the person behind the beliefs.
Akiko works as a consultant advising schools and educators on preventing & responding to hate and on prevention & intervention related to extremist radicalization.
Born in 1976 in Hollywood, CA, Akiko Ayalla Cooks was raised by a single dad who stressed education, discipline and the free spirit of the 70s. Growing up under the positive influence of the Huey P. Newton's and Bobby Seale's Oakland, California-based Black Panther Party and her father’s ideology to “care for people with dignity and treat them well,” Akiko developed compassion to become an advocate for oppressed people. Akiko attended Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, California, majoring in child psychology. Today, Akiko works as a consultant advising schools and educators on preventing and responding to hate, advocates for victims’ rights and mental health support, and consults on prevention and intervention related to extremist radicalization.
MEILI CRIEZISPROGRAM ASSOCIATE
Meili has worked as an analyst researching domestic & international violent extremism across ideologies, terrorist propaganda, online extremist networks, and more.
Meili Criezis has a Bachelor's in History and French from Southwestern University. She worked as an analyst at the Houston Mayor's Office of Public Safety and Homeland Security researching terrorist propaganda, domestic/international violent extremism across ideologies, extremist networks in online spaces, and community resiliency initiatives.
Published research papers include "Online Deceptions: Renegotiating Gender Boundaries on ISIS Telegram" in Perspectives on Terrorism and "Islam, Gender, and the Algerian Revolution for Independence" in Visions & Revisions: New Scholars, New Interpretations. She is enthusiastic about the opportunity to collaborate on research and engage in work that seeks to address issues of polarization and extremism.
Shannon has two decades of experience in developing community resource platforms aimed at inoculating individuals against violence & extremism.
Shannon Foley Martinez, a former violent white supremacist, has two decades of experience in developing community resource platforms aimed at inoculating individuals against violence and extremism. Foley Martinez has worked in at-risk communities teaching and developing dynamic resiliency skills. She has worked for school systems, nonprofits, and community organizations. Foley Martinez now works as a consultant, speaker, and educator in the prevention & disruption of targeted identity violence and ideologies. She has worked with such organizations as the UN Office of Counter Terrorism, the National Counterterrorism Center, Department of Homeland Security, Hedayah, The Center for the Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence, UN Women, Google, and Twitter. Foley Martinez has assisted in training law enforcement officers, building programs for educators, and collaborating with policy makers. As the mother of seven children ages 22 down to 3, she feels passionately about building empowered, deeply connected families and communities.
Assistants & Interns
Daisy is a senior at AU majoring in Psychology with a double minor in Women Gender Studies & Sociology.
Daisy Gebbia-Richards is a current senior at American University majoring in Psychology with a double minor in Women Gender Studies and Sociology. Since taking Professor Miller-Idriss’ course, Terrorism, Extremism and Education, Daisy has had a curiosity on the role of love and belongingness in the radicalization process. Daisy has been appointed as a fellow in the Peace & Violence Research Lab (PVRL) for the academic year 2019-2020. She will work with her mentor, Professor Cynthia Miller-Idriss. PVRL fellows participate in a series of scheduled workshop, receive course credit and a grant for completing milestones toward a scholarly product. Daisy will present her research to a scholarly audience and plans to submit a paper to a peer-reviewed journal. Stay tuned for more on Daisy’s research!
Emily Pressman Undergraduate Intern
Emily is an undergraduate student at AU in the School of Public Affairs currently majoring in political science.
Emily Pressman is an undergraduate student at American University in the School of Public Affairs currently majoring in political science. Born in Canada and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, she has developed a strong interest in human rights, domestic terrorism and hate crimes. She has advocated extensively for the integration, fair and equal treatment of people with disabilities and has represented Pittsburgh students on panels discussing the impact of hate crimes on local communities and gun control legislation. Emily volunteered in rural Thailand and Laos where she supported community relations, integrated with local families and their children and assisted with infrastructure projects such as building houses and schools.