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Posted on 25 Jan 2019 6:46 AM

UWF’s Center for Cybersecurity hosted the 2019 Centers of Academic Excellence Executive Leadership Forum, a national conference spearheaded by the National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security. The forum brought together some of the biggest players in the cyber field — NATO, IBM, AT&T, numerous Department of Defense agencies and many more — to talk about the industry’s latest advancements, opportunities and challenges.

The conference is a big deal in the industry — and so is being the university selected to host it. For UWF’s Center for Cybersecurity, being selected is a testament to how much the program has achieved in just a few short years.

“I think it really says a lot about the work that the Center for Cybersecurity has been doing,” said UWF President Martha Saunders. “They wouldn’t have come here if they didn’t think we could pull off a meeting like this.”

The forum, held at Hilton Pensacola Beach, featured a day-and-a-half of panels, workshops and presentations from some of the leading thinkers in the cybersecurity field.

Among the speakers were Harry Coker Jr., executive director of the National Security Agency; Bradford Willke, acting director of the DHS Stakeholder Engagement and Cyber Infrastructure Resilience division; Jeanette Nunez, lieutenant governor of Florida and Kristi Noem, governor of South Dakota.

One of the main topics of discussed was how to get more people interested in cybersecurity careers and education.

"Nationally, we're experiencing a 12-year high in the cybersecurity expertise gap, and it's not because we're producing fewer cybersecurity professionals," Coker said in an address Wednesday. "Rather, it's because the requirements for expertise in cybersecurity are growing exponentially. The National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education estimates the United States need more than 700,00 cybersecurity experts, and the demand is only going to continue to increase."

One of the biggest advantages of the forum was that it allowed agencies and educational entities an opportunity to network, collaborate and find ways to solve complex problems that affect not only the cybersecurity industry, but the country's security as a whole.

"We've got over 310 or so executives here from academia, industry, federal and state government all speaking the same language: talking about the challenges that they have, the strategies and best practices that are shareable, and how we can continue to innovate to stay ahead of the cyber threat landscape through collaboration," said Eman El-Sheikh, director of the Center for Cybersecurity.

Saunders noted that the conference was also an opportunity to shine a spotlight on Northwest Florida and all the great opportunities here on the "cyber coast." The UWF Center for Cybersecurity is the NSA/DHS National Center of Academic Excellence Regional Resource Center for the Southeast, and provides leadership and education to colleges and universities in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Puerto Rico and South Carolina. 

Saunders explained the university's intention is to strive for even higher heights in the future, and that landing the forum was a sign they were on the right track. Saunders said a robust cybersecurity presence will attract new businesses and job opportunities and build an even stronger community, region, state and nation. 

The center started just six years ago, and didn't fully roll out cybersecurity classes until 2015, Saunders noted. She credited the program's success to an extremely talented and dedicated staff, as well an incredible network of regional partners and resources. 

"You take what we do, add that regional resource and you've got some magic that nobody else has,” Saunders said.