By Mariah McCloskey
and Francesca Regalado
Although delayed by an ironic twist of inclement weather and a grounded flight, Peter Neffenger delivered his farewell address on Tuesday as the administrator of the Transportation Security Administration. Seton Hall University was approached to host Mr. Neffenger’s speech, beating out the School of Diplomacy’s closest competitors in Washington, D.C.
The hourlong delay gave the dean of the School of Diplomacy, Dr. Andrea Bartoli, an opportunity to speak of the School’s goals and accomplishments and interact with the audience. The dean invited Christine Griggs, a deputy assistant administrator at TSA and an alumna of Seton Hall University, to speak of her memories of Seton Hall and her professional journey. In addition, Dr. Sara Moller, an associate professor at the School, delivered brief remarks on burden sharing in NATO, which has become a hot topic over the past election cycle.
Upon his arrival, Mr. Neffenger was welcomed by applause and addressed the delay with good humor. He was introduced by an alumnus of Seton Hall, Mohamad Mirghahari, a senior adviser to the chief of staff at TSA.
Mr. Neffenger’s speech was well-attended by members of the university community – students, faculty, alumni, and guests – due to the wide range of topics covered by the administrator in his address, including not only transportation security, but also innovation, entrepreneurship, public-private partnerships, terrorism, and prospects for the incoming administration.
The administrator recounted the history of TSA, an agency formed quickly after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. When he was appointed to lead the agency in July 2015, he found that it had embraced its public image, becoming impervious to criticism and unwilling to change. TSA’s public image was a slow, ineffective nuisance to travelers punctuated by long lines, which provided fodder for “every late night comedy show,” Mr. Neffenger said. In his early briefings, an employee had even told him: “Boss, you have to understand that people don’t like us – it just comes with the job.”
“We needed to recapture the spirit of innovation and daring. We needed to reconnect to the sense of purpose and mission that had energized TSA’s rollout,” Mr. Neffenger said, referring to the herculean mandate the agency had undertaken after 9/11. Reviving that entrepreneurial spirit was a tall order: “Traditionally, government nurtures the status quo,” so “there’s little incentive to change because the status quo works well enough,” he said.
“TSA had no centralized, coordinated, or consistent approach to training,” Mr. Neffenger said, comparing it to the rigorous training he knew from his background as a former vice commandant of the Coast Guard. In three months, he managed to gather support and funds from the President and the Congress to establish the first TSA Academy at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers in Glynco, Georgia.
The key point, he said, was to find talented and creative people within the agency and to give them the permission and support to take entrepreneurial risks. In addition, he emphasized partnering with those who have similar interests – transporting passengers safely was a common goal of TSA and the private airline companies.
In closing, Mr. Neffenger encouraged the audience, most of whom had returned recently from Thanksgiving holiday travels, to thank the TSA officers they encounter. The Sunday after Thanksgiving is notorious as the most traveled day of the year, but Mr. Neffenger accepted praise for the absence of long lines and ease of travel this year.
“The TSA definitely does have bad connotations everywhere. I feel like what he’s trying to do is really try and change it, and it seems like he is, which is good,” said Heather Kwityn, a junior Diplomacy and Economics major.
Mr. Neffenger’s “five points about just how to succeed in work that could be utilized by anyone, not necessarily someone in a diplomatic setting,” said Augustine Glazov, a senior Philosophy major.
Matthew Minor, a freshman Diplomacy major, said the way that the administrator “approached his government service as an entrepreneur and not like as a bureaucrat” was refreshing. “It was just a different spin on it that you don’t hear very often,” Minor said.
In addition, upon being asked whether he would like to keep anything off the record, Mr. Neffenger pleased the student press corps when he said: “There’s very little you can’t know. I believe in transparent government.” His remark cast a strong contrast to previous speakers at the School of Diplomacy who had requested off-the-record press sessions, or had declined to meet the press at all.
Many students were heartened to see Seton Hall alumni, such as Ms. Griggs and Mr. Mirghahari, in influential positions. Noelle Sorich , a sophomore Diplomacy major, said Mr. Neffenger’s delayed arrival was a blessing in guise that allowed students to hear Ms. Griggs speak. “We probably wouldn’t have been able to if he hadn’t been late. That was actually really good,” Sorich said.
“I’m only a freshman, so I’m excited to see who else will come to campus in the future and display where a lot of us hope to see ourselves in the future,” Minor said. Glazov said he felt inspired: “For me, the most inspiring thing was seeing other Seton Hall students in successful positions.”
Mr. Neffenger freely took questions from the audience after his address and from the press corps during a private session. Questions ranged from the issue of federal air marshals on commercial flights to Cuba, and the privatization of TSA. On the former, he said the United States and Cuba had initially reached an agreement to allow air marshals, who carry weapons, on privately chartered flights in 2010, but TSA was able to extend that privilege to all commercial flights in September.
On privatization, Neffenger said that it could always be a possibility, but that he did not see it happening soon, noting that all transportation security before 9/11 was privatized without a consistent, regulated system.
Students repeatedly touched on the balance between intelligence gathering and civil liberties. Mr. Neffenger defended TSA’s practice, saying that the agency does not release travelers’ personal information to the public, and that the system discards the information as soon as the traveler arrives at their destination.
Mr. Neffenger was thanked by numerous students for the improvements in Thanksgiving holiday travel. “The longest wait time was 18 minutes in Houston, Texas,” he said of the TSA screening lines. Then he pumped his fist in the air, exclaiming, “We crushed it this year!”