Guiding growth: DSU president brings broad relationships to hone university’s niche

by Sioux Falls Development Foundation
Published 11/14/2019

The physicist in Jose-Marie Griffiths appreciates the concept of centrifugal force.

Think of mud flying off a spinning tire. Or the spin cycle of a washing machine.

As the object moves rapidly, a force is created. A spinoff effect occurs. 

And Griffiths suspects she’s about to see that happen at the place she leads – Dakota State University – which this month opened a first-of-its-kind center: The Madison Cyber Labs.

Inside this 38,500-square-foot MadLabs building on the Madison, S.D. campus, classified and unclassified research related to a wide range of cyber security-related endeavors is unfolding.

The physicist turned university president turned ad-hoc economic developer is noticing signs of what’s to come already.

“We have the potential to spin off companies that in themselves will grow the workforce,” she said. “We have a couple companies interested in locating here because they can access our stream of students.”

Other labs, launched elsewhere on campus before the building was done, already are mature enough that they’re looking to spin off companies, she added.

Speed is a necessary ingredient for such a spinoff effect, and Griffiths has proven she understands that, too.

Since becoming the 23rd president of DSU in 2015, she has moved swiftly to leverage her own vast national relationships with the school’s outstanding reputation in cyber security. It’s created unprecedented momentum on the campus that is leading to economic development opportunities for the entire Sioux Falls region.

“At heart I’m a researcher,” she said. “So I see everything through that lens.”

And at DSU, she saw an opportunity. A chance to build on the school’s breadth and depth of expertise in cyber security by creating a center for applied, problem-driven research.

In March 2016, an idea took root: Build an interdisciplinary research center that would grow DSU’s relationship with the National Security Agency and expand its research opportunities for students, faculty and outside partners with the goal of research-based economic development.

“My thought was given we’ve got this great reputation with one group at the NSA, how can we leverage that to withstand the onslaught of schools coming into the picture,” she said. “Every academic institution in the country is chasing cyber. Every single one.”

So Griffiths moved fast. At a budget hearing that spring “I threw it in. I threw the building in,” she said. “And the state moved with a sense of urgency. The moment we got legislative approvals to start building, the interest increased. And we were out again talking to prospective partners.”

Griffiths is well-positioned to have those conversations. Her decades-long career has taken her from University College London, where she completed a postdoctoral fellowship in computer sciences and statistics and holds a doctor of information sciences and a bachelor of physics, to Washington, D.C., where she has held presidential appointments under four U.S. presidents over 24 years.

Along the way, she has conducted grants or contracts with more than 28 federal agencies, including the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Energy, the National Institute of Science and Technology, and NASA, as well as with more than a dozen Forbes 100 companies, including AT&T Bell labs, IBM, Eastman Kodak, Johnson & Johnson, DuPont, and Colgate-Palmolive.

“When agencies start talking about who they’re working with … we tend to be the only one in this part of the world, and that gives us an advantage,” she said.

“We want to leverage it through our cost differential and quality of life and because it’s a good place to do business. As we’re doing this, we’re promoting South Dakota, because a lot of people are unaware of who we are or what’s in South Dakota, and they’re quite surprised.”

Thanks to donations from Denny Sanford and Miles and Lisa Beacom, along with a grant supported by Gov. Dennis Daugaard from the state’s Future Fund, the $18 million MadLabs building opened in October debt-free. 

“There isn’t one quite like it. There are some facilities like it, but not run by institutions,” Griffiths said. “We control the work going on. And it’s paid for. And that is an attraction for government agencies and defense contractors to put jobs here. It will cost them less. We don’t have to recover the cost of the building.”

DSU also is a secure research facility “that will be accredited at the most secure level,” she added. “It allows our grads to stay here and work for national defense agencies. We will be able to bring back some grads who have been at national labs or facilities who want to come back to this part of the world and settle down with their families.”

While it’s a milestone opening, MadLabs also appears to be just one chapter in the book Griffiths is authoring at DSU.

She’s working on a partnership with USD involving cyber law, planning for the next phase of Mad Labs, and crafting DSU’s strategic plan looking out to 2025.

She’s also taking on a new national role, named last year to the 15-person National Security Commission on artificial intelligence, where she chairs the workforce working group.

The goal is to assess the national workforce needs related to the field of artificial intelligence.

“We don’t have pipelines in K through 12, so we have to look at pipelines and look at people with degrees in computer science and how we might give them AI or cyber education,” she said. “The dilemma is we don’t have enough people to teach, let alone fill seats in classes.”

Back in Madison, she’s working on that too, with two doctorate programs in cyber security and a new minor planning in artificial intelligence.

“When we think of cyber security and AI, there is AI in cyber and there is cyber in AI, just to complicate the picture,” she added.

But as her work at DSU proves, Griffiths is the type who can look at a complicated picture and emerge with a clear vision. 

“When I first came here, I found we had more depth and reputation in cyber than I had known,” she said. “I hadn’t known much about DSU at all before I came here. And my thought was that we can work with this. We can build on this. We can own this.”