Allison Jacobs
UC Berkeley police officer Allison Jacobs says of UCI’s pioneering online master’s degree program in criminology, law & society: “The access we have to some of the most amazing minds in criminology – our professors – assures me that I’m getting the best of the best when it comes to my education.” Courtesy of Allison Jacobs

A police officer and mother of two, Allison Jacobs knows the importance of trusting her instincts. In the summer of 2009, doing so helped solve one of the nation’s most enduring missing-person mysteries.

Jacobs was sitting in on a meeting between her UC Berkeley Police Department colleague Lisa Campbell and a man seeking permission to host an event on campus. Seemingly disturbed, he’d brought copies of a book he’d written and claimed he could communicate with God. Campbell, a special events coordinator, had asked Jacobs to assist her in questioning the suspicious visitor.

“He smelled awful, was wearing an old, hand-me-down suit and had really screwed-up teeth,” Jacobs recalls. “He was accompanied by two young girls who appeared very clean, neat and tidy. It was just weird.”

The well-dressed, blond girls – whom the man identified as his daughters – gave robotic and rehearsed-sounding answers when Jacobs casually asked about their lives and where they went to school. She describes the situation as “Little House on the Prairie meets a religious cult.”

Jacobs ran a background check on the man, Phillip Garrido, and discovered that he had been convicted of rape and kidnapping in the 1970s and was a registered sex offender. A conversation with his parole officer yielded a bombshell revelation: Garrido did not have any children.

“My gut sank a little bit,” says Jacobs, an Orange County native who has worked at UC Berkeley for 12 years. “I was shocked.”

It turned out that Garrido, 58, had fathered the girls with Jaycee Dugard, whom he had kidnapped 18 years earlier as the 11-year-old walked from her South Lake Tahoe home to a school bus stop. The case had received national media coverage and prompted intense efforts to find the girl, at this point widely presumed dead. But, incredibly, Dugard was alive – having been kept, with her daughters, in the backyard of Garrido’s Antioch home. The trio were freed, and Garrido was arrested, along with an accomplice.

A media frenzy ensued, and Jacobs became a much-sought-after speaker at police conferences and colleges. In part to boost her credentials, she enrolled in UC Irvine’s online program for a Master of Advanced Study degree in criminology, law & society.

Founded in 2002 for full-time workers seeking to further their education, it was the first online degree program in the University of California system. Eighty students with backgrounds in criminal justice, law and social services are currently enrolled. Since the program began, 140 people have earned M.A.S. degrees, with another 39 set to graduate in June.

The program was conceived in the late 1990s, when then-UC President Richard Atkinson called for campuses to increase their M.A.S. offerings. Such degrees are geared toward professionals, and Atkinson wanted to make a UC education accessible to working adults, according to Henry Pontell, director of UCI’s M.A.S. program in criminology, law & society. The online format seemed like a great way to reach these types of students all over the state.

It took about three years for UCI’s School of Social Ecology to propose and develop the program, Pontell says. At the time, it was deemed a “worthy experiment” by a systemwide academic senate review committee. Today, the country is experiencing what The New York Times calls “the online tsunami of higher ed.” Millions of college students have taken at least one online course, and elite universities are embracing Internet courses.

“We’re now way beyond the ‘worthy experiment’ stage,” Pontell says. “Online education is not as novel now, but the major goal in creating high quality courses and programs remains the same, which is to not simply mimic face-to-face classroom interactions, but to use new technologies in creative ways to enhance the student learning experience.”

Courses are taught entirely by UCI faculty and are just as rigorous as those in any other master’s program in the UC, he says, adding that online discussion forums and multimedia formats serve to keep all students fully involved in their classes.

There is growing interest in online education as a way to expand access to UC programs and generate revenue without compromising academic standards. UC Berkeley campus administrators recently announced the formation of an executive group charged with integrating online education into the undergraduate and graduate curricula.

But UCI’s School of Social Ecology can lay claim to having launched the UC system’s first online degree program a decade ago.

Student success stories include that of Wendy Still, a rehabilitation and correctional specialist who graduated from the program in 2008. She was named chief adult probation officer for the city and county of San Francisco in 2010.

“The M.A.S. program provided me with a solid understanding of the criminal justice system continuum, including the social and human elements,” Still says. “It also enabled me to develop research skills that improved my job performance and effectiveness.”

Dan Warren, a Riverside police officer, graduated in spring 2005 and credits the program with allowing him to pursue higher education. “With a family and a full-time job, I needed a program that let me balance my professional, personal and academic lives,” he says. “UC offers one of the best educations for the least amount of money.”

Jacobs, 36, applied to UCI after being encouraged by FBI agent and friend Chris Campion. Like many adult learners, she too juggles full-time employment, parenthood and course work.

“When you’re a mom, you find ways to squeeze 25 hours out of every day,” Jacobs jokes. She reads online lesson printouts while standing in line at the supermarket and sitting in the car waiting for her sons to get out of school. She interacts with professors and fellow students in online forums and studies alongside her two boys instead of watching television.

Thankfully, the media scrutiny has diminished in the three years since Jacobs and Campbell cracked the notorious Dugard case. Jacobs recalls receiving hundreds of phone calls a day at the height of the frenzy and speaking with Anderson Cooper and Larry King on live television. “I like to think that I did what anyone else in my position would have done,” she says.

Jacobs credits her police training and intuition with compelling her to keep probing that day. She urges others to listen when their gut tells them something is wrong.

“It’s not against the law to speak up and ask questions,” she says. “People are so afraid of offending others or being sued or embarrassed.”

The rigorous academics of UCI’s M.A.S. program have given Jacobs extra confidence in her ability to speak with authority on issues related to women in law enforcement. She’s writing a paper on leadership tactics employed by successful women in the field. She hopes to one day teach classes at the college level and help train future police officers.