Lexipol co-founder Gordon Graham is a former California Highway Patrol (CHP) officer, an attorney, a public safety educator, an adjunct professor with the University of Virginia (UVA)—and now, a benefactor.
Graham’s expansive career is marked by a dedication to continuous improvement in himself, the organizations he is part of, and his profession. In the latest addition to Graham’s legacy, he and his wife Reneé have donated $100,000 to UVA to start the “Lexipol Fellows” scholarship program. This seed money will provide partial tuition to one student per cohort, with the hopes that other organizations will take notice and contribute to the work of the Master of Public Safety (MPS) program. “It’s starting off small, but we hope to grow it and allow it to pay full tuition for one, then hopefully for more than that,” Graham says.
The scholarship program has been created to specifically benefit single moms: Graham explains, “The goal is to get single moms who are full-time public safety employees with minor children some help through college, through the graduate program.” Graham’s inspiration, his passion for continuing education and his desire to support others stem from his experiences early in his career and in his own educational journey.
Marked by Continuous Education
Graham was raised in a home that valued a good education. “My mom and dad were both blue collar, high school graduates,” he explains. But in his home, “it was not a matter of if you were going to college, but where you were going to college. To me, that was so forward-thinking.” And once he had completed his undergraduate work, “the topic moved into graduate school: Where are you going to graduate school?” Gordon completed his graduate work, and later law school, taking night classes while working as a motorcycle cop for the CHP. “I thought that everybody thought that way because my parents thought that way,” he says.
“My graduate work at University of Southern California was at the Institute of Safety and Systems Management, the ISSM, and I was exposed to stuff I had never even dreamed of,” Graham recollects. While at the ISSM, Graham “got hooked on the discipline of risk management,” and began looking to implement what he was learning in his agency. “I was shocked that my organization, the CHP, did not have people enrolled in this program,” he says. And, according to Graham, this isn’t anything new: “There’s always been that gap between public safety agencies and educators. We think they don’t know anything about our business, and they think we don’t know anything about their business.” But Graham is adamant from his experience that public safety can significantly benefit from continuing education. “When we put the two together, good things happen.”
As Graham rose through the ranks, he continued to cultivate a risk management-centered mindset himself and within the CHP. He also got started on the lecture circuit, bringing risk management ideas to public safety professionals across the country and developing risk analysis structures for agencies. His own education and his focus on the education of others, even in the early stages of his career, has been central to his philosophy. “I have always believed that education is the answer for everything,” he says. “As I look at public safety, it’s essential that we get our people educated.”
“What I’m trying to do is increase the number of professionals who are striving toward continuous improvement, making excellence the norm not, the deviation.”
The MPS program at the University of Virginia addresses the issue Graham has seen across public safety agencies. “All the various classes they offer in this MPS program are designed to take good and smart people, to give them breadth and depth in various disciplines that they’re going to need to be a successful leader in public safety operations.” He mentions budgeting, HR and community relations as key areas with significant risk in which education is essential for all public safety professionals—especially those who plan to promote. And, Graham explains, education is more than just training: “A lot of people link training and education together. They’re completely different things. Training shows us how to do our job today, but education is what moves us forward.”
A Scholarship for the Underserved
While on his own continuing education journey, Graham took note of the hardworking women—specifically the single mothers—he came across. “In law school, I sat in the back of the room—you know, that’s where cops usually sit.” He noted the pregnant women and mothers with small children also sat in the back of the room, allowing them easy access to the exit. “I’m watching these women,” he says, “and they graduated at the highest levels of the class.” Graham was inspired by their exemplary work, despite the many challenges they faced.
He highlights the many responsibilities of mothers—especially single mothers—as they work full-time, care for their children, and go to school on top of it all: “They’ve never worked an eight-hour day in their life—everything is 15, 16 hours. They’re continually working and doing an excellent job.” As Graham outlines, these single moms are often held back from continuing education because of finances—but they may be some of the best candidates for the MPS program and for leadership positions in public safety agencies. “I want to make sure everybody has the opportunity to get a good education,” he says. “And when you look at people, the ones who have the hardest time would be single moms with kids. What can we do to help them?”
Graham isn’t alone in his initiative to serve and support women, particularly mothers, seeking higher education. “My wife, Reneé, has been funding scholarships for women since we’ve been married–for decades. She has this desire to help moms, she sponsors a number of programs in Africa, trying to get girls through high school and college there.” He shares how he has been inspired by his wife and others in his life who have selflessly pursued the education and development of others: “This is not anything new for us, but this program is the biggest thing we’ve been involved in and we’re really hopeful that other people will follow our lead and recognize the need to help people get through these graduate programs.”
Master of Public Safety
“The profession of public safety is getting more and more complex. We need women and men who are not just general college graduates, but with a focus on public safety,” Graham says. “The Masters’ of Public Safety program that I’m involved in at the University of Virginia is an excellent program and I want to encourage as many people as I can to get into it. I want to make sure people can get that education to move public safety forward.”
“Training shows us how to do our job today, but education is what moves us forward.”
Graham’s own elective course, “Practical Applications of Risk Management in Public Safety Operations,” focuses on the 10 families of risk he has developed over the course of his career: External risks, legal and regulatory risks, strategic risks, organizational risks, operational risks, information risks, HR risks, technology risks, financial and reputational risks, and political risks. “Their take-back-to-work assignment is to go to their agency, contact a number of different people and get their input into the three greatest risks their organization faces in each of these 10 families,” he says. This final project allows students to work with members and leaders in their agency to develop practical and actionable risk management plans, all with the goal of improving preservation of life in agency operations. Graham also teaches his students how to get buy-in for risk management initiatives from the top down: “I encourage them to get advice from people who are actually going to have to follow the policy, their supervisors and managers, their executives, so that when you finish your final project, they’ll already know what you’re doing.”
Following his first three cohorts, Graham has already had positive feedback and seen how projects have impacted agencies and communities. “It’s really heartening to see people implementing the strategies and making them work,” he says.
The Future of Public Safety
While most of those enrolled in the University of Virginia’s MPS program are already managers, supervisors and executives in their agencies, those with high rank aren’t the only ones Graham wants to see as students. “I’m hopeful that when [current students] see the value of this program that they will encourage other people, lower in rank, to get involved.” Those lower in rank may also be the very ones unable to enroll due to financial reasons. “That’s what I’m trying to do through this scholarship—make it easier for people to get involved in the program.”
The major goal of the MPS program is to develop public safety leaders, giving them the necessary skills to meet today’s challenges and the challenges of the future. “There’s two types of positions: There’s the rank position and then there’s the knowledge position,” says Graham. “I know a lot of great leaders in public safety who are at the lowest rank of the organization.” His view is that a leader is not simply someone with rank, but someone who is and is known by others to be a great thinker. This program seeks not only to help public safety professionals grow in their critical thinking skills, but also enable and equip leaders to rise through the ranks. “What I’m trying to do is increase the number of professionals who are striving toward continuous improvement, making excellence the norm, not the deviation.”
Ultimately, Graham says, “We need more people advancing with graduate education and post-graduate education to really improve the quality of our professions.” As we develop leaders and public safety personnel, agencies will become better, safer and more professional, improving outcomes when it comes to their core mission: preservation of life. And as this spreads from individuals to agencies, Graham says, “the rising agency will raise the tide of all agencies and improve the overall quality of our professions.”