SMPA Celebrates Silver Anniversary

Faculty presentations, alumni testimonials and music highlight 25 years for the School of Media and Public Affairs.

May 9, 2016

SMPA Silver Anniversary

Meet the Press moderator Chuck Todd offers a toast during a gathering for the silver anniversary of the SMPA. (Logan Werlinger/GW Today)

By Menachem Wecker

Frank Sesno, director of George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs, offered a toast to Meet the Press moderator Chuck Todd.

“He has interviewed Donald Trump how many times?” Mr. Sesno asked of Mr. Todd, who attended GW from 1990 to 1994. Mr. Todd smiled. A voice from the packed City View Room called out, “Too many!” Pointing to that person, Mr. Todd grinned and responded, “What he said!”

The occasion was both jovial and momentous: the silver anniversary celebrating SMPA’s 25 years.

“Every accomplishment that I’ve had is because of GW,” Mr. Todd told the audience, which packed into the room at 1957 E Street Friday. “I wanted to be in Washington, and GW was the only place that had what I wanted. And GW delivered for me.”

Even sooner than the next 25 years, he added, when people think of GW, “the first thing they will think is the preeminent School of Media and Public Affairs.”

President Steven Knapp noted that GW was the first university in the world, through SMPA, to offer an undergraduate degree in political communication.

“There’s no question that SMPA has been at the forefront of media education for the past 25 years,” he said. “We all know it for its excellence in supporting innovative scholarship and creative work and educating future journalists and strategic communicators.”

When SMPA students graduate, he said, “they become powerful guardians of our democracy and interpreters of our society.”

Both Mr. Todd and Dr. Knapp spoke of what is in store in the next quarter century for the school, a subject that Mr. Sesno has considered at great length.

“Media is in this transformational mode, and politics, as I think we can pretty easily tell, is in tumult, so we’re riding the tiger,” he said in an interview. “It’s a very exciting place to be, and it’s also a very uncharted place to be in many ways. That’s what we’re marking here today: the accomplishments of 25 years, the observation of this past year, and we are really looking forward.”

Frank Sesno, director of George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs, stands to the right of several attendees at the SMPA silver anniversary celebration. (Logan Werlinger/GW Today)

Both GW and SMPA need to be leaders in this uncharted and tumultuous space, according to Mr. Sesno. “We are in Washington in the middle of the media, in the middle of politics. So we should be the ones who are understanding it, doing it, studying it, teaching it the best,” he said.

The celebratory event began with a showcase of SMPA faculty work, in which Professors Matt Hindman, Janet Steele, Steven Livingston and David Karpf presented research in “ignite talks,” almost like very short TED talks. The professors addressed challenges that local news organizations face, journalism of Islam, digital communication in transnational advocacy and how analytics created the Trump phenomenon, respectively. SMPA alumnus Tommy Siegel, B.A. ’07, a musician, performed at the end of the event.

Darley Newman, B.A. ’01, a member of the event’s host committee; an Emmy Award-winning host, writer and producer; and host of PBS’ show Equitrekking, stressed in an interview the importance of the critical-thinking skills that SMPA helps students hone.

“At SMPA, each class gets you to delve deeper into a topic. I think to be successful in life, you have to have those skills and that mindset,” she said. Ms. Newman, who covered the White House while studying at SMPA, thinks there’s opportunity amid the media Wild West. “If you’re being creative and getting ahead of the curve, you’re going to be in good shape,” she said.

Also in attendance were Jarol Manheim, SMPA’s founding director, and Lee Huebner, Airlie professor of media and public affairs and a former SMPA director.

“We were the first place to really find the best blend of journalism and media on the one hand and politics and the governing process on the other, and to find a way to engage students in it on the day they walked in the door,” Dr. Manheim said. “We have such a unique set of free-rider assets being exactly where we are.”

Dr. Huebner, who is in his 10th year at GW, noted that students are often staying on top of media faster than their professors. “We learn as much from the students as we can,” he said.

A standout from his SMPA tenure has been taking a group of students to Paris every spring break to meet with journalists, media executives and politicians. “That’s been a highlight for me,” he said.