SMPA is a remarkable place. Our students, faculty, staff, fellows, friends, supporters and alumni are at the center of some of the greatest challenges our nation and our planet face. You are running the campaigns that are changing our world. You are telling the stories that help people make sense of an increasingly complicated and interconnected society. You are doing the research that helps sort the signal from the noise, identifies risks and solutions, and makes those campaigns better and those stories more accurate and more compelling. And you are doing all of this at a critical time for our democracy and the future of our planet.
That’s a lot.
The “we” who are SMPA doing this work include:
- Nearly 400 students majoring in journalism or political communication
- More than 100 students minoring in journalism
- 70+ graduate students studying strategic communication
- 24 full time faculty
- 20+ part time faculty each semester
- Terker and Shapiro Fellows
- 10 full and part time staff, plus more than a dozen work study students
- Half a dozen institutes, centers and projects
- A National Council
- Thousands of alumni, friends and supporters
The people in our community have earned Pulitzers, Emmys, Fulbrights, and other prestigious prizes and fellowships. They are affiliated with leading universities and think tanks around the world. The scholars in SMPA, and the SMPA alumni who have gone onto scholarly careers, write award-winning books, edit and publish in prestigious academic outlets, and in at least one case founded an academic journal. My predecessor, Prof. Silvio Waisbord, is the incoming president of the International Communication Association, the leading international academic organization for communications scholars.
Our adjunct faculty lead and help lead consulting firms, are among the most respected media lawyers in DC, they write for the nation’s leading news organizations, they write books and have written speeches for candidates and cabinet officials, they have helped elect Presidents, and they have won awards for journalism and politics.
Members of our community are everywhere. They are routinely quoted in national and international media - and are often on the other end of the camera, microphone, or pen. They are on both sides of the podium and behind the scenes. Hearing familiar voices on NPR when I wake up, seeing familiar names when I read the news over morning coffee, and seeing familiar faces on the screens in the lobby and fourth floor when I get to the office, is common.
Earlier this summer I was on a video call with a student finishing her combined degree in SMPA, and who went on to staff at a major television news program. We were Zoom-bombed by a colleague of hers who graduated from SMPA last year and who works for the same show. She wanted to share the good news of a promotion and let me know their program had some immediate job openings. Both said they are surrounded by SMPA students, alumni and supporters. Exciting to hear, and also just another SMPA Thursday afternoon.
Many of you know that I hate the phrase “now more than ever” (is “now” when I trotted out the tired cliché? When I thought to use it? When you read it? When the team edited this missive? When someone reads it after you? Is everything always getting worse in an endless doom-loop of lazy writing?). That said, we are at a critical moment in our history. There is urgency to our task. The institutions on which we rely are under rhetorical - and sometimes physical - assault. Hate crimes are rising and trust is falling. Our climate is changing at an alarming rate. We are failing to learn the lessons of COVID and are woefully underprepared for the next pandemic. A popular podcaster who traffics in nonsense and monetizes manufactured rage challenged a scientist to “debate” a pundit, pitting science against rhetoric and leading to death threats. A former president stored stolen national secrets in his bathroom, was indicted for his role in an attempted coup, and remains a leading candidate in 2024. Political leaders and commentators continue to lie about the 2020 election. Local news is dissolving and democracies are threatened worldwide.
If anyone is going to rise to these challenges, it is going to be the SMPA community.
We are rising to the challenges with a sense of history. We know the debate about the connection between knowledge, truth, rhetoric, ethics and politics is an old one - in his dialogue Gorgias, Plato warned us about Joe Rogan (“if a rhetorician and a physician were to go to any city, and had there to argue in the Ecclesia or any other assembly as to which of them should be elected state-physician, the physician would have no chance…”). We know we have faced partisan press, dishonesty, conspiracy theories, xenophobia, and corruption in the past. We know racism is not new and has not been “solved.”
We are rising to the challenges with a sense of the moment. Nonsense isn’t new to our politics, but social media makes it spread faster and reach further than ever before. In 1798, the president of Yale University tied a yellow-fever outbreak to the Illuminati. But Rev. Timothy Dwight and his conspiracy-minded colleagues were limited in their reach. Complaints about ghost-writers date back millennia, but at least those ghost writers were people and not algorithms pumping out infinite versions of “not what is really right, but what is likely to seem right in the eyes of the mass of people who are going to pass judgment…” (Plato again, this time from Phaedrus). Means of disinformation are exponentially greater, the impacts of actions can have greater impact, and the weapons individuals can wield can do more damage than at any point in history. The problems are old, but the stakes have never been higher.
We are rising to the challenges because we know we can meet it. Some days it feels like it’s all bad and getting worse no matter what we do, so we may as well go back to bed. But we know that if everyone gave up, doom would be inevitable. We know that if we rise to the challenge - if we bring intellectual rigor, critical thinking, clear communication, persuasive skill, empathy and honesty to the public square, that we can make our world a better place. We talked democracy into being, and we talked it into being better. We talked climate action into policy. We have talked each other into being better stewards of our communities and our planet. Through our politics and our media we have made our world smaller. We have shared stories, increased understanding, and improved lives. It doesn’t always work. People continue to find ways to be unspeakably cruel and make us irrationally afraid of our neighbors, our climate actions are not all they should be, and nonsense continues to flow. But sometimes, when the best among us do their best, we succeed.
We are rising to meet the challenges as a community. We are helping each other do, and be, better. We support each other and drive each other to be better. We offer a hand, a shoulder, and occasionally a needed push. We are people who share a passion for making change and telling the stories that need to be told - and we are people who know no one of us can do it alone. We know our strength lies not just in us, and that we need to nourish our community so that we can continue to be nourished.
That is the essence of SMPA, this is what we mean by #SMPAproud.
Every day our SMPA community brings theory to bear on practice to avert climate disaster, increase understanding and trust in science, strengthen democracy and democratic institutions, improve global security, and increase understanding and empathy. The SMPA community creates and tells the stories that matter. In SMPA, we research, think, study, write, create, and do. Then we do it again.
Like you, there will be times when I want to crawl back to bed or sit on the sofa and watch soccer all day. But, like you, most days I will look at the other members of community - our students, faculty, staff, fellows, friends, supporters and alumni - and say “we can do this, we can meet this moment, our tools are a long lever and SMPA is a firm fulcrum on which to place it, and together we can move the world.”
I am proud, and more than a little lucky, to be part of the SMPA community. I look forward to working with all of you to rise to the challenges we face.
See you around Foggy Bottom,
Director, School of Media and Public Affairs