The choice of award-winning journalist Steve Fainaru as the School of International and Public Affairs’ commencement speaker has some students questioning whether Fainaru’s international clout is great enough to live up to SIPA’s prestige.
In an e-mail Monday, SIPA students voiced their concern that Fainaru would be unable to properly “raise SIPA’s reputation” as well as “inspire potential applicants.” Though Fainaru was a foreign correspondent for the Washington Post and was awarded a Pulitzer Prize this year for his series on private security contractors in Iraq, students still felt that Fainaru “is an unknown figure with little international prestige and does not represent SIPA’s reputation as a leading school in International Affairs.”
During his time at SIPA, Fainaru studied for a double concentration in international media and Latin American studies.
SIPA professors and administrators feel differently about the choice. “We are very pleased with Mr. Fainaru as the graduation speaker, not only because his work played an major role in bringing to public attention important issues surrounding U.S. military contractors in Iraq, but also because he is a graduate of the School and indicative of the success of our alumni,” said Rob Garris, SIPA associate dean for external relations.
But some students persisted that Fainaru was lacking in relevance to what defined SIPA. In an e-mail sent out to fellow classmates, students Borja de Muller, Tomas Fernandez Lasarte, and Luis Montero encouraged other soon-to-be graduates to write to newly appointed SIPA Dean John Coatsworth protesting the decision.
“SIPA’s commencement speaker is an unparalleled opportunity to raise SIPA’s reputation and inspire potential applicants. It is also a chance for graduating students to listen to a figure that has made an impact in International Affairs. We do not feel Mr. Fainaru, a recipient of a $10,000 prize for journalism will achieve this.” Fernandez Lasarte, de Muller, and Montero wrote. “We feel that SIPA’s extensive international network could have led to a more inspiring figure.”
They went on to suggest alternative speakers, including former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan and former United States Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
“I really think that the letter we wrote reflects very well what we tried to say. We are quite convinced about the criteria and we do not think that this person fulfills any of these,” de Muller said. But, he added, he did not send out the e-mails expecting the decision to be changed, instead believing it was important for his classmates to speak out.
Garris said the backgrounds of SIPA commencement speakers vary from year to year, bringing a range of experiences to the school. “In some years SIPA has had speakers with more international profiles, and in other cases the School has had speakers who were better known in the United States,” Garris said. “Some were prominent in public service, others had media careers, others had careers that spanned the public, private and non-profit sectors.”
“I think we were extremely lucky to get Steve Fainaru, who is a distinguished alumnus and a terrific journalist,” Coatsworth wrote in an e-mailed response to concerned students. He also added that Annan had been contacted to be the speaker but had other pressing engagements.
Coatsworth stood by the decision, reminding colleagues of Fainaru’s accomplishments as well as the significance of his education in journalism, especially considering SIPA’s international media concentration and its dual degree program with the Graduate School of Journalism.
“If SIPA were not committed to this, I could not have invited Steve to speak at commencement,” Coatsworth wrote.