Frank Sesno’s proudest accomplishment as director of the School of Media and Public Affairs was easy to name: the students.
Sesno said watching them graduate and return to visit the school as successful journalists and politicos is an “amazing” source of pride for himself and the school.
Sesno will step down as SMPA director at the end of this academic year and return to the school as a faculty member after a year-long sabbatical, which he said he’ll use to conduct “deep” research into areas like how the media frames and covers climate change. He leaves the school after introducing new programs to develop SMPA’s alumni base and to increase funding available to students to take advantage of job opportunities around the District.
“If I were to think of the single thing that would bring me to tears, it’s being with our students and hearing their aspirations and then meeting with graduates after they’re done being students and seeing how they’re turning their aspirations into reality,” he said.
Over his tenure as director, Sesno has worked to engage alumni and “outsiders” – professionals in journalism and political communication – interested in the school’s trajectory in fundraising efforts to provide students with experiential learning opportunities like internships and guest speakers. Sesno also had a hand in developing SMPA’s Career Access Network, which grants scholarships to SMPA seniors and graduate students who work in low-paid or unpaid internships.
With Sesno at its helm, the school has added two major research efforts – the Project on Ethics in Political Communication, which examines ethical standards in the field, and the Institute for Data, Democracy and Politics, which studies digital misinformation.
“The benefit of all of these is they reinforce and advance our mission to understand how we inform and gather around information to govern ourselves toward the aim of both learning through our research, teaching and then actually contributing to the real world out there,” he said.
Sesno said that during his sabbatical and moving forward, he hopes to dedicate more time to Planet Forward – a project he began 11 years ago to teach students how to report on the environment – in addition to personal writing and audio projects.
He said officials asked him to step into the director’s position shortly after he created the project in 2009, but the demands of the SMPA directorship prevented him from devoting as much time as he would have liked to Planet Forward and other personal projects.
Sesno said his decision to step down was partially driven by a sense of “urgency” related to issues like climate change and organized disinformation campaigns – deliberate attempts by bad actors to mislead the public with false information – that he wants to further investigate.
“It felt to me with a sabbatical coming, which I actually delayed, that this was an appropriate time here to pass the baton and a good time for me to sink my teeth into some of these other projects,” he said.
Sesno said SMPA officials will announce an interim dean for the school within the next couple of weeks. He added that he is still speaking with SMPA officials about what his responsibilities as a faculty member will entail once he returns from his sabbatical.
Steven Livingston, a professor of media and public affairs, held the interim director post in 2004 after the school’s director resigned. Lee Huebner, a professor of media and public affairs, served as the school’s director for a few years before resigning in 2009, when Sesno came on board.
“I have spent the last 11 years committed to SMPA, to helping this place grow and everyone here,” Sesno said. “I hope to be more productive and feel like part of a very special community. Just because I won’t be the director, per se, doesn’t mean that I still wouldn’t be heavily invested in that proposition and be willing to advance it.”
Sesno said the school’s next director will face the “intensifying” challenge teaching SMPA students about the effects on politics and the media of misinformation campaigns and “deepfakes” – videos and audio falsified using artificial intelligence that are nearly indistinguishable from authentic clips. He added that the new director must further the school’s commitment to bolstering diversity and inclusion efforts.
In 2016, SMPA officials created a committee aimed at increasing the diversity of the student body. Last spring, SMPA students planned to propose new diversity measures after claiming officials had not taken serious action to make the school more inclusive.
“We need to really be committed – genuinely, honest-to-god committed – to diversity and inclusion,” Sesno said. “That needs to be not something we just talked about but something that we take risks to achieve.”
SMPA faculty said that in addition to his tangible accomplishments, Sesno has undertaken the work of forming personal relationships with faculty, staff and students.
SMPA Associate Director David Karpf called Sesno the “charismatic centerpiece” of SMPA, adding that his ability to both “joke around” with students and address their concerns indicates to the student body that SMPA leaders are invested in their education and success.
“It’s a signal to them that they’ve arrived at the place where they wanted to be,” Karpf said.
Peter Loge, the director of the Project on Ethics in Political Communication, recalled a moment when he saw Sesno walking outside his classroom and asked him to join his class discussion about the U.S. House of Representatives’ move to impeach President Donald Trump. Loge said Sesno recounted his experiences covering the Clinton impeachment and offered some similarities and differences between the two instances.
He said the anecdote is representative of Sesno’s commitment to forming meaningful relationships with students and imparting his knowledge gained from years of professional journalism experience.
“He’s a busy guy,” Loge said. “He could have easily said, ‘Hey, I’ve got to run’ – he could have not responded when I shouted his name – it could have been any number of things but, instead, he hung around and he wanted to engage the conversation which is, I think, fantastic.”
Garret Hoff – a co-director of the SMPA Director’s Advisory Council, a student advisory body revived under Sesno – said working with Sesno has been a “true honor and privilege.” He added that the director’s decision to reintroduce the council reflects his dedication to listening to the opinions and concerns of SMPA students.
“He is a brilliant, inspiring leader who I always found to be a tireless advocate for all members of the SMPA community,” Hoff said.
Ed Prestera contributed reporting.