A Chat with Alumnus Zach P. Messitte (BC94, DC96, U.S.)
"It was the best academic year I ever had. I made lifelong friends, met my wife Julia Holman Messitte (BC94, DC95, U.S.) and was inspired by great faculty like John L. Harper, Patrick McCarthy and Gianfranco Pasquino. My year at the SAIS Bologna Center cemented my interest in American foreign policy, Italian politics and Italy in general."
Hands-on leader, skilled communicator, savvy educator
he best academic year I've had. A truism for many SAIS Bologna grads, these are the sentiments of Zach P. Messitte (BC94, DC96, U.S.) the recently appointed 13th president of Ripon College in Wisconsin, a renowned U.S. liberal arts college founded in 1851. Born in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Messitte grew up in Chevy Chase, MD. He obtained his Ph.D. in Politics from New York University. His professional career includes stints with the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the United Nations, and as a researcher and producer with Cable News Network (CNN) where he worked with Senior Washington Correspondent Judy Woodruff. Most recently Messitte was dean of the College of International Studies at the University of Oklahoma. I caught up with him this summer as he was preparing his move.
How will your teaching philosophy fit into your new appointment at Ripon College?
I learned from SAIS Bologna faculty, like Harper, Pasquino and McCarthy, that though research is important, teaching should be held with the same high regard. I give lectures but I try to push my students by asking uncomfortable questions and thinking about counterfactuals. I plan to take this first year at Ripon to learn what it means to be the president, but I intend to be back in the classroom in the fall of 2013.
What are your current teaching areas and research interests?
At St. Mary's College of Maryland, I did a little bit of everything. I taught introductory, international, American and Maryland politics. I even taught intro Italian one year due to student demand. At Oklahoma I concentrated on my interest in American foreign policy, but I also taught seminars on war and media and another on foreign policy and film. As a Marylander I've also always had a fascination with former Vice President (and Maryland Governor) Spiro Agnew. One day I'd like to do a biography of Agnew, but I'd need some serious time to complete it.
What is the vision behind your forthcoming book, Understanding the Global Community?
This book is geared towards undergraduates and people beginning their understanding of international affairs. There is a big difference between area studies and the study of international relations. The two are often conflated. SAIS really brought it home to me - and particularly in Bologna - that you need to know more than theory and politics to have a grasp of world affairs. History, literature, art, film and culture in general were critical parts to understanding the world.
You host an award winning radio show, World Views, on National Public Radio (NPR). As an academic what communication methods do you use?
I don't buy the argument that if it is not in a peer reviewed journal than it's not worthy of respect. I have had far more colleagues, students, and members of my community comment on my radio program. I also feel like I am creating a historical record since all the interviews are podcasts and available online. I also frequently write in the Baltimore Sun
on issues related to Maryland politics and history. In this new job, I hope to begin to weigh in more on issues facing higher education and liberal arts colleges in general.
You worked with the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Can you talk about that? wink...
The job was a phenomenal experience. I ended up being the spokesman for the committee and got to see firsthand how important intelligence is to the creation of American foreign policy. I also had the opportunity to work for Senator David Boren, the chair of the committee at the time. He and the staff director of the committee, George J. Tenet (who went on to be the Director of Central Intelligence in the Clinton and Bush Administrations) have been important mentors and friends to me throughout my career.
You have said that SAIS Bologna was the best academic year you ever had. Why?
It was the one academic year where I was absolutely in my element. I was in this beautiful city (Bologna), studying subjects I cared deeply about (American foreign policy and Italian politics) with phenomenal professors and classmates (including my future wife!). It was also a fascinating time to be in Italy (1993-1994). The old regime was collapsing, there was a strong reaction against the Mafia after the killings of Judges Falcone and Borsellino, and Berlusconi and Forza Italia were on the rise.
Do you have any memories of the late Patrick McCarthy to share?
I remember wide ranging conversations with Patrick. I loved that these conversations could roam from whether the George H.W. Bush administration secretly funded Saddam Hussein through the Banca Nazionale del Lavoro to Nanni Moretti's latest film to whether or not Paolo Maldini could ever lead the Italian national soccer team back to glory. He definitely led me to the idea that to understand Italy you needed to think about a whole sweep of ideas: history, politics and culture.
In your experience are the concepts 'community' and 'university' mutually dependent?
I think they probably are dependent on each other. I know at SAIS Bologna I felt that both community and the university made the experience unique. I have certainly tried to create that same concept as a professor and an administrator. It is part of what attracted me to Ripon College. An emphasis placed on teaching and the personalized student experience is critical for the intellectual development of certain students. I know it was for me.
When will you be back in Bologna?
I wish I could say I'd be in Bologna tomorrow. My new job may make it difficult to get to Italy for a while, but one never knows. I do hope to be in Bologna for the 20th reunion of our SAIS Bologna class in 2014.