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Alexander Stubb: Meet your commencement speaker

When you're as active in European politics as Alexander Stubb, you have plenty of experience talking with the media. (Wikimedia Commons)

Furman alum Alexander Stubb, who will speak and receive an honorary degree at the university’s commencement Saturday night, is the former Prime Minister of Finland. He has also served that nation as Finance Minister, Foreign Minister, Trade and Europe Minister, and is currently a member of the Finnish Parliament. Stubb was a member of the European Parliament from 2004-2008 and served in the national government from 2008-16. He graduated from Furman in 1993 with a degree in political science and was honored as the top male graduate in the senior class. He holds a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics and Political Science, and has a Master’s degree from the College of Europe in Bruges. He also studied at the Sorbonne in Paris. Stubb, who lives in Helsinki with his wife and two children, answered questions about his time at Furman, the future of the European Union and President Donald Trump’s first 100 days in office.

Q: Why did you decide to attend college in the U.S. and how did you come to choose Furman?

Alexander Stubb graduated from Furman in 1993 with a degree in political science. (Wikimedia Commons)

Stubb: The reason was actually not very academic. I was on the Finnish national golf team and wanted to turn professional. But before that I wanted to get a degree. My brother was an exchange student staying with the family of (former Furman history) professor Bill Lavery. I came to visit him, saw Furman, and it was love at first sight. Little did I know that I would quit golf after a year and get serious about studying. That’s what Furman professors do to you.

Q: Furman talks a lot about its close student-faculty interaction.  Can you talk about your relationship with Politics and International Affairs Professor Brent Nelsen and how that affected your career path?

Stubb: Oh, definitely, that is one of the best things about Furman. The classes are small, the professors are brilliant and the student-faculty interaction drives you forward. Brent, much like (Politics and International Affairs Professor) Ty Tessitore, became my mentor early on. I took Brent’s class on the European Union, followed by another on International Political Union. Brent had spent some time in Norway, so that gave us a bit of a Scandinavian link, too. Towards the end of my four years at Furman, Brent and I put together a reader on European integration. It became a bit of a classic in the field, and we have since published four different editions of it. Without the guidance of Brent, I would have never become the Prime Minister of Finland. It’s as simple as that, really.

Stubb was a member of the European Parliament from 2004-2008 and served in the national government from 2008-16. (Wikimedia Commons)

Q: Were there any other experiences at Furman that were instrumental in your development as a student?

Stubb: Yes, definitely. Furman was a game changer for me, probably the biggest one in my life. When I was in high school I was like any young lad—basically interested in sports, girls and beer, and not necessarily in that order. Furman simply put me on the path of curiosity and learning. Classes with (Politics and International Affairs professors) Ty Tessitore, Don Gordon and Jim Guth stuck in my mind for the rest of my life, as did a class on Southern literature, taught by (former English professor) Ann Sharp. It was simply a time of learning. It felt like only the sky was the limit.

Q: You have been deeply involved in the work of the European Union.  What do you see for the EU in the months and years ahead, especially once Britain officially exits the partnership?

Stubb: Last year was definitely a bit on the rough side for all of us who believe in liberal democracy, market economy and globalization. First, Brexit and then the election of President Donald Trump was not exactly what many of us expected. When I started at Furman in 1989 the Berlin Wall came down, the Soviet Union collapsed, and the East met West. We entered an era of relative peace and stability. It was an era of hope. At the moment things look a bit different, but I am convinced that common sense will prevail. Brexit is naturally the biggest challenge for the EU. No matter how much of an optimist I am, I just can’t see any upside to it. Nevertheless, I am pragmatic, and I’m sure we will be able to handle it.

While Stubb calls himself an optimist, he says he can’t see any upside to Brexit. (Wikimedia Commons)

Q: U.S. President Donald Trump just completed his first 100 days in office. How is the Trump presidency and the resulting shift in American foreign policy affecting Europe and the rest of the world?

Stubb: I think the jury is still out on this one. I was taught about checks and balances in my American politics class at Furman. Those checks and balances are now being tested and I think the new President is finding that out as the days go by. I want the United States to play an important role in world politics. If you want to take the lead, you can’t go native, be isolationist, build walls or take protectionist measures. In the beginning, many Europeans were afraid that the U.S. would be less active around the world and even undermine NATO. Judging by the first 100 days, this has not been the case. It is better to be engaged than disengaged.

Q: Without giving away too much of your commencement address, what advice do you have for Furman seniors as they leave school and head out into the world?

Stubb: Dream, believe, work hard and succeed. Be true to your values. Be curious. Fight cynicism. Listen to your heart and remember, once a Furman Paladin, always a Furman Paladin. As (former Furman) President John Johns used to say: “FU all the time!”

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