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We must steadfastly resist challenges to important principles in public life

Addressing the Trump administration’s executive order banning U.S. entry to certain refugees and immigrants, Humphrey School of Public Affairs Dean Eric Schwartz told an all-school assembly on Feb. 2 that the school stands in solidarity with its international students. Schwartz delivered his remarks to faculty, staff, and students who gathered for his annual “State of the School” address. Below is a transcript of his prepared remarks on the subject of President Trump's executive order and related issues:

Eric Schwartz

I want to say a few words that reflect on the events of the past weeks and months, and in particular, the advent of our new presidential administration.

Let me first share with you comments I made to our students about an issue that is particularly pressing for many of them: The recent actions on immigrants and refugees.

We know that the Executive Order that has been the subject of such controversy comes after harsh statements directed specifically and categorically at Muslims, and we deeply regret that many of our Muslim students, U.S. citizens and citizens of other countries, may be experiencing fear and uncertainty. We want to do everything we can to be helpful, and to stand in support of their rights and their well-being. This will be a very important matter for us in the days, weeks, and months to come.

But more generally, I’ve been asked by many friends outside the Humphrey School about how our students have reacted to what, by any definition, have been transformational political developments over the past many months.

I’ve also been asked about how our students have responded to rhetoric that has effectively questioned the relevance of principles that animate our school of public affairs.

In fact, my own impression is that events over the past many months have served to steel the determination of our students for careers in public service and public life. And that is not only gratifying, but also critically important for the future well-being of our community, here in Minnesota, in our nation, and in the world.

So what are the principles that have been put under stress, and why is it so important that we remain steadfast in our commitment to them — and to imparting them effectively to our students and within the broader community?

First, there is the simple principle that while decisions in public life will of course be guided by values, they must be informed fundamentally by reason and by evidence, and not by the toxic mixture of prejudice and ignorance. In short, if we do not win the battle to ensure that facts prevail over fear, we will consign ourselves, our children, and our children’s children to a country which is poorer, in greater internal conflict, and at greater risk internationally.

So I’m thankful that here at the Humphrey School, we teach the tools of analysis, guided by the scientific method. I’m convinced that those efforts are essential to our collective well-being, and our collective survival. And in addition to teaching these tools, we must become better defenders of and advocates for such methods, and far more effective at engaging the general public with the fruits of our efforts.

Second, there are principles to which we are committed and which are related to political engagement and political leadership: that our public discourse must be civil and respectful; that enlightened leadership demands a commitment to both inclusion and collaboration; and that the demonization of groups within our society will, again, consign us, our children and our children’s children, to greater conflict and instability. So, I’m thankful that here at the Humphrey School, we not only seek to serve as a forum for civic and civil dialogue, but also as a training ground for collaborative and inclusive leadership.

Third, there is the principle of support of and fidelity to democratic institutions, our Constitution and — beyond our Constitution — a political culture that values free and vigorous debate and accountability — with a deep awareness that, to paraphrase the Irish orator John Philpott Curran, eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.

We must understand, and our students and our community do understand, that democracy and respect for basic rights are fragile; that we don’t lose our democratic institutions in one fell swoop, but, rather, by the ultimate acceptance — the normalization — of a succession of messages from political leaders urging citizens and the media to just be quiet. Eternal vigilance is hard work, but it is indeed the price to pay for liberty.

And finally, there is the principle of civic engagement; the idea that while elected political leaders and government play a key role in the lives and well-being of our nation’s citizens, responsible governance involves an array of institutions — advocacy groups, nonprofits, and philanthropic organizations — which not only partner with government, but help to hold public officials accountable.

Whatever one’s political perspectives, whether you voted for the Republican or Democratic candidate in the recent presidential election, it would be unwise to pretend that these critical principles have not been subjected to challenges over the past many months — challenges that have been recognized by both Republican and Democratic leaders in our community and around the nation.

So, this is our collective task: to steadfastly resist challenges to these principles in public life, and to reaffirm their critical importance, and the vital roles that our faculty, staff, and students — our future public service professionals — will play in ensuring that they are continually vindicated.

I think our school’s namesake, Hubert Humphrey, would have it no other way.

Eric Schwartz has served as dean of the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs since October 2011, and has had a 30-year career in senior public service positions in government, at the United Nations, in the philanthropic and non-governmental communities, and in academia. Prior to his arrival in Minnesota, Schwartz was U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration — the department’s principal humanitarian official — in the Obama administration. He has also worked for the National Security Council, Human Rights Watch-Asia, and the Council on Foreign Relations. 

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Comments (1)

What a heartening statement!

What a heartening statement! We should engrave somewhere this paragraph for its expression of a vital vision:

"First, there is the simple principle that while decisions in public life will of course be guided by values, they must be informed fundamentally by reason and by evidence, and not by the toxic mixture of prejudice and ignorance. In short, if we do not win the battle to ensure that facts prevail over fear, we will consign ourselves, our children, and our children’s children to a country which is poorer, in greater internal conflict, and at greater risk internationally."

Reason. Evidence. Facts. Not fear. Not ignorance. Thank you for publishing this speech on MinnPost, so it gets out to more people.