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Our policymakers must have the tools for evidence-based decisionmaking

Courtesy of the Humphrey School
Eric Schwartz

Below are remarks drawn from the presentation of Eric Schwartz, dean of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, at the Humphrey School commencement ceremony on May 13.  Schwartz is stepping down in June to assume the presidency of Refugees International in Washington, D.C.

As I prepare to resign my position as dean of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs and depart Minnesota, I’ll reaffirm what our students have heard me say repeatedly: that the Humphrey School is about the best place in the country to study public affairs. And it has been a joy for me to work with an extraordinarily talented and dedicated faculty, a deeply committed and mission-driven administrative staff, and an increasingly diverse student body with energy, enthusiasm, and a deep and abiding commitment to spend their professional lives trying to make the world a better place. 

I hope we on the faculty and in the administration have served them well.

Serving them well has at least two dimensions. First, it is critical that we provide our students with the analytical tools for rigorous and evidence-based decisionmaking on issues in public life.

And second, while we are a nonpartisan institution, we do indeed seek to promote a deep appreciation of the proposition that public institutions – and our political leaders – have a role and responsibility to promote the values of a democratic society, including nondiscrimination, inclusion, equal rights, meaningful political participation and justice for all.

Frankly, these laudable objectives are under stress in our national politics today.

Consider the issue of rigorous and evidenced based decisionmaking. 

Whether we’re talking about the scientific basis for policy decisions around climate change, the factual basis for security-based immigration restrictions, or the purported data relating to concerns about systemic voter fraud, examples of evidence-free policymaking seem to be accumulating at the national level. This not only disparages what we are trying to accomplish at the Humphrey School, it makes it more likely that public decisionmaking will be irrational and, therefore, will ultimately consign our population and future American populations to greater hardships.

More importantly, perhaps, I think a second goal of a public-affairs school like the Humphrey School is also under stress: that of training students to become empowered and effective political leaders who appreciate their responsibility to promote the values of a democratic society. That objective is under stress as a result of a highly polarized and charged politics at the national level in which enlightened leadership is in shorter supply than it ought to be.

But if that’s the troubling news, the good news is that our graduating students are all going to fix this. And they can console themselves with the knowledge that these lofty principles have always been fragile in our national political life, have often been under stress, and have regularly in our history been vindicated by the kind of enlightened leaders our students will certainly be. 

At the same time, those of us with responsibility to teach students who continue to come to the Humphrey School need to reflect on our teaching of leadership, politics and governance. We must do more to enhance our efforts to train our students to be both ethical and effective political leaders as they seek to navigate complex political challenges, like the challenge of building informed consensus among large numbers of citizens and residents of our country who may have little interest in politics but are deeply concerned about the well-being of their families and fearful about the future. In other words, we must do better in helping future leaders to learn how to shed light and not heat in our politics.

And on this question of shedding light versus heat, we have a range of examples from which to draw. One president, well known to us all, happened to come from great economic privilege, enjoyed great popularity among those facing economic uncertainty and fearful about the future, and maintained an oversized conception of his prerogatives as our head of state and government.

We all know the name of this president: It was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and his leadership is widely credited for enhancing the well-being of tens of millions of Americans, effectively resisting the allure of fascism, and sustaining the institutions of American democracy. 

So, even as we send our graduating students out to engage these very challenging political issues, we must continue to ponder ways to help develop future Roosevelts – to enhance our teaching of leadership, politics and governance in a way that best prepares our students for ethical and honorable success, and girds them for complexity as they confront the vexing political challenges of a highly charged political system. The future of our country demands no less.

Eric Schwartz, dean of the Humphrey School, is stepping down in June to assume the presidency of Refugees International in Washington, D.C.

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Comments (1)

If evidence based policymaking...

is important and much of the center left point of view is based in evidence how should objectivity be correctly characterized ? It would seem certainly how the definition of the term objectivity seems to be evolving away from it's meaning to a new connotation.In reality fair and balanced has no connection to evidence. These have become "spin" words and should be divorced from the concept of evidence. Accepting these two terms as normal has put us into the position we're now finding ourselves. There have been too many consequences from poorly constructed analysis of potential policy. The stunning example is the use of nuclear power among many others. Science and faith are not the same thing.