Eric Schwartz is settling into his role as a full-time professor at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, teaching courses in global policy, nearly six years after leaving his role as dean of the School to become president of Refugees International (RI).
The opportunity to lead the Washington, DC,-based organization, which advocates on behalf of refugee protection, was a great fit for Schwartz given his extensive experience working on refugee and humanitarian issues at the federal government and the United Nations
Schwartz maintained a relationship with the University and the Humphrey School during his tenure at RI, with a partial faculty appointment and long-term leave.
We asked Schwartz about his time at Refugees International and his transition back to the Humphrey School. His responses have been edited for clarity.
On his five years leading Refugees International:
When the Refugees International board asked me to become president of the organization in 2017, it wasn't a hard decision for me to make. My objective was in large measure to play a role in resisting abuses and severe restrictions on the rights of refugees here in the United States and globally.
I believe that some, though hardly all, of the very worst excesses proposed over the past five years were averted. Humanitarian assistance funding from the federal government was not really reduced, despite efforts by some to make significant cuts. We sought to keep the interests and the rights of refugees at the forefront. And there were other advocacy wins.
The period between 2017 and 2022 was challenging for other reasons, many related to the pandemic. After all, the stock-in-trade of Refugees International is field reporting, and our capacity to do that was very limited—particularly in the first year after the pandemic began in March 2020.
On his visit to the Ukraine war zone:
I traveled with two RI staff members to Poland in March of last year, just after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, where we visited several refugee border crossings and cities engaged in the humanitarian response. We reported early about the atrocities perpetrated by Russia. We asserted in our early 2022 report that Russia was responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity. It was important for us to bear witness very quickly.
As we approached the Polish border crossing at Hrebenne, we came upon the site of the Belzec extermination camp, where nearly 500,000 Jews were killed during the Holocaust. I felt we needed to visit. It was poignant to be there at a time when Ukrainians were being attacked and millions were fleeing into other parts of Europe.
Beyond reporting and advocating around basic rights and humanitarian needs, RI's focus has more recently been on promoting localization of humanitarian assistance efforts. The humanitarian response for the Ukrainian refugees has been generous, especially from European governments.
I do believe that the same level of generosity should be provided to all people fleeing persecution, no matter what country they come from or where they seek refuge.
I'm heartened by the will of the Ukrainian people and their government, and the support from the United States and other countries. But it's hard to envision a quick political settlement of the conflict now. In any event, unless the Russian president perceives that governments of the world are in steadfast support of Ukraine, there will be no good outcome.
On maintaining his connection to the Humphrey School:
The University and the Humphrey School were more than gracious in extending to me a five-year leave of absence so I could take on the position at Refugees International, and it was important to me to maintain my relationship to the School. So over the past five years I had a partial appointment and taught a one-credit course each year.
I love the mission of the University of Minnesota; it’s an institution that educates so many people, and provides both access and excellence. And I’ve always felt that the Humphrey School, especially as we are located in the diverse and vibrant Cedar-Riverside community, can help to exemplify those objectives.
On his return to Minnesota as a full-time faculty member:
So far the weather is not cooperating! But it’s a pleasure to be back here. I’m very busy teaching and getting my sea legs back in the classroom.
I’m teaching courses in human rights and refugee and humanitarian issues—and considering the nexus between public policy, social justice, and the interests of states. There is a strong ethic around justice and human rights at the Humphrey School, and these courses attempt to deal with those issues.
There has always been tension between the unequivocal pursuit of human rights and social justice for all, and the interests and perceived prerogatives of governments, other public institutions, and segments of civil society. The challenge, of course, is to identify obstacles to progress and then strategies to address them—including strategies to find common ground among groups with very different sets of objectives.
Policy solutions are often about compromises that might “bend toward justice,” but only modestly. One of my challenges as an educator is to help ensure that those kinds of outcomes don't become a source of frustration, but an invitation to more thoughtful and creative ways to navigate toward other more meaningful solutions.
As far as being back in Minnesota, I’m enjoying the chance to connect with colleagues and other members of the community whom I haven’t seen for a long time. I’m getting to know many of our students as well, and had the chance to attend a few Gopher men’s and women’s basketball games.
I think Dean Nisha Botchwey is doing a great job leading the Humphrey School and I’m confident she'll bring the School to even higher levels of accomplishment.