Dr. Nisha Botchwey, a health and environmental policy expert, is the first immigrant appointed dean at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Credit: Humphrey School of Public Affairs

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The University of Minnesota has appointed the first person of color and immigrant as dean of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

Dr. Nisha Botchwey is an expert in health policy and the environment, with a focus on youth engagement and health equity. She will serve as the school’s chief executive and academic officer. Botchwey holds a master’s degree and Ph.D. in urban planning from the University of Pennsylvania. She also has a master’s degree in public health from the University of Virginia, and a bachelor’s degree in environmental science and public policy from Harvard University.

“I have family and friends around the globe,” said Botchwey, who is an immigrant from Jamaica. “What they see in me as the incoming dean of the Humphrey School is their sister, their cousin, their niece, their friend, their auntie. And they are able to say, Nisha’s there, then I can be there too.

Botchwey succeeds Laura Bloomberg, who took on the role of vice president and provost at Cleveland State University earlier this month. Bloomberg had been dean since 2017. Catherine Squires, the Humphrey School’s associate dean and a communications professor, will serve as interim dean until Botchwey officially starts in January.

“She brings an important range of experience both as a researcher but also as an administrator,” Squires said of Botchwey. “She has really great ideas about connecting Humphrey to the bigger community.”

While Botchwey is the school’s first officially appointed immigrant dean of color, Squires, who is also a woman of color, has been the interim dean since August 23.

The Humphrey School offers more than 150 graduate courses and funds 116 faculty research projects. According to the school, the program has 369 graduate students currently enrolled and 35 Ph.D. students. Almost 24 percent of graduate students enrolled this year are students of color from the United States, and 8 percent are international students. 

Additionally, 30 percent of 40 tenured faculty members are people of color. The school employs 115 employees overall, 24 percent of whom are people of color.

Squires noted that during the selection process, two of the finalists for dean were women of color and all three were women. Squires said she sees that as a promising sign for new leaders in academia. 

Catapulting to the dean’s office

Botchwey previously served as an associate dean for academic programs at Georgia Tech and played a lead role in the university’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. She developed academic programs, oversaw curriculum, led outreach efforts, and served as a tenured faculty member in the School of City and Regional Planning.

Over the course of her career, Botchwey has been awarded more than $16 million in research grants on more than 30 projects. One of those projects was in partnership with the University of Minnesota. From 2015 to 2021, Botchwey has been the co-investigator on infrastructure solutions for environmentally sustainable, healthy, and livable cities. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the project received about $3 million in funding. 

In 2017, Botchwey also presented twice at the University of Minnesota on educating K–12 science and social studies teachers, as well as on theories of change and integrative modeling.

As a first-generation college graduate, Botchwey said she entered a career in public service because she wanted to better understand the rules that govern daily life—and how to make them more fair. She said the legacy of the Humphrey School fits that vision.

“The education that the Humphrey School provides allows for the elevation of a little Black girl like me—who started school in ESL classes in Miami, Florida—to catapult to the dean’s office at the Humphrey School.”

Training the next generation of leaders

The Humphrey School of Public Affairs was named after former Vice President Hubert Humphrey who served under President Lyndon Johnson. Saint Paul Mayor Melvin Carter also attended the school*.

U.S. News & World Report ranked the Humphrey School 9th in the country’s top public affairs programs.

Ed Goetz is the director of the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs and a faculty member of the Humphrey School. He attended a presentation Botchwey gave as part of the interview process. Goetz said he was particularly impressed by Botchwey’s ideas for the direction of the school, especially when it came to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

“We’re constantly being pushed and reminded by students to center equity in the work we do and in the way we help educate and train the next generation of leaders,” Goetz said. “She was very responsive to that and spoke about equity work in a very knowledgeable, sophisticated way.”

While the Humphrey School has a national and global network, Botchwey said she hopes the school can also expand its connections within the local community.

“It’s hard to serve when you have to take a plane there. It’s easier to serve when you can walk right outside your door,” she said. “Why not allow our students that opportunity to practice that service and to enrich the lives of the people that they are immediately connected to?”

*Correction: This story has been changed to note that the University of Minnesota named its public policy school, founded in 1977, after Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Vice President Walter Mondale taught at the school, but did not attend it. Also, St. Paul mayor Melvin Carter attended the Humphrey school—not R.T. Rybak, as previously written.

Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.