David Rawson loves African history. He should. He helped change it.
Rawson began working in foreign affairs in 1971. He served as an ambassador to Rwanda during the Rwandan Civil War, and later to Mali, before moving back to Michigan in 1999. He then began teaching political science, African politics, and African history classes at Hillsdale College and Spring Arbor University. After this semester, Rawson and his wife, Sandra, will move to Oregon to be closer to their son and grandchildren. Rawson will teach at George Fox University.
Phil DeVoe ’17 took both African Political Systems and History of Africa with Rawson.
“It is wild that Hillsdale College has a professor that was an ambassador to Rwanda,” DeVoe said. “So many people did not know he was here.”
As the only professor with direct experience in African politics, DeVoe said Rawson brought something special to campus.
“He knows the language and culture through his life,” DeVoe said. “You walked away from the class feeling like you understand something very complicated.”
Born in Addison, Michigan, Rawson moved to Burundi with his parents in 1947 as a young boy. Rawson’s father, a doctor, ran a medical clinic, and he attended a boarding school.
In 1958, Rawson returned to the United States to attend college. He earned his bachelor’s degree at Malone University and his master’s and doctorate from American University. He taught for six years at Malone before working in foreign affairs with the U.S. State Department.
Rawson said he knew he wanted to work in Africa again.
“Once you get the sands of Africa in your shoes, you have to go back,” Rawson said.
Rawson worked in foreign affairs from 1971 to 1999. He served as an ambassador to Rwanda from 1993 to 1996, under Secretary of State for African Affairs George Moose during the Rwandan Civil War.
Ethnic tensions between the Hutus and the Tutsis in Rwanda boiled over in April 1994, when Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana, a Hutu, died when his airplane was shot down. Hutus blamed it on the Tutsis, leading to a genocide between April and July of 1994. In the span of 100 days, 800,000 people were killed — the majority were Tutsis, murdered by Hutus.
The United States government ordered officials, including Rawson, to leave the country.
The Rwandan Patriotic Front, a group of Tutsis and moderate Hutus, took control of the government in July. Rawson then returned to Rwanda to provide emergency relief to the country. He also negotiated peace agreements with Rwandan insurgent leaders and ministers to agree to follow the laws of the new government.
After his time in Rwanda, he served as an ambassador to Mali from 1996 to 1999.
After leaving the State Department, Rawson moved back to his great-grandfather’s homestead in south central Michigan and applied to teach at Spring Arbor University and Hillsdale College.
At Spring Arbor, Rawson taught political science as well as classes on geography and conflict resolution. Rawson is a distinguished visiting professor of political science at Hillsdale.
In 2002, Rawson came into contact with Sen. Paul Simon, D-Illinois, who founded the policy institute, Southern Illinois University Carbondale in Carbondale, Illinois. Simon gave Rawson a grant to write a documentary study on the failures of peace negotiations in Rwanda following the civil war. Rawson worked for years to declassify hundreds of documents from negotiation meetings between insurgents and the Rwandan government.
According to Rawson, the book should be finished and published by this fall.
French Professor Marie-Claire Morellec viewed Rawson’s knowledge and experience working for foreign affairs as an asset to Hillsdale College.
“He is without a doubt the most knowledgeable faculty on African history and cultures,” Morellec said. “He is always very generous of his time and has participated in many talks for the benefit of our students. He is a remarkable and kind man with the elegance and expertise of a true ambassador.”
Rawson said he will miss working with students, some of which, he said, have gone on to work for the Peace Corps or missionary careers.
“I loved teaching, and it is with great regret to lay these things down,” Rawson said. “I loved watching the students get better, write better, and I have had a lot of good students along the way.”