Dan Schnur dreamed of becoming a journalist, so he did what any aspiring reporter might do: enroll in a Minnesota college as a political science major and become the newspaper editor. He thought it would be the “path of least resistance” to achieving his goals.
He soon learned, however, that simply studying politics was not enough. At 19 years old, he traveled from his Wisconsin home to Washington, D.C., to volunteer for Ronald Reagan’s 1984 presidential campaign over the summer.
“After a couple years of taking political science classes, I wanted to try it myself,” Schnur said. “I was young enough and dumb enough that rather than finding a local campaign, I decided to go for the gold.”
By the end of his summer in Washington, D.C., he had become a full-time staff member. His boss recommended that he return to college if he wanted to continue in politics, so he finished his degree at American University in Washington, D.C.
Schnur, however, didn’t think he would go on to teach politics. After a few more presidential campaigns, he became an adjunct professor at UC Berkeley and USC, and found himself loving the classroom.
In 2008, he became the director of USC’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics and a full-time professor. He took a leave of absence in 2010 to work for California’s Political Practices Commission, but says he was glad to return to campus.
“I’ve quit politics for good three times now,” Schnur said. “I really do believe that now I’m done for good. That’s how much I love what I’m doing here at USC.”
Though his political expertise aids him in teaching political science courses, he aims to do much more than simply teach; he wants to inspire students to get involved in politics. The summer of his first campaign, he learned that politics is a place where young people can make a difference right away, a lesson he likes to share with his students.
Despite his work on several presidential campaigns and for other notable organizations, some of Schnur’s favorite memories come from his work with the Unruh Institute. He became director with one major goal: getting students involved in politics. His solution was “to bring the political world to campus,” and he created several programs to promote involvement.
The institute co-sponsors Students Talk Back lunches with the Daily Trojan to promote conversation among students and professionals. The institute also runs various events every semester, including panel discussions with professionals; Schnur’s only rule is that students must be involved, “not just as audience members, but as participants.”
One of his most memorable moments at USC was after the 2008 presidential election, when the institute worked with Politico and the Daily Trojan to run a two-day conference with panels featuring advisers from the McCain and Obama campaigns and USC students. Each panel was co-moderated by editors of both publications, and saw students engaging in discussion with professionals, who were instructed to “treat them like adults.”
“Watching a bunch of 19-to-21-year-old USC students going toe-to-toe with professionals and holding their own was a revelatory experience,” Schnur said. “Students didn’t have the opportunity to just ask questions, but to be involved.”
Schnur has seen more than 100 students go on to work in the government, politics or political media, and said he never would have had this influence without teaching.
“Don’t get me wrong, I love politics,” Schnur said. “But after so many years of doing it, I realized the best contribution I could make was helping young people get involved on their own terms. When students ask me why I’m not on the campaign track anymore, I tell them, ‘It’s your turn.’”