When Vanderbilt students two years ago petitioned to have Carol M. Swain, professor of law and political science at the distinguished southern university, suspended or subjected to sensitivity training, the professor was in no mood to coddle them.
“Only an idiot,” Swain tweeted, “would think that a 61-year-old black woman who has spent much of her life in academia would benefit from sensitivity training.”
While the petition was circulated in November, the controversy grew from a column Swain authored in January of that year for the daily newspaper, the Tennessean. It was in response to the deadly terrorist attack on staff of the Charlie Hebdo satire magazine in Paris. In it, Swain voiced strong opinions on Islam that most academics would not dream of holding, and certainly not saying in public.
“What would it take to make us admit we were wrong about Islam? What horrendous attack would finally convince us that Islam is not like other religions in the United States, that it poses an absolute danger to us and our children unless it is monitored better than it has been under the Obama administration?” Swain wrote.
Swain’s column triggered protests, and the chancellor issued a statement expressing solicitude for students who were offended by Swain’s ideas. A campus-wide email informed students too delicate for Carol Swain’s dangerous ideas that counseling was available. The protests died down, but skirmishes continued.
In November, it came to a head again when students were aggrieved that Swain described herself as a Vanderbilt professor when she expressed ideas with which the students disagreed on her website and Facebook page. This called for a petition. The petition, which garnered 1,500 signatures, portrayed Swain as a woman filled with hate, who took it out on minority students. A choice nugget:
“While Swain first and foremost has a right to her personal beliefs and the right to freedom of speech within and outside of the classroom, it recently came to the attention of the Vanderbilt community that Carol Swain has let her hate-filled prejudices negatively impact her work, our student body, and Vanderbilt’s reputation”.
On National Review Online, Peter Kirsanow summed up the qualities that contributed to making Swain such a controversial figure in academia. “Swain,” he wrote, “has testified a number of times before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, of which I’m a member. It’s plain from her testimony that she suffers from two serious afflictions: speaking plainly and not suffering fools (or foolishness) gladly. I may sometimes disagree with her but she’s learned and always rigorously thoughtful. Clearly, she has no place on today’s college campus. She’s an unsafe space personified.”
Swain was surprised to find herself at the center of a protest that grew out of a newspaper column. “It was an opinion piece in a local newspaper,” Swain recalls, “and it was not anything that should have generated that kind of response. It was a situation where students complained and the world stopped because of their complaints. I was stunned. Even though I’ve always been considered a provocative thinker, I never imagined that an opinion piece would lead to protests against my supposed bigotry and hatred and a statement by the university.”
She added, “It certainly changed my view of the academy. Universities are supposed to be market places of ideas where you can have divergent opinions. I also found out–and not just at Vanderbilt–that students exercise an inordinate power and that university administrators acquiesce to them and have themselves become enforcers of political correctness. That is part of the reality of the modern university. I have been teaching for twenty seven years and yet I wasn’t quite prepared for it.”
Swain’s career in academia includes four advanced degrees–the master’s in law is from Yale University and there’s a doctorate in political science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill–and having been a tenured associate professor of politics and public policy at Princeton University, which she left to join the Vanderbilt faculty in 1999. She is the author of award-winning books and numerous articles. Swain has just retired from Vanderbilt and is now working on her memoir and updating a previous book for Cambridge University Press.
Among Swain’s books is Black Faces, Black Interests: The Representation of African American in Congress (Harvard University Press, 1993), which won the 1994 Woodrow Wilson prize for the best book published in the U.S. on government, politics or international affairs and has been cited by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy and former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in Supreme Court opinions. She is editor of Race Versus Class: The New Affirmative Action Debate and more recently of The New White Nationalism in America: Its Challenge to Integration, which came out in 2002. She was recently hailed as “The Cassandra of Vanderbilt” in an article in the Weekly Standard, which pointed out that Swain had predicted the rise of the alt-right in the White Nationalism book and attributed some of it to multicultural arguments popular in academia.
Quite a high-powered resume, but what makes Swain’s achievements all the more remarkable is that she has done it all with only a GED–the certificate awarded to somebody who has not graduated from high school but who has passed high school equivalency tests. “From high school dropout and teenage mother to highly accomplished university professor and public intellectual,” is how Swain describes her unusual trajectory on her website. She also, it should be noted, has a life story that might lead many to assume she is a liberal, and not the prominent conservative she has become.
Carol Miller Swain was second of twelve children born to poverty in a dysfunctional family in Bedford, Virginia. There was no indoor plumbing or hot water for baths–they headed the bath water on the stove and all the children used the same water. It was pretty muddy by the time the last child bathed. The older children slept on the floor in the kitchen. It was not uncommon to go to the dump to forage for useful items. “Growing up in a shack, all I can remember about it is sadness,” Swain reminisced on a video. A particularly sad memory: the children clinging to the legs of their stepfather as he chased Swain’s mother with an axe. Carol married at sixteen “just to get away from home.”
Three children were born but the marriage did not last long. Life was difficult. Carol worked on a garment assembly line, as a nurse’s aide, and selling door to door. She laughingly says that her Wikipedia biography overestimates her people skills at the time when it says she worked at a McDonald’s–she did but only half a day. “The reason is that I was too shy to call the orders out on the microphone,” she remembers, “and I was too nervous to hear what people were ordering. So I pretty much gave them what I thought they should eat. But I didn’t get fired. At the end of the day, I turned in my uniform before they could fire me.”
Carol had not grown up around people who had gone to college, and the possibility of doing so had never crossed her mind. But two people planted the idea. The first was a doctor who attended Carol when she swallowed pills in what she calls one of her “suicide gestures.” The doctor told her she was intelligent and attractive and that she could achieve something with her life. Nobody had ever talked to her that way. An orderly who was working in a nursing home where Carol was a nurse’s aide also noticed her. He said that he’d been to college and that Carol was smarter than most of the people he met there. You should go to college, he told her. “It’s amazing what a little encouragement can do,” she says.
Carol began the demanding process of working her way through a two-year community college. She was going to college solely to get a better job and improve her lot in life. She studied business but, when she graduated, it was still hard to find a job. “I realized that I needed a four year degree,” she says, “and that I needed to distinguish myself in some way. I made the decision to become an honor student. I purchased books on how to make A’s in college and how to take essay tests. I applied these principles and as a consequence, I graduated with honors.” She graduated cum laude with a degree in criminal justice from Roanoke College (where she established the Constance J. Hamlar scholarship for African American students. Constance Hamlar was a professor who taught Swain at Virginia Western Community College).
She wasn’t yet even dreaming of academic distinction at a top university. “When I got my education, I was just trying to get a good job ,” she says. “I believed in the American Dream and that I could overcome the circumstances of my birth.” Still a Democrat, she was also exploring ideas. “Some of my conservatism was fed when I was an undergraduate,” she says. “I started reading Thomas Sowell, and Walter Williams and Milton Friedman. I was fascinated by Sowell. He wrote a book about the consequences of preferential racial policies that made me think.”
“I realized that I needed . . . to distinguish myself in some way. I made the decision to become an honor student.”
Eventually she ended up at Princeton. But something was missing. “After I was tenured at Princeton,” she recalls, “and earning more money that I had ever earned in my life, and won national prizes, I should have been happy. But I was not. There was a void, so I began seeking spiritual things.” Although raised a Christian, Swain was an agnostic when she was hired at Princeton. To fill the void she experienced, she explored various religions but ended up having a conversion experience and becoming a Christian. She credits her newfound Christianity with moving her towards conservatism in other facets of her life. And she also noticed another change: the failed McDonald’s employee was no longer shy.
With shyness banished, Swain became a frequent guest on TV shows, including being interviewed by Anderson Cooper, Sean Hannity, and Lou Dobbs. The professor who once assiduously wrote down and belabored every word when merely asked to introduce somebody at an event, became an in-demand commentator. She was instantly controversial. She criticized Black Lives Matter and social programs that instead of helping the poor keep them in poverty. She made a video for Prager University, which presents five-minute talks on ideas under the aegis of conservative writer Dennis Prayer, entitled “An Inconvenient Truth about the Democratic Party,” which presents forgotten history of the party before and during the Civil Rights era.
As might be expected, Swain believes that education could improve much of what is wrong in the U.S. One remedy she proposes is fundamental: “We need civics to be taught again, not just in schools but in college. We need basic civics–the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the Founders and Framers.” She credits civics classes with her remarkable ability to overcome her beginnings. “I grew up at a time when civics was still taught,” she says. “I believed in America. I didn’t grow up making too much of my race, even though the Civil Rights movement was taking place when I was a child. I didn’t think in terms of race or political party. I thought in terms of living in the greatest country in the world.”
She is dismayed by black leaders who claim that the United States is a bad country because it was founded in part by white men, many of whom owned slaves. “The genius of the Constitution,” she says, “is that it was flexible enough to accommodate changes that have taken place in our society. The document itself does not refer to slavery. The Framers knew that slavery had a time limit and that it was going to be abolished.”
She believes that progressives often advocate ideas for dealing with poverty that do not have the desired effect. She has seen in her own family how welfare can become “a trap.” It was one she avoided as a young woman. Says the Ivy League professor with the GED, “Somehow, I always believed I could do it, that I could better myself and that I was not meant to be poor.”
We look forward to Carol Swain’s memoir and hope it will serve as a model for those who, with a little bit of encouragement, could make good lives for themselves. She is, after all, a dangerous woman–dangerous to progressive platitudes and attitude that suggests that the American Dream is no more.