The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
Since 1888
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.

The Vanderbilt Hustler talks with Professor Carol Swain about colleges, what’s ahead

The Vanderbilt Hustler talks with Professor Carol Swain about colleges, whats ahead

Professor Carol Swain announced Monday that she would be retiring from Vanderbilt University at the end of the school year. The Vanderbilt Hustler spoke with her Wednesday about her decision, college campuses and what’s next in her career.

The responses below are excerpts from the interview.

The Vanderbilt Hustler: In your retirement announcement, you said that you “will not miss what American universities have allowed themselves to become.” What are some specific examples of the changes you don’t agree with at colleges across the country?

Carol Swain: Well, I mean, I have been teaching since 1990, as a faculty member. I started at Princeton, and before that, in ‘89, I toured a year at Duke as a visitor. I taught one class. Before that, I saw universities as a student. If you look at my background, that I did my college in the 1980s, started late 70s, 1980s, and so I had the perspective of a student and then going from a student to the faculty role, I think universities used to try harder to be a marketplace of ideas, and during my time in college, I had a lot of conservative professors. I think that’s why I became a conservative, is that I was exposed to literature. And if you had an economics background, the name Thomas Sowell or Glenn Loury — these were black economists — Milton Friedman. Edward Banfield wrote a book then “Heavenly City Revisited,” which would be totally politically incorrect. They talked about the lower classes. I was exposed to so much conservative literature, that may be why I became a conservative, and I think that the universities have just totally gone in the opposite direction in the sense that they seem to have become little cocoons where they try to insulate people from the real world. And I think it does a disservice to the students, but also for other faculty members, because it’s not just me as a conservative faculty member being in an environment where there’s a total shift in uncertainty.

I think that liberal professors are intimidated by the environment because even though they’re trying to be politically correct and not to commit any microaggressions, there are some things — I mean, how can you teach if you’re in an environment where you might say something, anything, and some student, you have 40, 50, 100 people in your class, someone’s going to get offended, because they even may mishear what you said. That’s just no environment that’s healthy for anyone.

VH: You’ve taught in grad school and undergrad, do you see a difference between how  undergraduates and graduates react to their professors?

CS: That’s changed too. Because even among law students now, the law students, they’re into microaggressions, they don’t want rape law taught, there’s certain types of law, if it makes them feel uncomfortable, they don’t want taught. So you wonder how these people want to function when they leave law school. So it’s something that’s happened in the environment that has changed in a way that I would argue does a disservice to all students, to their parents that are paying the tuition and just to the whole academic enterprise.

People are just on the alert, looking for something to be offended about because it encourages them to be offended. Even professors that are trying to play by the rules, the new rules of engagement and give the trigger warnings, I think that they are walking on eggs. And I read recently about a liberal professor taking an early retirement and it has to do with something he said that offended an African American student. It was pretty innocent. I think she didn’t turn a paper in or something, and he asked her about it and she reported him and he got in trouble. So he’s leaving. Who’s going to be teaching the students? I don’t know because I think the liberals are in as much danger as the conservatives but with the conservatives, there’s so few of us.

VH: What do you think led to college campuses shifting more left since you’ve been around?

CS: I know exactly what led to it. I teach a course on political culture, at least I was teaching a course on political culture, and I framed it around the impact of the Communist movement on American political thought, so we really get into Marxism. And if you look at the goals that the cultural, if you have studied cultural Marxism, about the subtle changes of language, and also the agenda that the Communists put forth. Back in 1920s, 1930s, 1950s, that you would see that they have accomplished a lot of their goals, and some of it had to do with the language and destroying the family.

Most of those people read Saul Alinsky, they cleaned themselves up, and they went into academia, they went into politics, they went into positions of power, and they are running the show. These are old hippies that are running the show, and that’s why we have what he have. And it’s not that they are the majority, or that most people share their views. They are strategically placed, and I have often told, not just students, but anyone who will listen, that if you don’t like what you see, that you can copy their strategies. And so I encourage students to read Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals” and Cleon Skousen, who was a Mormon scholar and former FBI agent.

VH: Were faculty members influential to the students or did the students have that same ideology already?

CS: I think that these changes have been taking place for a long time, so it has seeped into just about everything: the NEA (National Education Association), teachers associations, in the 1970s with the universities, that’s when it really started, and the radicals learned that if you made enough noise, if you protested, if you screamed, if you took over the president’s office, you could get concessions. And so they’re not new strategies, they’re old strategies, and because administrators have caved again and again and again, they work. And when you find conservatives, for the most part, they don’t take over president’s offices, and they don’t engage in the tactics of the political left, and I think administrators, in many cases, they buy peace by giving radicals what they want, but it’s never enough because the radicals keep coming back wanting more.

VH: One of the big changes in college campuses is the change in the size of administration, how has that, in your view, changed since you were first teaching?

CS: When I was first teaching at Princeton the faculty had more power, and they would treat us with more respect than they are today. I think here the power is with the administrators and not with the faculty. And faculty can be tenured and stuff like that but that doesn’t insulate you from politics and other things that take place.

VH: Do you think that conservative professors and liberal professors have the same viewpoint that the administration has more power than before?

CS: I don’t know. I’m just going by my observations. I don’t think most faculty are happy with administrators and what they do, and I think that if faculty were governing universities, we talk about faculty governance, I think you’d have a different set of outputs because the faculty, they’re the ones in the classroom, they’re the ones that are teaching, and they see first-hand what’s taking place.

VH: Do you foresee yourself entering politics in the future?

CS: Everyone asks me that, and it’s never been something that’s been high on my list of things to do, but I would never have thought that I would become a university professor because I was always so shy. People say never say never, but it’s not a desire that I have.

VH: Have there been politicians in the past that have reached out to you (campaigning, serving in administration, etc.)?

CS: President Bush — George W. Bush — appointed me to two positions, and I was an independent at the time, and he appointed me to the National Endowment for the Humanities and to the Tennessee Advisory Committee on Civil Rights. It was the advisory committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. I had two terms there and then a six-year term with the National Endowment for the Humanities.

I just went to Washington three, four times a year, and I am open to the right political position, but I don’t see myself serving in an elective office, and part of that has to do with, when I think about members of Congress, I don’t see being one of 435 (Representatives). I know that sometimes people can make a difference as an individual, it’s much more difficult, and you do have to compromise sometimes. And with the Senate, of course, that’s a better position, you have more influence, but I think that for myself, what I’m called to do is hold people accountable and try to educate the public, and so most of the work that I’ve done recently, the last two books have been written in a way that I try to write them in a way so that they are accessible to the public. They’re well-documented, so I still use my scholarly documentation, but I try to write to be read. I’m not writing for other social scientists, I’m writing for educated lay-people.

VH: You mentioned in your announcement that after your retirement you want to continue to write and speak. What does that entail, moving forward, when you don’t have the university platform?

CS: As far as platform, I’m a permanent member of the James Madison society at Princeton. So if I need a platform, I can list myself as ‘member of the James Madison society at Princeton’ because that’s factual, and I’ve already cleared it. But I don’t know that I need a platform in the sense that I already have a platform. I have 34,000 Facebook fans, and (a United Kingdom television network) flew me there to do debate analysis, and they said it was the first time they’d flown an American scholar there to do debate analysis. I’ve had the Financial Times approach me if I’d write them an article. CNN just had me do an article. People know that I have a unique perspective, and some people value the fact that I’m different, and I have a different perspective on the world. So I would imagine that I would still have the same opportunities, because I am Dr. Carol M. Swain, I have those credentials. My awards, my degrees, those things don’t leave when the title goes away. I think tenured academic positions can be like security blankets, like it’s a pretty good life, pretty cozy life, on something that’s very difficult to give up.

I want to write my memoir, I’ve already started working on it… I get lots of invitations to speak, and I enjoy doing that because I believe that words can change lives and I know that in my own personal story that there were two people that changed my life. Everywhere I go, I’m meeting new people, I went to the Inauguration, there were two young men, college students from a different university. We started chatting and they were interested in public policy so we talked about options and things, and they were so excited at the end because I gave them ideas they hadn’t thought of. For example, one just assumed that he would get a Masters Degree and he’s going to make public policy. And I pointed out the necessity of having a Ph.D if you really want to be an influence, if you don’t want someone else to take your work and put their name on it, that it’s important for you to get a Ph.D.

And then with the Hillary’s America, the film that I was in, 10 million people saw that, and I really enjoyed doing that. And I have a new opportunity (with) Prager University, they do these short videos. They have commissioned me to do four, they’re going to be recorded next month. I’m doing one on the history of the Democratic Party, the history of the Republican Party, the Big Switch, and the Three-Fifth’s Clause. So those are all going to be filmed and over two million people see those videos, that’s like the average for their videos. So I think my platform will be bigger than ever, and so I just feel that whatever God has for me next, I have to be positioned for it and I have to give up something. And what I have chosen to give up is this faculty position, but I haven’t chosen to stop caring about students or to stop speaking on college campuses. If any of my colleagues invite me to come talk to a class I would be happy to do that. What I think I’m getting in the exchange is more freedom, to reach more people.

VH: Did this decision have any influence from Donald Trump’s victory in November?

CS: No, I made the decision last summer and so even if Mr. Trump had not been elected, I had already made that decision. I decided when I was going to announce it and having a good PR background, I decided that the Monday morning after the Inauguration was the best time so I wouldn’t stomp on Mr. Trump’s news.

VH: Have you been in contact with the Trump administration?

CS: Well the transition team has contacted me, and they have my information, and so they say I’m good to go. But it has to be the right fit. I’m not moving to Washington. I take care of my mother, she lives with me. But I can travel. I can be away like three or four days a week, but I’m not moving my household to DC. And also I know what my strengths and weaknesses are, I know what I liked to do, and what I’m good at so I wouldn’t take just any position just to have a job. I want to take something that’s going to make a difference, that’s going to play to my strengths. And so if they come to me, it would be great. If not, I’ll just continue plugging along, doing the things that I do now.

VH: What’s your biggest hope for President Trump moving forward?

CS: That he will be able to accomplish many of his goals. It’s been announced that he is doing an executive order about refugees, and the media will spin that as a bad thing. I happen to know, through my church and through refugees, that the refugee community that we have already is not being well serviced, that there are not enough resources to really have people get on the beat, and I would suspect that some of the terrorism comes from people that… children are not faring very well, that they have not learned the language, they don’t have good jobs, they have not been able to assimilate. I think we need to assimilate the refugees that we have before we just keep bringing in more and more people.

To me, that makes sense and what I think about Mr. Trump, I feel like thank God there’s an adult in the White House. We finally have an adult. Public policy should be made on the basis of facts, statistics, not on the basis of just your heart because our heart would say let the whole world come here and you could make a whole lot of decisions based on your heart that would not be in your interest. And I think a leader has to look at the big picture and it’s reasonable to have America first, to look after the needs of Americans.

VH: Reflecting on your time as a professor, what message would you want to get out to students across the country?

CS: I’m not going to waste my time on the ones that have made up their mind on who I am and my character but I really believe in your generation. And I think it is important for people like me, from whatever vantage point that we are, to pour into your lives because you really are going to be the ones that are going to dictate the course of this nation. And I think that a lot of young people don’t like what they see. And they see the unfairness and they want something different. So I would just encourage people to be bold. Like everyone’s not called to be as bold as I am, but there are some young people that are called to be bold and if you do openly challenge the system in any sort of way or push back in class, you just have to make sure that your T’s are crossed and I’s are dotted and all the stuff like that.

As I leave the campus, I’m hoping that the students that are more conservative, the Christian students, will fight for that Constitution and their rights and for change. And I would like to see more of them go into academia and when they look at the climate and they see their liberal professors, many of them feel like ‘I couldn’t make it in academia.’ I think they can make it in academia, there are plenty of universities where you can go and the professors that support you, if you’re Christian, are not always Christian professors. People who believe in classical liberalism, and they can be atheists and secular humanists, they tend to support free speech and rights and they’re really fascinated by ideas and in some cases they may be the person to chair a dissertation committee, a thesis committee. They may have more courage and more authority than a Christian professor that’s a coward or someone that’s just really easily intimidated. So I never write off the political left. Some of the people who have been the strongest defender of my right have been people that were secular humanists. We have a lot in common. And so everyone who is liberal or people who are atheists, some of them are strong allies, and they are strong defenders of free speech.

As far as my departure, I made a decision about how I want to spend the rest of my life, and i felt like, I think in terms of life being a journey, and there being particular seasons, I felt that this season of my life was over and I had accomplished all that I could accomplish here and that I wanted to be open to my next big thing. And there will be a next big thing and so I wanted to be open to that. I want the Vanderbilt students to know that I’m going to be in Nashville, I’m always around. Schedule permitting, I’m open for coffee and to debate ideas off campus or wherever. They still have access. Tell them that I love them.

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Josh Hamburger, Author

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John McDaniel
7 years ago

Classy, determined and brilliant lady! Godspeed, Carol Swain

Rene Hutcherson
7 years ago

I am sadden to think you are leaving Vandy. You are an important loss of a ever diminishing Conservative voice