NASHVILLE, Tennessee–College administrators who provide students with safe spaces are robbing them of a good education, retiring Vanderbilt University professor Carol Swain said Monday evening in her final lecture at the school.
The topic of her speech was “Political Correctness and the Decline of American Universities.” Swain, a nationally-known speaker and author who has taught law and political science at Vanderbilt since 1999, is famous for her bold Christian conservative views that have upset many on her university campus.
Swain said universities across the country are encouraging progressive groupthink at the expense of a free exchange of ideas, which has a moderating influence that tends to drive out extremes. It’s “a very dangerous thing to do,” she said.
Even though she disagrees with the idea of safe spaces, Swain said the irony is that it’s conservatives who would need them, because they are the ones being shamed into being compliant or silent. Those championing safe spaces don’t need the protections.
“They actually own the campus,” she said. “They run the campus.”
Swain cited problems that conservative thinkers and writers – namely Ann Coulter, Charles Murray and Heather Mac Donald – have had recently with being invited to speak on college campuses. Students are mounting protests that are growing in rancor and even violence.
Swain said conservatives and classical liberals need to fight back to preserve their rights and to improve the state of education.
“Have a passion to fight for your cause,” she said. “Be willing to speak the truth even if it harms you.”
Conservatives need to do better at sticking together and supporting each other, she said, noting that rallying together is one thing that has strengthened the left. Progressives, meanwhile, should worry about overreaching. Students’ outrage at having to listen to opposing ideas will likely drive more people toward conservatism and convince some tuition-paying parents and grandparents to pull their financial support, Swain said.
“You don’t belong on a college campus if you’re afraid of ideas,” she said, adding that workplaces won’t have safe spaces for students and that they’ll eventually be forced to grow up.
Swain spoke of her personal and political journey as a former Democrat who experienced a Christian conversion in 1999, which influenced her to become a political independent and later a Republican. The changes began around the time she came to Vanderbilt. She gradually became more conservative during her tenure there.
“Vanderbilt hired one person and a very different one showed up,” she said.
In 2015, Vanderbilt students started a change.org petition to have Swain suspended. The petition said that Swain’s “hate-filled prejudices negatively impact her work” and provided links to two pieces of Swain’s commentary, one an op-ed in The Tennessean criticizing Islam and the other a piece criticizing gay marriage. The petition was unsuccessful but Vanderbilt Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos offered only tepid support in her defense.
The op-ed, which drew sharp contrasts between Islam and other religions and said it’s incompatible with the West, caused an uproar and student protests on campus. Swain said Monday that even though she knew she was a provocative figure she was still caught off guard by the fierce reaction. “I was just stunned,” she said. She couldn’t bring herself to look at the piece again for a long time. When she finally did, she thought, “That’s mild!”
Swain said the controversy ended up boosting her profile with sympathizers around the world and led to more people wanting to engage with her on social media and invite her to speak.
“It was a blessing in disguise,” she said.
Swain is also known for speaking eloquently of her childhood in poverty in rural Virginia, living in a shack without running water or indoor plumbing. She was one of 12 children. Her mother and stepfather would fight, sometimes violently. Her family later moved to a city and became dependent on welfare, which Swain eventually would see as a trap. Against all adds, she got an education and numerous degrees on her way to becoming an accomplished academic.
After officially retiring in August, Swain plans to stay in the Nashville area and continue to write and accept speaking engagements around the country. She’s also at work on a memoir, tentatively titled “Outspoken.”