“A White Male Would Probably Already Be Gone”
Former Vanderbilt professor Carol Swain discusses the situation of Harvard president Claudine Gay.
Yesterday, journalist Christopher Brunet and I broke a story examining evidence that strongly suggests that Harvard president Claudine Gay plagiarized multiple sections of her Ph.D. dissertation, according to Harvard’s own academic integrity policies. One of the scholars that Gay used material from in at least two instances was Carol Swain, who has served as a professor at Princeton and Vanderbilt. Swain is also known as one of America’s most prominent black conservatives and has published scholarly work criticizing race-based preferences and affirmative action.
This morning, I spoke with Swain, who said that she saw “a clear pattern of what one would consider plagiarism in Dr. Gay’s thesis” and called into question Gay’s continued service as Harvard’s president. The following transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Christopher Rufo: What are your thoughts about the Claudine Gay plagiarism accusations?
Carol Swain: What is bothering me is not just that there’s passages she didn’t put in quotation marks. When I look at her work, I feel like her whole research agenda, her whole career, was based on my work. It bothers me because I know that my work was a big deal in the early 1990s. And I started falling out of favor in 1995 when I started criticizing race-based affirmative action. I thought affirmative action should be means-tested and race-neutral. When I started putting those ideas out, that’s when I started falling out of favor and getting labeled as a conservative, even while I was a Democrat, and blacks started attacking me, calling me a “sellout.”
Rufo: In my recent story, I documented at least two instances in which Gay lifted from your work. Do you consider that to be plagiarism?
Swain: There seems to be a pattern because it’s not just two cases from my work. There are instances that you point to from other people’s work. At best, it was sloppiness, but it would be considered plagiarism if you lift sections of other people’s work and you pass it off as your own.
Rufo: Throughout the paper, she lifted verbatim passages from others but did not put them in quotation marks. I consulted Harvard’s own plagiarism policy, and these all appear to be clear violations.
Swain: She became president of Harvard and got recognition as being its first black president. I don’t believe her record warranted tenure, and I believe that I had to meet a much higher standard than she did. Something changed in the mid-1990s, [when] we were having a big affirmative action debate.
Rufo: Tell me more about this.
Swain: It’s clear to me that standards were lowered in the mid-1990s, and the elites came together and decided that they were going to defend affirmative action. It’s clear to me that she was a beneficiary of that. I blame her committee, and I blame white progressives equally. She should have known what constitutes plagiarism. And I would say in particular about the articles that she published that went through reviewers and the people on her committee, I would’ve thought they would have noticed she was doing research that was building on my work, that they would have acknowledged that she was building on my ideas. I also have no doubt that progressives have always elevated people who fit the bill of what they’re looking, and they needed someone like her.
Rufo: What do you mean by that?
Swain: White progressives have always rewarded the blacks who supported their ideas. Someone more mainstream, like me, could never be rewarded in the same way.
Rufo: In this specific case, given the lower standards, the allegations of plagiarism, and the other scandals that are swirling around Gay, should she resign from the presidency of Harvard?
Swain: The board of trustees needs to deal with those issues. They need to apply the same standards to her as they would apply to a white person under the same circumstances.
Rufo: And under these circumstances, what do you think would happen to a white person?
Swain: A white male would probably already be gone.
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This article was originally published in City Journal.