Naomi Schaefer Riley: The Academic Mob Rules Instead of encouraging wide discussion, the Chronicle of Higher Education fires a blogger
By NAOMI SCHAEFER RILEY
Recently, the Chronicle of Higher Education published a cover story called "Black Studies: 'Swaggering Into the Future,'" in which the reporter described how "young black-studies scholars . . . are less consumed than their predecessors with the need to validate the field or explain why they are pursuing doctorates in their discipline." The "5 Up-and-Coming Ph.D. Candidates" described in the piece's sidebar "are rewriting the history of race." While the article suggested some are skeptical of black studies as a discipline, the reporter neglected to quote anyone who is.
Like me. So last week, on the Chronicle's "Brainstorm" blog (where I was paid to be a regular contributor), I suggested that the dissertation topics of the graduate students mentioned were obscure at best and "a collection of left-wing victimization claptrap," at worst.
For instance, the author of a dissertation on the history of black midwifery began her research, she told the Chronicle, because she "noticed that nonwhite women's experiences were largely absent from natural-birth literature." Another graduate student blamed the housing crisis in America on institutional racism. And a third argued that conservatives like Thomas Sowell, Clarence Thomas and John McWhorter have "played one of the most-significant roles in the assault on the civil-rights legacy that benefited them."
The reaction to my blog post ranged from puerile to vitriolic. The graduate students I mentioned and the senior faculty who advise them at Northwestern University accused me (in guest blogs posted by the Chronicle editors) of bigotry and cowardice. The former wrote that "in a bid to not be 'out-niggered' [their word] by her right-wing cohort, Riley found some black women graduate students to beat up on." (I confess I don't actually know what that means.) One fellow blogger (and hundreds of commenters) called my post "racist."
Gina Barreca, a teacher of English and feminist theory at the University of Connecticut, composed a poem mocking me. (It begins "A certain white chick?Schaefer Riley/ decided to do something wily.") MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry spewed a four-minute rant about my post, invoking the memory of Trayvon Martin and accusing me of "small-mindedness."
Scores of critics on the site complained that I had not read the dissertations in full before daring to write about them?an absurd standard for a 500-word blog post. A number of the dissertations aren't even available. Which didn't seem to stop the Chronicle reporter, though. And 6,500 academics signed a petition online demanding that I be fired.
At first, the Chronicle stood its ground, suggesting that my post was an "invitation to debate." But that stance lasted for little more than a weekend. In a note that reads like a confession at a re-education camp, the Chronicle's editor, Liz McMillen announced her decision on Monday to fire me: "We've heard you," she tells my critics. "And we have taken to heart what you said. We now agree that Ms. Riley's blog posting did not meet The Chronicle's basic editorial standards for reporting and fairness in opinion articles."
When I asked Ms. McMillen whether the poem by fellow blogger Ms. Barreca, for instance, lived up to such standards, she said they were "reviewing" the other content on the site. So far, however, that blogger has not been fired. Other ad hominem attacks against me seem to have passed editorial muster as well.
In her Monday mea culpa, Ms. McMillen wrote that her previous "editor's note last week inviting [readers] to debate the posting also seemed to elevate it to the level of informed opinion, which it was not." I have been a journalist writing about higher education for close to 15 years now, having visited dozens of colleges and universities and interviewed hundreds of faculty, students and administrators. My work has been published in every major newspaper in the country, most often this one, and I have written two widely reviewed books on higher education as well.
As I wrote in the book I published shortly before the Chronicle hired me, "It is not merely that [many] departments approach African-American studies from a particular perspective?an Africa-centered one in which blacks residing in America today are still deeply hobbled by the legacy of slavery. It's that course and department descriptions often appear to be a series of axes that faculty members would like to grind."
But why take my word for it? Scholars more learned than I have been saying the same thing for decades. In 1974, Thomas Sowell wrote that from the beginnings of the discipline, "the demands for black studies differed from demands for other forms of new academic studies in that they . . . restricted the philosophical and political positions acceptable, even from black scholars in such programs."
Thirty-five years later in a piece for the Minding the Campus website, former Berkeley Prof. John McWhorter noted that little had changed: "Too often the curriculum of African-American Studies departments gives the impression that racism and disadvantage are the most important things to note and study about being black."
My critics have suggested that I do not believe the black experience in America is worthy of study. That is not true. It's just that the best of this work rarely comes out of black studies departments. Scholars like Roland Fryer in Harvard's economics department have done pathbreaking research on the causes of economic disparities between blacks and whites. And Eugene Genovese's work on slavery and the role of religion in black American history retains its seminal role in the field decades after its publication.
But a substantive critique about the content of academic disciplines is simply impossible in the closed bubble of higher education. If you want to know why almost all of the responses to my original post consist of personal attacks on me, along with irrelevant mentions of Fox News, The Wall Street Journal, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and George Zimmerman, it is because black studies is a cause, not a course of study. By doubting the academic worthiness of black studies, my critics conclude, I am opposed to racial justice?and therefore a racist.
As Ellen Schrecker, a Yeshiva University historian, writes in her book "The Lost Soul of Higher Education," political ends were the goals of the founders of black studies. Ms. Schrecker?who is, by the way, sympathetic to these political goals?explains that the discipline's proponents "viewed these programs as contributions to the continuing struggle for racial justice, not as conventional academic courses of study."
My longtime familiarity with the absurdities of higher education did not, I confess, prepare me for this most absurd of results. The content of my post, after all, is hardly shocking; the same thing could have been written 30 years ago. And perhaps that's the most depressing part of all this. Despite the real social and economic advancement that has been made by blacks in this country, the American faculty is still stuck in the 1960s.
Ms. Riley, a former Journal editor, is author of "The Faculty Lounges: And Other Reasons Why You Won't Get the College Education You Pay For" (Ivan, R. Dee, 2011) and "God on the Quad: How Religious Colleges and the Missionary Generation Are Changing America" (St. Martin's, 2005).
A version of this article appeared May 9, 2012, on page A13 in some U.S. editions of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Academic Mob Rules.