Over at the Chronicle of Higher Education's lively and horribly-named "Brainstorm" blog, contributor Naomi Schaefer Riley has been fired for a post questioning the intellectual seriousness and validity of black studies departments.
After "several thousand" readers of the five-year-old group blog complained, explains editor Liz McMillen, the Chron decided to act:
…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. As a result, we have asked Ms. Riley to leave the Brainstorm blog….
I sincerely apologize for the distress these incidents have caused our readers and appreciate that so many of you have made your sentiments known to us.
One theme many of you have sounded is that you felt betrayed by what we published; that you welcome healthy informed debate, but that in this case, we did not live up to the expectations of the community of readers we serve.
You told us we can do better, and we agree.
What did Schaefer Riley, the author of two books about higher education, do to warrant getting canned? Her primary offense was writing a post titled, "The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations." Keying off a recent Chronicle story touting Ph.D. candidates in black studies, Schaefer Riley notes in part:
If ever there were a case for eliminating the discipline, the sidebar explaining some of the dissertations being offered by the best and the brightest of black-studies graduate students has made it. What a collection of left-wing victimization claptrap. The best that can be said of these topics is that they're so irrelevant no one will ever look at them….
Topping the list in terms of sheer political partisanship and liberal hackery is La TaSha B. Levy. According to the Chronicle, "Ms. Levy is interested in examining the long tradition of black Republicanism, especially the rightward ideological shift it took in the 1980s after the election of Ronald Reagan. Ms. Levy's dissertation argues that conservatives like Thomas Sowell, Clarence Thomas, John McWhorter, and others have 'played one of the most-significant roles in the assault on the civil-rights legacy that benefited them.'" The assault on civil rights? Because they don't favor affirmative action they are assaulting civil rights? Because they believe there are some fundamental problems in black culture that cannot be blamed on white people they are assaulting civil rights?
After a major and largely negative response to that post, Schaefer Riley followed up with a second post that reads in part:
The comments regarding my post seem to boil down to the following:
I am picking on people because they are black (and I am a racist).
I am picking on people even though I don't have a Ph.D.
I am picking on people who are too young and inexperienced to defend themselves.
I am picking on people even though I haven't read their entire dissertations….
Such is the state of academic research these days. The disciplines multiply. The publication topics become more and more irrelevant and partisan. No one reads them. And the people whom we expect to offer undergraduates a broad liberal-arts education (in return for billions of dollars from parents and taxpayers) never get trained to do so. Instead the ivory tower pushes them further and further into obscurity.
As it happens, I agree with Schaefer Riley's large point that academic disciplines are multiplying and that many, if not most, academics (at least in the humanities and social sciences) are becoming more and more partisan and obscurantist.
I disagree with her implication that some of the topics mentioned in her posts are useless because they speak to small audiences, that universities are fundamentally about the education of undergraduates, or even that a highly politicized professoriate is necessarily a problem. And I'm wary of any approach that replaces serious consideration of a subject based on cursory glances at paper or dissertation topics (to get a sense of why, check out my coverage of the 2005 Modern Language Association convention for the late, lamented Tech Central Station). I should add that I have effectively no knowledge of black studies departments and can't offer an opinion as to whether or not they are any more or less legitimate (however defined) than, say, American Studies departments or often intellectually-vapid vocational programs such as engineering and architecture.
But I do find the Chronicle's response absolutely breath-taking and craven in its censoriousness. If the questions raised by Schaefer Riley's posts are outside the bounds of discussion at a blog about higher education, then why bother having even the semblance of a discussion? And it strikes me as disingenuous to sack someone for a single blog post that did not meet the Chronicle's "basic editorial standards for reporting and fairness in opinion articles." There's no question of ethics or professionalism raised by Schaefer Riley's posts than those that are raised by an ongoing series of articles about what a waste of time and money and resources it is to get a degree in English, or art history, or sociology, or whatever.
This is plainly a politically correct response to a thug's veto and should be owned up to as such. Schaefer Riley contributed huge numbers of posts on a wide variety of topics at Brainstorm and she was clearly game to debate what she wrote. If her opinion is too much to bear—and it plainly is—academic discourse is in far worse shape than even the most anti-intellectual yahoo might think. Her Brainstorm colleagues felt free to take shots at her opinions, writing dissents and even poems about what they considered her faulty logic. Which is just how it should be, at a university-type setting of all places: Argue about stuff, don't just shut down viewpoints you disagree with!
Another Brainstorm blogger, Emory English professor, Dumbest Generation author, and occasional Reason contributor Mark Bauerlein, is exactly right when he wrote this post before Schaefer Riley was let go:
The most significant element in the controversy surrounding Naomi Riley's blog posting is the disproportionate nature of the responses….
The reason why, I think, lies in the nature of black studies itself. If black studies were only another academic discipline, then a call to end it would excite a stern defense on grounds of substance, not charges such as "a stain on any respectful discourse" (comments section).
But black studies is more than an academic field, and the original story and the responses say so explicitly. [Chronicle reporter Stacey] Patton writes [in the story Schaefer Riley responded to], "Like their predecessors who worked to establish black studies as a respected academic discipline, today's Ph.D. students are also attracted to the social mission of the field." If a discipline has a "social mission," of course, then it includes in its disciplinary norms certain social aims—in other words, extra-academic criteria….[A]ny academic discipline that assumes a social mission for itself is always going to have a legitimacy issue.
Ironically, the post at Brainstorm (possibly the worst name for a blog since The New Republic introduced "The Plank" and "The Spine") directly below the one announcing Schaefer Riley's firing is titled "Is Freedom of Assembly a Dead Letter?"
Yeah, I think so, at least at the Chronicle of Higher Education.