The trade paper of the academic industry just fired a writer who dared express skepticism about the academic worth of a number of doctoral dissertations in the field of black studies. Liz McMillan, editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education wrote a "Note to readers" explaining why Naomi Schaefer Riley's blog posting on Brainstorm last week ("The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations" merited her dismissal and an abject apology from the editorial honcho.
Reactions are mostly predictable, from both leftists and conservatives.
Riley is, of course, being widely termed a racist. She summarized her critics in a second post, her last before she was fired from the CoHE blog titled "Brainstorm":
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.
Let me take the first two criticisms first. My qualifications to post on this blog consist of the fact that I have been a journalist writing about higher education for close to 15 years now. My work has been published in every major newspaper in the country and I have written two books on the subject as well. The editors at those papers and those publishers and at The Chronicle have all been aware that I hold no advanced degree. Black studies is now an academic discipline at most universities, which means I get to comment on that too. If the dissertations in question were written by white people, I'd call them irrelevant and partisan as well. Moreover, I have called other disciplines (having nothing to do with race) irrelevant and partisan.
I find the idea that there is something particularly heinous in criticizing graduate students or dissertations to be laughable at best. Just because they are still called students doesn't mean they're not grown-ups. When someone in their 30s (me) criticizes the dissertation topic of someone in their 20s, that's "bullying"? Boy, life as a graduate student in a trendy discipline at a prestigious university sure is tough. Unless The Chronicle features you in a piece, being a graduate student is just like being "invisible" (Ralph Ellison, please call your office). A word to the wise: If you're trying to convince the wider world that black people in America are oppressed, I'd skip using the experience of black graduate students as an example.
Finally, since this is a blog about academia and not journalism, I'll forgive the commenters for not understanding that it is not my job to read entire dissertations before I write a 500-word piece about them. I read some academic publications (as they relate to other research I do), but there are not enough hours in the day or money in the world to get me to read a dissertation on historical black midwifery. In fact, I'd venture to say that fewer than 20 people in the whole world will read it.
Keep in mind that academics seek, and some enjoy, tenure, a job guarantee premised on the importance of protecting the free exchange of ideas, with no firing for expressing unpopular views. Of course, Riley is not an academic herself, but many of her critics are.
Second, keep in mind that she was writing a short blog, not an academic paper, in a blog that is called "Brainstorm" - a name which connoted freedom to express tentative ideas without internal editing, so that others may offer their thoughts. The critics who fault her for not doing her homework are ridiculous, embracing a standard uniquely applied to Riley because they want to silence her and others for expressing ideas that threaten them. Robert Oscar Lopez, in a comment on the editor's blog,. noted all the half formed ideas from leftists that populate the Brainstotorm blog:
If they fire Riley, they need to take down all of Brainstorm. Laurie Essig, Laurie Fendrich, Gina Barreca, David Barash, Jacques Berlinerblau, Michael Ruse, and Todd Gitlin routinely weigh in on issues they have no expertise in, with a blatantly partisan bias, encouraging rude commenters, and adding nothing to discourse which we can't already get on the Yahoo message boards.
Gina Barreca writes rhyming insults and gives us lame reviews of Titanic.
Laurie Fendrich is an expert on painting but wants to lecture us about economics and Penn State student riots.
Todd Gitlin is a journalist opining about first amendment jurisprudence.
David Barash is a biologist without military background poo-pooing about atrocities halfway around the world under conditions he can hardly understand.
Laurie Essig is a sociologist in Middlebury, Vermont, one of the whitest towns in the world, who wrote a book about breast implants but makes pronouncements about Christian theology and the hard lives of people of color. She also called Herman Cain a minstrel act because of his accent.
Jacques Berlinerblau is an atheist who has a busy job directing a program in Jewish civilization, but writes babbling articles about Christian Republicans in the American heartland, with classy titles like "Christian Right: Go Bifurcate Yourself!"
Michael Ruse is a British philosopher who goes to the beach in England and proclaims that Republicans want to create an Anglo-Saxon aristocracy and people who entertain Intelligent Design hate gay people. He is an expert on Darwin who decided after reading about an Alberta election that conservative Christianity is a cancer.
Their fans are venomous commenters who scour into the personal lives of people who comment with their real names. (For instance, I was asked repeatedly to explain whether or not I have sex with men, for months.) The commenters are vicious and uninformed because the bloggers are.
This whole damned section of the Chronicle is an embarrassment. We have thousands of Internet hotbeds where people can blow off steam about crap they know nothing about. If your publication's reputation is so important, then none of these blogs pass the smell test.
It is up the Chronicle, of course, whether it wishes to publish a blog that features tentative ideas, propositions worthy of spirited discussion. Maybe it wants to be an a academic journal, rather than a place for people in the trade to chat semi-informally. If so, it should end the blog.
But that won't happen. The real story here is that the higher education industry is full of dubious disciplines, and scholars whose expertise is underwritten by shoddy scholarship and lowered standards. Pulling back the curtain an expsing the ugly truth can't be allowed, because careers and big money are at stake.
Rick Moran has a different take:
There is little doubt that Riley should have the same freedom to make an idiot of herself as liberals enjoy when giving an uninformed opinion based on nothing more than a biased understanding of her subject.
In Riley's case, she made a flat statement about the dissertations coming out of Black Studies programs - that may or may not be true - despite the fact that she did little or no research. She admits to not reading dissertations, which one might think would be a prerequisite for making such an incendiary statement in the first place.
In short, her blog post was not researched, her statements not backed up by any facts, and she hung her employer out to dry, knowing full well the flame war that would erupt as a result of her thesis and harsh criticism would be directed toward the CHE. The fact, as Mr. Lopez points out, liberals do much the same thing is not an excuse in this case. Partisanship and bias are part of the game. The examples Lopez gives do not touch on academic disciplines which is what Riley's employer, CHE, is ostensibly in business to comment on. Her attack on Black Studies programs was, in effect, an indirect attack on her employer.
But what about academic freedom? It's a close call, but I can't agree with Thomas that she shouldn't have been fired. The low standards set by liberals in commenting on things they know little or nothing about were surpassed by Riley, whose blog post can't even be considered "opinion" since she failed to research her thesis. That, and the dilemma in which she placed her employer ultimately led to her firing.