The Academic Mob Rules

Naomi Schaefer Riley, Wall Street Journal, May 8, 2012

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.

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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.”

{snip} 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.

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But why take my word for it? {snip}

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. {snip}

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.

{snip}

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.

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