Author Naomi Schaefer Riley was an ornament to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Brainstorm blog where she provided a keen dissenting voice pointing out the follies of modern academia. Riley, the author of the brilliant The Faculty Lounges … And Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Pay For, is a critic of the liberal orthodoxies of the American campus. She has earned the enmity of the sector’s establishment by pointing out the con games played by universities that have profited from the creation of sham disciplines and the way college faculties have insulated themselves by focusing largely on the publication of arcane academic papers filled with jargon that makes no sense to anyone outside of their narrow fields.
Having such a voice of reason at a publication like the Chronicle–which caters to the residents of those faculty lounges about which Riley has written–was an important and perhaps daring decision on the part of its editors. But apparently there is a limit to their willingness to allow anyone to speak the truth about the academic world. After Riley wrote a post pointing out the absurdity at the heart of a recent Chronicle feature that highlighted the “young guns” at Black Studies departments around the nation, the publication says “thousands” of its readers protested. Rather than stand by their writer, the Chronicle caved to criticism in the most abject manner possible. In a craven note to its readers, editor Liz McMillen claimed Riley’s post “did not meet the Chronicle’s basic editorial standards for reporting and fairness in opinion articles” and fired her. In shamefully throwing Riley under the bus, the Chronicle has not only done her an injustice. It has undermined, perhaps fatally, its credibility as a journal of thought as well as making it clear it will no longer countenance any dissent from academia’s wisdom on race and gender studies.
McMillen’s note is doubly offensive because its characterization of Riley’s post is incorrect, and because she also chose to grovel to the mob by apologizing for a previous editor’s note in which she invited readers to debate the author’s opinion. Though she now says her previous note was wrong to “elevate Riley’s post to the level of informed opinion,” the only thing that is clear from reading her obsequious apology is that in allowing Riley’s critics to dictate editorial policy, she has debased the Chronicle and herself to a point where neither can be taken seriously.
In examining this controversy, it must be asserted from the outset that nothing Riley wrote was offensive or lacking in civility, as McMillen charged. Riley’s offense was not one of tone or fact but rather in her willingness to say Black Studies is an academic discipline rooted in and consumed by the politics of victimization with little scholarly value.
Riley pointed out something that was obvious to any objective reader of the Chronicle’s paean to those coming in this field: their dissertation topics are trivial and motivated solely by what she aptly calls “left-wing victimization claptrap” in which racism is the answer to every conceivable question.
The dissertations she mentioned speak volumes about the low level of discourse that passes for academic achievement in this field. That topics such as black midwives being left out of natural birth literature, the notion that the promotion of single family homes is racist and the branding of black conservatives as opponents of civil rights are the work of the best and brightest in black studies tell us all we need to know about why Riley is right about the need to eliminate this form of academic fraud.
In saying this, Riley was blunt but transgressed no rules of journalism other than the need not to offend powerful constituencies. But for those devoted to the promotion of this sector of academia, for Riley to have pointed out that the emperor has no clothes is an unforgivable offense that must be punished by branding her as a racist who must be banished from the pages of the magazine. The only “standard” that Riley did not live up to in this post was the obligation to say what many on the left want to hear. Contrary to McMillen, the betrayal here was not on the part of the Chronicle for having published Riley, but in firing her in order to appease an unreasoning pack of academic jackals howling for the blood of anyone with the temerity to point out their shortcomings.
It is painful to watch a respected publication like the Chronicle descend to this level of groupthink. However, this episode does illustrate how out of touch with reality its editors and many of its readers are. The defenestration of Naomi Schaefer Riley only makes plain the depths to which those determined to silence dissent against academic orthodoxy will sink.