Following Controversial Blog Entry, ‘Chronicle of Higher Education’ Firing Makes Waves

By on May 9, 2012

Last week, author Naomi Schaefer Riley posted a blog entry criticizing the field of black studies on Brainstorm, a blog maintained by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Riley’s entry, titled "The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations.", contained a sharp critique of several doctoral theses featured in an earlier Chronicle article, "A New Generation of Black-Studies Ph.D.’s." 

Riley’s entry generated instant controversy: An online petition calling for her firing garnered thousands of signatories (now more than 6,500); Riley’s fellow Brainstorm bloggers criticized her piece; and the graduate students themselves responded as well. Riley followed her initial post with a defense of its content and a response to her critics, and the Chronicle‘s editor, Liz McMillen, weighed in with a call for more discussion and debate. McMillen wrote:  

When we created the Brainstorm blog five years ago, we hoped it would be a forum for debate — where views about higher education, academic culture, and ideas could be aired and discussed and often challenged. It is a blog for opinion, sometimes strong opinions, not news reporting by the staff. The writers on the blog—13 in all, from institutions around the country—fall on different points of the ideological and political spectrum. They are not staff members of The Chronicle nor do they represent the views of the staff or of the newspaper.

Many of you have asked The Chronicle to take down Naomi Schaefer Riley’s recent posting, "The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations." I urge readers instead to view this posting as an opportunity—to debate Riley’s views, challenge her, set things straight as you see fit. Take a moment to read The Chronicle’s front-page story about the future of black studies, written by Chronicle reporter Stacey Patton and weigh in.

Please join the debate.

That was last Thursday, May 3. By Monday, May 7, McMillen had changed course, announcing in a follow-up post that the Chronicle had chosen to fire Riley. Stating that "[w]e now agree that Ms. Riley’s blog posting did not meet The Chronicle’s basic editorial standards for reporting and fairness in opinion articles" and that "we have made mistakes," McMillen promised a review of "editorial practices" and apologized for "the distress these incidents have caused our readers."  

Riley’s firing, in turn, has generated another crush of controversy and prompted criticism from around academia and beyond. The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page weighed in, sharply criticizing the decision, as did WSJ commentator James Taranto. Riley’s former Chronicle colleague Peter Wood responded along similar lines, as did Roger Clegg and former FIRE President David French for National Review Online and Rod Dreher for The American Conservative. John Rosenberg at Minding the Campus and Ron Radosh of Pajamas Media also criticized the decision. 

Media observers Jim Romenesko, New York University professor Jay Rosen, and Craig Silverman all authored reactions from a journalistic perspective. Silverman’s piece features an interview with Riley, who also wrote her own commentary on the firing for The Wall Street Journal. She writes: 

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. 

We’ll have more on the controversy here on The Torch