Last week, the Chronicle of Higher Education blogger Naomi Schaefer Riley posted a tough, skewering (dare we say “mean-spirited”) item blasting what she sees as a lack of academic rigor in black studies departments (hardly an earth-shattering observation, given that similar complaints have been made about all sorts of race and gender studies programs). For her trouble, on Monday she was fired from her gig as a paid columnist for the Chronicle. Given that the Chronicle is routinely filled with enthusiastic defenses of ethnic studies and casual attacks on “conservatives,” you’d think they’d welcome the occasional touch of intellectual diversity. Turns out, not so much.
Riley’s prose was hard-hitting but certainly no more so than so many of the jeremiads I’ve read in CHE and other K-12 and higher ed outlets about idiotic conservative policymakers, heteronormative bigots, and all the rest. Riley wrote that “some of the dissertations being offered by the best and the brightest of black-studies graduate students” are “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.” This is certainly tough stuff, but hardly beyond the pale.
Nonetheless, Riley’s critics weren’t content merely to denounce her as racist and sexist. Instead, they immediately sought to deny her a perch and to silence her voice. Within days, critics were circulating a petition with more than 6,000 signatures calling on the Chronicle to fire her. They succeeded, of course. Abby Schachter noted in the New York Post that “multiple responses on the Chronicle of Higher Education have called her a bigoted racist for deigning to ‘beat up on’ a bunch of ‘poor’ graduate students.” Even my friend Sara Goldrick-Rab, a University of Wisconsin professor with an acerbic tone, and someone who I would usually expect to stand as a supporter of free speech in the world of higher education, flatly dismissed Riley’s prose as “emotion-laden spewing, a venomous disdainful piece directed at young women scholars of color.” Indeed, Goldrick-Rab even suggests that Riley’s critique was “libelous.”
Ahh, now we get to it. When University of Wisconsin faculty were denouncing Governor Scott Walker as “Nazi” and a “fascist,” in blogs, online forums, and on signs, I don’t recall anyone suggesting they were behaving in a libelous manner. Indeed, I remember the higher education community issuing hearty paeans to free speech. When Occupy Wall Street was disrupting campuses while hurling invective at businesspeople and conservatives, I mostly recall the media showering them with warm attention. I don’t recall many faculty fretting about libel. Indeed, I mostly remember enthusiastic support.
Indeed, I get puzzled by the double-standards. When the National Council of Professors of Educational Administration published a refereed article by Fenwick English naming the “ten most wanted enemies” of public education, I couldn’t rouse a single academic to express even modest concern--much less circulate an angry petition. Authors like Kevin Kumashiro and Michael Apple casually charge “right-wing think tanks” with seeking to destroy public education. Think tanks like AEI (my own modest abode) are attacked in scholarly outlets as right-wing, fascist, bastions of oppression and dubious scholarship. Strikes me that all this is an even more virulent version of what Riley is accused of. After all, it’s a broad, typically unsupported characterization of people, their work, and their organizational home based, primarily, on anecdote and visceral reactions. And yet I hear not a word of outrage and nothing about libel. Indeed, such accounts are routinely cheered in academic circles.
So, here we are. CHE‘s one regular “conservative” contributor has penned an acerbic take on race- and gender-based academic programs. Some of us (though perhaps few in an academy that claims to prize diversity of thought) think Riley’s criticisms ring true. And yet, her mere blogging provoked a concerted (and successful) effort to silence her. Riley’s husband, Wall Street Journal editorial writer Jason Riley, may have put it best, writing, “The Chronicle has fired Naomi. The mob rules.” I find it hard to take seriously scholarly concerns for academic freedom when its practitioners move so quickly and aggressively to silence those with whom they disagree.
The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.