Mob on the Quad
2:22 PM, May 8, 2012 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
Late last night, in a shameful example of editorial cowardice, the Chronicle of Higher Education fired Naomi Schaefer Riley. Naomi is a good friend of mine, a sometimes contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, and a fine writer. And the story of what happened to her is highly instructive.
Naomi joined the Chronicle’s “Brainstorm Blog” a little over a year ago. It was a good hire—she’s written two insightful books on academia, God on the Quad and The Faculty Lounges, along with dozens of articles on the subject. Her postings were smart and entertaining. (For a couple of samples, click over to “If this is art, your middle-school daughter is Picasso” and “No sex for you.”)
Last week she wrote about the world of “Black Studies” in a post titled “The most persuasive case for getting rid of Black Studies? Read the dissertations.” You should read the whole thing, because it’s only 520 words, but here’s the gist of Naomi’s argument:
I just got around to reading The Chronicle’s recent piece on the young guns of black studies. If ever there were a case for eliminating the discipline, the sidebar explaining some of the dissertations being offered by the best and the brightest of black-studies graduate students has made it. What 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.
That’s what I would say about Ruth Hayes’ dissertation, “‘So I Could Be Easeful’: Black Women’s Authoritative Knowledge on Childbirth.” It began because she “noticed that nonwhite women’s experiences were largely absent from natural-birth literature, which led me to look into historical black midwifery.” How could we overlook the nonwhite experience in “natural birth literature,” whatever the heck that is? It’s scandalous and clearly a sign that racism is alive and well in America, not to mention academia.
Naomi then went on to dissect two other incredibly silly “Black Studies” dissertations. One of these was written by TaSha B. Levy. Here’s how the Chronicle itself—not Naomi—described Levy’s work:
Ms. Levy is interested in examining the long tradition of black Republicanism, especially the rightward ideological shift it took in the 1980s after the election of Ronald Reagan. Ms. Levy’s dissertation argues that conservatives like Thomas Sowell, Clarence Thomas, John McWhorter, and others have “played one of the most-significant roles in the assault on the civil-rights legacy that benefited them.”
Chronicle readers were outraged. Not that a graduate student was earning a doctorate by claiming that Sowell, Thomas, and McWhorter are threats to civil rights. Oh, no. They were outraged because Naomi would dare poke fun at such insanity. Because, you know, that’s racist.
Eight days and 497 comments later, the Chronicle’s Liz McMillen fired Naomi. Here’s how she explained her decision:
[S]everal thousand of you spoke out in outrage and disappointment that The Chronicle had published an article that did not conform to the journalistic standards and civil tone that you expect from us.
We’ve heard you, 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. . . .
[M]y Editor’s Note last week inviting you to debate the posting also seemed to elevate it to the level of informed opinion, which it was not. I also realize that, as the controversy unfolded last week, our response on Twitter did not accurately convey The Chronicle’s message.
I sincerely apologize for the distress these incidents have caused our readers and appreciate that so many of you have made your sentiments known to us.
Which is simply craven nonsense. If Naomi’s post was self-evidently egregious, she would have been fired immediately. Instead, on May 3, McMillen defended the post as being part of the blog’s intellectual ferment and encouraged readers to debate it. Which makes it obvious that the reason they gave Naomi the boot wasn’t because of anything she wrote, but rather the effect her writing had on their readers, who generally reacted as though they were suffering from a case of the vapors. One of her fellow Chronicle bloggers accused Naomi of committing “hate speech” and an online petition called for Naomi’s firing. In fact, McMillen admits as much, saying that Naomi’s post “distressed” readers and made them feel “betrayed.”
Now, the Chronicle of Higher Education can fire and hire whomever it pleases—for good reasons, bad reasons, or no reason at all. That’s its business; that’s its prerogative. But the publication ought to at least have the sand to admit what it’s doing. They didn’t fire Naomi Schaefer Riley because of what she wrote. They fired her because their readers didn’t like it.
The great irony, of course, is that the whining and gnashing of teeth from the “Black Studies” crowd only reinforces Naomi’s point about the “discipline.” You’d never see chemists or physicists or mathematicians worked into a hysterical mob by a critical blog post. Because they study actual fields of knowledge—and don't simply tend the garden of their own feelings.