Academia's outsized love of political correctness is, by this point, infamous. But did you know that journalism pertaining to academia is now being expected to follow similar standards?
No? Neither did Naomi Schaefer Riley, a higher education reporter with 15 years experience who was recently fired from the Chronicle of Higher Education for criticizing several black PhD students for giving their discipline a bad name by writing about unserious topics.
Let's start from the beginning. On April 20, 2012, the Chronicle of Higher Education ran an article titled "A New Generation of Black Studies Ph.D's." The article was essentially a collection of five short profiles, which are reproduced below for the reader to peruse:
Schaefer Riley, on reading this article, fired off a blog post in response, noting (rather tartly) that several of the dissertation projects mentioned weren't exactly focused on objective, substantive scholarship - in fact, they sounded like they resembled political hackery more than anything else:
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.
Then there is Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, author of “Race for Profit: Black Housing and the Urban Crisis of the 1970s.” Ms. Taylor believes there was apparently some kind of conspiracy in the federal government’s promotion of single family homes in black neighborhoods after the unrest of the 1960s. Single family homes! The audacity! [...]
But topping the list in terms of sheer political partisanship and liberal hackery is La TaSha B. Levy. According to the Chronicle, “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.’” The assault on civil rights? Because they don’t favor affirmative action they are assaulting civil rights? Because they believe there are some fundamental problems in black culture that cannot be blamed on white people they are assaulting civil rights?
The initial response to this blog post was, to put it mildly, apopleptic, as the comments rapidly degenerated into accusations of racism and bullying. This prompted Schaefer Riley to write yet another blog post defending herself from the most commonly made attacks:
The comments regarding my post seem to boil down to the following:
I am picking on people because they are black (and I am a racist).
I am picking on people even though I don’t have a Ph.D.
I am picking on people who are too young and inexperienced to defend themselves.
I am picking on people even though I haven’t read their entire dissertations.
Let me take the first two criticisms first. My qualifications to post on this blog consist of the fact that I have been a journalist writing about higher education for close to 15 years now. My work has been published in every major newspaper in the country and I have written two books on the subject as well. The editors at those papers and those publishers and at The Chronicle have all been aware that I hold no advanced degree. Black studies is now an academic discipline at most universities, which means I get to comment on that too. If the dissertations in question were written by white people, I’d call them irrelevant and partisan as well. Moreover, I have called other disciplines (having nothing to do with race) irrelevant and partisan.
I find the idea that there is something particularly heinous in criticizing graduate students or dissertations to be laughable at best. Just because they are still called students doesn’t mean they’re not grown-ups. When someone in their 30s (me) criticizes the dissertation topic of someone in their 20s, that’s “bullying“? Boy, life as a graduate student in a trendy discipline at a prestigious university sure is tough.
Schaefer Riley was, as the above profiles indicate, too hard on herself regarding the ages of her targets. One of them is nearly 40. This makes her possibly older than even Schaefer Riley herself. Nevertheless, the Chronicle apparently found the idea of having these beautiful, unique academic snowflakes criticized to be too much to bear, and fired Schaefer Riley with this explanation:
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. . . .
This is an ironic admission, because just a few days earlier, on May 3rd, the same person writing this official explanation for firing Schaefer Riley had said this:
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 Chroniclereporter Stacey Patton and weigh in.
Please join the debate.
So much for "joining the debate." The original article is now behind a paywall, and Schaefer Riley has been fired.
But, of course, this story wouldn't be complete unless we heard from the students who Schaefer Riley criticized. In a feat of either sheer self-aggrandizement or courage (depending on your point of view), they published a lengthy statement attacking Schaefer Riley for her "hit job" on their work. So far, the only publication to carry this statement has been the Socialist Worker. Highlights follow (Warning, some offensive language is included):
Instead of taking her own advice given to her readers to "just read the dissertations," Riley displays breathtaking arrogance and gutless anti-intellectualism by drawing such severe conclusions about our work and African American studies as a whole based on four or five sentence synopses of our dissertation projects. In fact, Riley has never read our dissertations, as they are in process. Nor has she read a chapter or even an abstract of our work, but that does not stop her from a full throttle attack on our scholarship and credibility.[...]
One can only assume that in a bid to not be "out-niggered" by her right-wing cohort, Riley found some Black women graduate students to beat up on. Despite her attempts to silence us personally, and indeed the discipline as a whole, her exhortations confirm the need for the vigorous study and investigation of Black life in the United States and beyond.[...]
Our work is not about victimization; it is about liberation. Liberating the history, culture and politics of our people from the contortions and distortions of a white supremacist framework that has historically denied our agency and subjectivity as active participants in the making of the world we live in.[...]
Finally, shame on the Chronicle of Higher Education. As students we welcome the vigorous interrogation and examination of our work that comes with life in the academy. We do not welcome smug attacks by lazy bloggers, in your employment, who resort to racial caricature in a pitiful attempt to drum up controversy and interest in an otherwise underwhelming and pedestrian career. Riley's rant is typical matter for personal blogs and anonymous postings in comment sections.
There's an important sentence in there, and no, it's not the one that involves the n-word. It's this one: "In fact, Riley has never read our dissertations, as they are in process." The disingenuousness of this sentence is breathtaking. Bad enough that the authors conveniently ignore the fact that the problem is not that Schaefer Riley thinks these women will produce slipshod work, but rather that she thinks they never should have been permitted to start writing about these topics in the first place. But to attack her for not reading dissertations that no one aside from these womens' dissertation advisers have been allowed to read, in whole or in part, and which have not, as yet, been given any academic credibility by anyone because they have not been written? Give me a break.
In other words, for the crime of criticizing dissertation topics for dissertations that have not been vetted by peer review, and that for all the Chronicle of Higher Education knows may get failing grades, but were unfortunately written by people who happened to be black, a 15 year veteran of Higher Education reporting had to be fired by the Chronicle. This is a sad day for journalism.