Black Studies And The Chronicle’s Cowardice

Naomi Schaefer-Riley, a blogger at the Chronicle of Higher Education, recently wrote in part: 

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.

The post prompted a torrent of left-wing outrage and, ultimately, Riley's sacking - which brought out the right's counter-outrage. This time, it seems clear to me that the right is right. Riley's commentary is well within the bounds of provocative opinion writing. Firing her was an act of cowardice and an assault on intellectual freedom. Jonathan Tobin argues:

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.

The PhD students Riley attacked, in turn, defend their own work:

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.

Dreher moderates somewhat:

Thousands of people wrote to the Chronicle to protest the racial insensitivity, etc., in Schaefer Riley’s essay. Gosh. I don’t know how she manages to keep up her racist chops, given that she’s been married for some time to a black man. Anyway, shoot one, teach future bloggers that they can never make fun of  "scholarship" if the scholars are part of an official victim class. …

Riley’s blog post was not a sterling example of the genre, and she left herself open to strong criticism. I have no problem with that. But firing her for an ill-considered blog post? Really? That’s not about upholding the Chronicle blog’s standards. It’s about heretic hunting.

Jonathan Last nods:

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."

Even Lauri Essig, a Chronicle blogger who calls Riley's post "hate speech", isn't on board with the firing:

Partly I have not signed the petition because I am not sure The Chronicle should fire someone because they are nearly universally reviled. There are all sorts of people who believe I should be fired from The Chronicle‘s Brainstorm blog and some of them go so far as to call my institution and suggest I be fired from there as well. Which leads me to believe that editorial decisions about who stays and who goes should not really be in response to public pressure since no unpopular views would ever be published, at least not for long.