While the firing of Naomi Schaefer Riley by the Chronicle of Higher Education is a disgrace, the greater shame is that it can’t be called a surprise. The racial spoils system in American higher education has by now become so entrenched that to challenge it is to commit an unpardonable sin. And challenge it is precisely what Riley did in her blog post, doing what she’d been hired to do by engaging in a fact-based analysis of an educational issue of vital importance.
To be sure, Riley didn’t mince words. “If ever there were a case for eliminating the discipline of black studies,” she wrote, “some of the dissertations being offered by the best and the brightest of black-studies graduate students has made it.” She went on to cite particulars, commenting acidly on a number of dubious-sounding dissertations written by young stars in the field.
But it wasn’t so much the specifics of her piece that raised the ire of her critics—tellingly, her attackers rarely even bothered to dispute those in any but the most general terms—but her gall in questioning the value of black studies at all. For she challenged the assumption at the heart of almost all such programs that, as she put it, “nothing much has changed in this country in the past half century when it comes to race.” To the average person, such a notion is so clearly absurd it is hardly worth the breath to say so; but to innumerable academics, especially those in the various departments specializing in racial and ethnic grievance, to challenge it is sacrilege.
To learn that over 6,000 of those shaping young minds at America’s colleges and universities signed a petition demanding Riley’s dismissal—and, even more, to read the comments in response to the posting they found so objectionable—is to despair anew for the nation’s future. There was little reasoned argument, almost no attempt at factual refutation from these supposed defenders of free thought and the lively exchange of ideas, but mainly name calling. As always, the ultimate conversation stopper—“racist”—was at the top of the list, this time aimed at a woman with a black husband and children of mixed race.
Not that, in this instance, the details of Riley’s life, even had she broadcast them, would have done her much good with her critics, who often dismiss the ideal to which most Americans subscribe—race blindness—as a sham designed to hold black people down. Indeed, one of the young black-studies notables whose work Riley took to task, La Tasha B. Levy, has made her academic bones arguing that the black conservatives who propound colorblindness have “played one of the most-significant roles in the assault on the civil-rights legacy that benefited them,” and seek “to legitimize a larger discourse around racial progress that delegitimizes civil-rights policies.”
Interestingly enough, Levy’s CV, which has been posted, reveals that she has won multiple grants, fellowships, and awards for disseminating these views. No shock there: it has been this way for a few academic generations now. Campus grievance peddlers enforce ideological conformity by hiring ever more of their own. Their views, no matter how scornfully regarded outside the academy, hold unquestioned sway within it. Indeed, none ever seems to pay a professional price even for the most provably outrageous transgressions against fairness and civility. On the record, not one of Duke University’s notorious Group of 88—members of the school’s liberal arts faculty who rushed to condemn the white lacrosse players falsely accused of raping a black woman—seems to have suffered any consequences.
As for the editor who did the firing, Liz McMillen, her performance gives groveling a bad name. She noted that “several 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,” and assured readers that “We’ve heard you, and we have taken to heart what you said.” Piously, she added “that you welcome healthy informed debate, but that in this case, we did not live up to the expectations of the community of readers we serve.” Truly, it might have been penned by that dead white male, Kafka.
Naomi Schaefer Riley is a highly capable journalist. She will survive and doubtless continue to do valuable work. But this episode is one more nail in the coffin of American higher education.