Blogger fired after criticizing NU black studies students

Patrick Svitek

Former Wall Street Journal editor Naomi Schaefer Riley was fired from the Chronicle of Higher Education on Monday, a week after she wrote a blog post criticizing the work of some doctoral candidates in Northwestern’s African American Studies department.

Riley’s controversial entry was in reaction to a recent feature in the Chronicle on NU’s black studies class of 2012. A sidebar story profiled the five students in the Ph.D. program, as well as their planned dissertations, which address issues ranging from racial profiling in the New York City courts system to the rise of black Republicanism.

“What a collection of left-wing victimization claptrap,” Riley wrote in the April 30 post on the Chronicle’s Brainstorm blog. “The best that can be said of these topics is that they’re so irrelevant no one will ever look at them.”

Under the headline “The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations,” Riley continued to pan the graduate students for their chosen topics, concluding that the NU students should “let some legitimate scholars” find “solutions that don’t begin and end with blame the white man.”

Within days, the 533-word critique sparked more than 1,500 comments on the Brainstorm blog, as well as 6,500 signatures on an online petition calling for Riley’s firing. The Chronicle published condemnatory responses from three of the graduate students spotlighted in the Chronicle’s original story and 16 members of the NU African American Studies faculty.

“To write such disparaging comments about young scholars and their expressions of intellectual curiosity is cowardly, uninformed, irresponsible, repugnant, and contrary to the mission of higher education,” the faculty letter reads before noting the United States is “barely one generation removed” from a time when black students were denied admission at most colleges.

Fifth-year graduate student Ruth Hays, whose dissertation topic Riley cited as her first example of “left-wing victimization claptrap,” declined to comment Thursday on whether Riley’s dismissal was justified. Hays, however, said she was encouraged that “so many people saw the problem” in Riley’s argument.

Hays recalled being disappointed but not angry when she first read Riley’s writing, which was circulated on an email list of black studies graduate students.

“I feel it speaks to the privilege she’s exercising,” Hays said. “She feels she can look at the titles of the dissertations and dismiss our entire field of study.”

Chronicle editor Liz McMillen initially defended Riley’s piece, writing in an editor’s note that she encouraged readers to “debate Riley’s views, challenge her, set things straight as you see fit.” In a second note announcing Riley’s dismissal Monday night, McMillen said she realized her invitation to an open debate elevated Riley’s commentary “to the level of informed opinion, which it was not.”

“What’s she doing is dismissing out of hand that the interests and lives of black people are worthy of study,” Hays said.

In an interview Thursday, Riley was unapologetic about the now-infamous blog post, saying she often takes a critical and sometimes sarcastic tone in her writing.

“They completely caved to pressure,” Riley said of the Chronicle’s decision to fire her. “It’s most evident from the fact that after last week, they thought my post was fine. They thought it was up to their standards. Four days later, suddenly it didn’t meet their standards.”

Riley stood by her blog post in a column published Tuesday in The Wall Street Journal, where she recently covered “religion, higher education and philanthropy for the editorial page,” according to her website.

In the commentary, Riley acknowledged the reaction to her blog post “ranged from puerile to vitriolic,” with the NU graduate students and faculty accusing her of “bigotry and cowardice.”

“It’s hard because they’re not really interested in open discourse,” Riley said Thursday. “The left always talks about how they want to have more dialogue about race. I was engaged in a dialogue on the issue of race, and I was shut out.”

Hays called Riley’s gripe “disingenuous,” especially because Riley made judgments based on dissertation titles and descriptions only.

Instead of cheering on the blogger’s dismissal, Hays encouraged disgruntled readers to devote their energies to broader issues.

She is currently conducting initial research on her dissertation topic, which examines how black women form opinions about childbirth and how those opinions influence their childbirth experiences.

“We need to pay less attention to these periodic eruptions of spectacular racism or problematic racism discourse and have more serious discussions of race in our day-to-day lives,” Hays said. “If she was more familiar with the problems of racism in our day-to-day lives, she wouldn’t be able to make the comments she did.”

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