Wednesday, May 9, 2012

You Can't Say That

Is Black Studies a legitimate academic discipline? This seems like a question one should be able to ask, and a question that different people would answer in different ways.  Naomi Schaefer Riley, formerly a blogger on the Chronicle of Higher Education website, recently learned that this is one of the many questions that simply cannot be asked today, at least not unless you are prepared to answer it in the prescribed fashion.  Admittedly, Riley did express herself strongly, characterizing dissertation topics in this field as "a collection of left-wing victimization claptrap." But she was, after all, writing an opinion piece and this characterization did accurately summarize her opinion of recent scholarship in Black Studies.

Riley's expression of her views turned out to be pretty mild, compared to the reactions of comments and other bloggers on CHE's "Brainstorm" blog. The academic tumult spilled over into other media.  Well, those who disagreed with her had just as much right to voice their views, however vehemently, as she had to voice hers. The big problem was that Ms. Riley experienced more than unpopularity and name-calling. She was fired.

After initially trying to characterize Ms. Riley's post as an "invitation to debate," CHE editor Liz McMillen backed down and said that Riley's blogging did not meet the publication's "basic editorial standards for reporting and fairness in opinion articles." Those "standards" seem to mean not taking unpopular positions, and they did not prohibit another blogger on the same site from publishing bathroom wall-type doggerel personally attacking Riley.

As an outlet for ideas in higher education, I'm afraid CHE has given new insight into the climate of contemporary universities and colleges.  These are not places for free and open inquiry. Stifling conformity, maintained by mandatory outrage, is the order of the day. 

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