The editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education says she fired contributor Naomi Schaefer Riley for her blog post about Black Studies scholarship due to the writer’s failure to back up her assertions with “even the most cursory research.”
Liz McMillen initially defended Riley when her controversial post, “The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations,” was first published on Chronicle’s Brainstorm blog.
But on Monday she announced Riley had been fired, and apologized to readers. I asked McMillen what changed her mind. Was it, for example, the petition that garnered over 6,000 signatures and/or the many critical reactions on Twitter and elsewhere?
“Naomi did not appear to understand the need for doing even the most cursory research for writing an opinion piece, as she explained in her response to critics,” McMillen said by email.
She said the final straw was Riley’s ”insistence that she didn’t have to do anything to support her claim, other than look at the titles.”
Riley’s post was a reaction to a recent Chronicle story that profiled promising scholars in Black Studies programs.
“What a collection of left-wing victimization claptrap,” Riley wrote of their dissertation topics. “The best that can be said of these topics is that they’re so irrelevant no one will ever look at them.”
Riley later responded to her critics, many of whom had objected to the fact that she criticized Black Studies as a whole based on her having read a few dissertation titles and topics and not any of the actual papers. She admitted to not reading the dissertations for her blog post, and defended that fact.
“It would never have occurred to me to read the dissertations,” she told me. “The Chronicle published a front page piece about these exciting new scholars in Black studies and … I wrote my post based on the lengthy descriptions of their topics and their responses to questions that the reporter asked. I do do reporting regularly, but my role as a blogger was not to go do reporting myself.”
McMillen told me she now objects to Riley’s approach, even though she initially defended the blog post.
“She was dismissing an entire discipline based on the titles and short summaries of three dissertations,” McMillen said. “The length and format of a piece do not negate the responsibility of the writer to offer informed opinion. Criticism of any discipline, including black studies, is legitimate, as long as it’s not sloppy, overgeneralized, and badly argued.”
She did not have to read dissertations before writing this blog post — in fact she couldn’t, since they are still in progress. But she could have done other things. As I said, we are open to publishing critiques of black studies that have more evidence to them than citing dissertation titles.
Riley said posts for the Chronicle blog in question are published first and later read by editors. Her editor read the controversial post and told her it was fine, she said.
“He said they looked at [the] post when it first when up and it included no ad hominem attacks and nothing libelous in it — I think that was the word he used — and so they decided to leave it up,” she said.
But the publication eventually changed its mind. I asked McMillen if this incident would lead the Chronicle to change the way it would handle posts on the Brainstorm blog.
“Yes,” she said “We are reviewing our policies for all blogs, talking to editors about best practices, and strengthening our blogging guidelines.”