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In higher ed, civility is for liberals only
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You may recall the kerfuffle a couple of weeks back involving The Chronicle of Higher Education’s decision to fire blogger Naomi Schaefer Riley for her criticism of black-studies programs. Many critics insisted it wasn’t about her point of view but her harsh language. Indeed, Chronicle editor Liz McMillen felt compelled to apologize for Riley, writing, “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.”
Well, what does the record suggest? Was Riley targeted for her views, or was her tone really out of bounds? My research assistant Taryn Hochleitner and I went to the record, checking out all Chronicle articles and blog posts that mentioned “gender studies,” “ethnic studies,” or “black studies” between April 1, 2011, and May 1, 2012 (thus not including the Riley-related back-and-forth). Of the 34 articles and blog posts in question, half used these phrases only incidentally. Of the remaining 17, eight were enthusiastic, four critical, and five balanced. When we narrowed the criteria to examine only the Chronicle articles tagged as “reporting” (and not blogs), the results were even more one-sided. There were 24 relevant articles. Of the twelve that focused on these topics, seven were generally positive and none were critical. So, not much evidence of that “journalistic standard” called even-handedness.
We then shifted gears and examined discussion of conservative individuals and institutions. It turns out that insult-laced attacks on conservative individuals and ideas are something like a monthly occurrence. Case in point: regular Chronicle blogger Laurie Essig. An assistant professor of sociology and women’s and gender studies at Middlebury College and author of American Plastic: Boob Jobs, Credit Cards, and Our Quest for Perfection, Essig seems quite comfortable venomously attacking conservatives under The Chronicle’s masthead, and the paper seems happy to have her do so. Notably, this state of affairs doesn’t seem to have roused any concerns among those who so pilloried Riley.
For instance, in May 2011, Essig attacked Satoshi Kanazawa, evolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics. She labeled Kanzawa’s research “ridiculously racist, unscientific, and just plain UGLY” before declaring that “making pseudoscientific claims in the service of racism is just plain ugly.” In January, she wrote: “The Grand Ol’ Party is now the party of white anger. Large numbers of young, poor whites are flocking to the GOP [because] . . . they blame blacks or Mexicans or even gays.” That same month she explained that Republicans “are attempting to mobilize white fear into a voting block.” She explained that the GOP’s “familiar strategy” is to get “straight people to vote out of fear of ‘the gay agenda’ and white people to vote because ‘black people are stealing our tax dollars’ or [are] just plain ‘scary.’” In February, she wrote of my AEI colleague Charles Murray that he “has never held an academic job” and is “famous for . . . his claim that intelligence has a race (and it ain’t black).” Anyway, you get the idea.
Some critics suggested that it was somehow unfair for Riley to critique the work of doctoral students (you know, those fragile twenty- and thirtysomethings). In that light, it’s worth noting how The Chronicle sets forth the views of one of those students, Northwestern University’s La TaSha Levy:
Ms. Levy’s dissertation argues that conservatives like Thomas Sowell, Clarence Thomas, John McWhorter, and others have “played one of the most-significant roles in the assault on the civil-rights legacy that benefited them.” Ms. Levy says that with patronage from what she calls white conservative think tanks like the Manhattan Institute and the Heritage Foundation, black conservatives are now being “used to legitimize a larger discourse around racial progress that delegitimizes civil-rights policies.”
So, in the course of making a political argument, Levy attacked, by name, Thomas Sowell, Clarence Thomas, and John McWhorter. She felt free to question the motives of conservative institutions and individuals — and for this work, The Chronicle singled her out for acclaim as a member of the “new generation” of black-studies Ph.D.s. And yet critics thought it a violation of civil decorum for Riley to respond?
Look, it’s a free country. If The Chronicle wants to pen fawning stories about black studies or let Essig use its masthead to spew sophomoric invective, so be it. What’s telling, though, is how little concern violations of “journalistic standards and civil tone” command when they’re aimed at conservatives.
Riley was vilified (and fired) for responding to the work of Levy and her colleagues. “Some of the dissertations being offered by the best and the brightest of black-studies graduate students” are “a collection of left-wing victimization claptrap,” she wrote. “The best that can be said of these topics is that they’re so irrelevant no one will ever look at them.”
I can only scratch my head. Compared with Essig’s vitriol, Riley’s barbs look positively quaint. Yet editor McMillen, by all appearances, remains happy to host Essig. At The Chronicle of Higher Education, “journalistic standards” are of the double kind. And incivility is a firing offense — unless you’re criticizing a conservative, in which case nasty smears are all the rage.
Frederick M. Hess is director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
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