Unethical Quote of the Week: “Chronicle of Higher Education” Editor Liz McMillen

A Note to Readers: When we published Naomi Schaefer Riley’s blog posting on Brainstorm last week (“The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations”), 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. We’ve heard you, and we have taken to heart what you said. We now agree that Ms. Riley’s blog posting did not meet The Chronicle’s basic editorial standards for reporting and fairness in opinion articles. As a result, we have asked Ms. Riley to leave the Brainstorm blog. Since Brainstorm was created five years ago, we have sought out bloggers representing a range of intellectual and political views, and we have allowed them broad freedom in topics and approach.  As part of that freedom, Brainstorm writers were able to post independently; Ms. Riley’s post was not reviewed until after it was posted. I realize we have made mistakes. We will thoroughly review our editorial practices on Brainstorm and other blogs and strengthen our guidelines for bloggers. In addition, my Editor’s Note last week inviting you to debate the posting also seemed to elevate it to the level of informed opinion, which it was not. I also realize that, as the controversy unfolded last week, our response on Twitter did not accurately convey The Chronicle’s message. I sincerely apologize for the distress these incidents have caused our readers and appreciate that so many of you have made your sentiments known to us. One theme many of you have sounded is that you felt betrayed by what we published; 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.
You told us we can do better, and we agree.”

Liz McMillen, editor of the highly respected Chronicle of Higher Education, tossing away the integrity of her publication in a complete and cowardly capitulation to political correctness and enforced academic dogma, while trashing the principle of academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas which her publication is supposed to champion.

The big ‘C’ stands for “chicken.” Or maybe “choke.”

Riley, the fired blogger, is a well-established iconoclast and critic of liberal arts institutions, which is undoubtedly why she was recruited as a blogger in the first place.  Her post was a reaction to an earlier Chronicle article about rising scholars in “black studies,” and she took to the the blog to point out that the summaries of their scholarly topics in that article’s sidebar showed what was wrong with the field, at least as it was currently taught.  She concluded,

“Seriously, folks, there are legitimate debates about the problems that plague the black community from high incarceration rates to low graduation rates to high out-of-wedlock birth rates. But it’s clear that they’re not happening in black-studies departments. If these young scholars are the future of the discipline, I think they can just as well leave their calendars at 1963 and let some legitimate scholars find solutions to the problems of blacks in America. Solutions that don’t begin and end with blame the white man.”

Whether one agrees with her opinion on black studies and the current scholars in the field or not, this is a legitimate, if provocative opinion. The tone of the blog post, contrary to editor McMillen’s note, is not uncivil but bloglike. The post is an informed opinion, because Riley was crystal-clear about what her post was based upon: the sidebar in the previous article and its collection of dissertation summaries. Many of the critical responses to Riley’s post accused her of racism; there is nothing whatsoever racist about her position, opinion, or manner of stating it, except to those whose definition of racism includes “challenging the intellectual rigor and political assumptions underlying black studies programs.”

One expects publications that pride themselves on promoting debate to stand behind authors who raise uncomfortable subjects, and not punish them. It is not as if McMillen read Ryan’s post and instantly determined, based on actual editorial standards, that it was unprofessional, uncivil, and not fit for the publication’s blog. No, it was only after Ryan was savaged by attacks on the article, in the comments to the blog, on Twitter, and in an online petition, that McMillen decided that she had made “a mistake.” The mistake was, obviously, not towing the line of liberal cant, kowtowing to the racial spoils lobby, and making sure that all contributors to her publication understood that there were some biases that were not to be challenged, ever.

This statement in her “note”–-“I sincerely apologize for the distress these incidents have caused our readers and appreciate that so many of you have made your sentiments known to us. One theme many of you have sounded is that you felt betrayed by what we published; 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”—can stand among the most pathetic, gutless and despicable sentiments ever uttered or written by an editor, including those bowing the iron boot of a censorious totalitarian regime. Imagine—an opinion piece that causes readers distress, because it attacks their fondest conviction! Of course her readers welcome “healthy informed debate,” as long as it begins with acceptance of certain ideas that they refuse to consider might be wrong.

The betrayal of the readers of the Chronicle is in its craven failure to support and encourage opinions that run counter to its readers’ fondest assumptions.


Pointer: Poynter (!)

Facts: Weekly Standard

Sources: Chronicle of Higher Education

Graphic: Niagara U.

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at  jamproethics@verizon.net.


Filed under Education, Professions, Race, Research and Scholarship

15 responses to “Unethical Quote of the Week: “Chronicle of Higher Education” Editor Liz McMillen

  1. Good post. Here we are still stuck in the middle ages. Sorry to say but I think “black studies” is sort of a bone that whitey threw out as a salve for past injustices. It’s not the first example I’ve seen where group identity and therapy masquerades as education.

  2. I read the McMillen piece when it first came out, in part because a (very) liberal friend linked to it on Facebook, proclaiming “Victory!” I don’t share my friend’s enthusiasm, and I agree that the Chronicle’s response was craven if not indeed anti-intellectual.

    That said, the Naomi Schaefer Riley blog article which triggered the reader backlash was also a horrible piece of work. Don’t headline a blog essay “The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations” if you don’t, in fact, read the dissertations. (I’m assuming that, as a blogger rather a reporter, Riley wrote her own headlines—if not, the headline represents another failing by the Chronicle editors.) At least one of the dissertations Riley savages isn’t even complete yet; she couldn’t possibly have read it.

    What Riley did read was a brief summary in the Chronicle itself of works in progress. She has, really, precious little but her own prejudices on which to base her assumptions about the academic illegitimacy of the theses about which she so snarkily opines. She protests that as a journalist rather than an academic herself, “it is not my job to read entire dissertations before I write a 500-word piece about them.” Actually, it is her job to do so if she is going to claim implicitly that she has done so, especially if (as is the case) the overwhelming majority of her readers are indeed scholars. To do otherwise is lazy, unacademic (and unjournalistic), and unethical.

    Rare indeed is the dissertation that will be read by the general public: that isn’t their purpose. Mine, “The Neoclassical Impulse in Contemporary Irish Drama,” could probably be at least generally understood by a liberally-educated lay person, although few prospective readers would be interested in reading 300 pages on the subject. My colleague’s dissertation, “The Spectroscopic Effects of Intercalating Porphyrins into Layered Clays,” would baffle anyone but another chemist. That doesn’t make one better than the other. Neither does the fact that someone might disagree with my conclusions, but probably not with my friend’s.

    Riley, who presumes that anything that doesn’t interest her is not only irrelevant but illegitimate and partisan, is rightly called out for her intellectual sloppiness and smug indolence. The fact that the Chronicle editor over-reacted doesn’t change that.

    • I think the blog headline was sloppy and misleading. If it had said, “read the abstracts,” that would have been fair, and I think critics are making too much of the difference, which was apparent from what was written in the post. The abstracts did belong to the scholars heralded as “young guns,” and her characterization of them certainly comport with my impression of the emphasis in black studies, based on the statements and writings of the more prominent professors from that department at my alma mater. (Gender studies are even worse.)

      It was a brief blog post, not a scholarly critique. Writing a sloppy blog post is, unfortunately, an occupational hazard, and the remedy is to have readers like Rick Jones or tgt or Roger Stewart or Barry Deutsch rip you a new one and explain what’s sloppy about it. The tenor of the complaints was aimed at the opinion, not her method of supporting it. I personally believe that Departments centering on minority group grievances are traps for students, luring them into navel-gazing majors that will have them in Occupy Wall Street encampments, but I would never mount a campaign to make a journal fire some deluded blogger who held otherwise, even sloppily.

      Calling what McMillen did “an overreaction” is a bit mild—I think you got it about right at the outset: craven and anti-intellectual. Ryan’s lousy post at worst should have hurt Riley, and prompted a wave of counter-arguments along with a more nuanced rebuttal from her. Instead, a major professional publication sent notice that offending or non-conforming opinions were not welcome in a profession that has hardly made the case that it is beyond improvement. That’s significant and has long-term consequences, which is why, though Riley’s post was insignificant, the reaction to it was not.

      • As usual, we agree on substance and quibble around the edges.

        I agree that the majority of the protests were based on content rather than presentation. But while I strongly suspect that some of your analysis of what I refer to as Demographics Departments is on target, the critique Riley–not Ryan 🙂 –offers is the product of confirmation bias far more than of actual evidence.

        Moreover, what Riley did was to throw a bomb and then feign surprise that it exploded. Her response to the critics was worse than the original post.

        None of which changes the fact that the Chronicle screwed this one up big time.

        P.S. Is it unethical to misspell “unethical” in a blog title?

        • Not just unethical, but really stupid.

          Oh, you were talking about RILEY’S piece! Then I agree COMPLETELY. It’s RYAN’S post that I thought was fine and dandy.

        • I also think the criticism of her post is forced. She was launching a post based on another post extolling black studies. She took the descriptions in THAT story to say, in effect, “Christ! If this is the best the “young guns” can come up with, then Black Studies really is a lot of of tendentious crap!” For a blog post, I think that’s plenty. And while admitting to the likelihood of confirmation bias, come on…“So I Could Be Easeful”? Do I really have to read a dissertation using the pompous word “easeful” (Look! Spellcheck rejects it!) to know it’s hooey? Riley’s sarcastic reaction—“How could we overlook the nonwhite experience in “natural birth literature,” whatever the heck that is? It’s scandalous and clearly a sign that racism is alive and well in America, not to mention academia” is on point, I’d say, and if someone wants to make the case that there really is hidden racism in such trivia (why in the world would it matter what color a mother in child birth is?), then let them make it, rather than chasing of a critic.

          In short, “Can you believe these dissertation topics?” is a legitimate blog post.

          • deery

            I think “easeful” is not pompous, but rather a colloquial word. Which is why spellcheck rejects it. It shouldn’t matter what color the mother is (or the midwife), but when black maternal deaths, and black child mortality in birth are both above the white average, it may require some examination. It shouldn’t matter, but it does, so why not examine some historical records and see if they have any bearing? We don’t know what the author concludes, because it is a work on progress, but it is interesting that Riley immediately jumps to the author saying “racism!” when we have no evidence of that.

            And what if there was some evidence of racism? Does that immediately invalidate the findings? Many a woman in the South went to the doctor, and came out with a “Mississippi appendectomy” when it wasn’t called for. Does that past, even if it is no longer the case now, inform black women in their choices to go to the doctor, how often, and whether they rely on midwives? I don’t know, but I’m not sure why it is ludicrous for someone to explore that, and report their findings in dissertation form.

            • I like that argument! So make it, don’t ban the writer. I think Riley would answer that Black Studies encourages pointless research in any piece of minutia that hasn’t been divided up racially by researchers. OK. Make the case. Why no record of black puppeteers? Black auctioneers? Black contortionists? Riley thinks its silly, and so do I, but I know I could be convinced otherwise…though using “easeful’ in a title is no way to get me to read a scholarly work.

              • deery

                Well, the author can still write, just not under the banner of CHE. Her article was so lazy and irresponsible, especially when the subject matter was so inflammatory, it is little wonder that CHE forbid her from working under their name. Her follow-up was even worse. If you are going to troll, especially in your own blog post, have some firm ground to stand on. Not liking the title to a few works in progress as an excuse to dismiss an entire field of study is not firm footing, and would not pass muster with a grade school child.

                If you don’t like Black Studies, that’s fine, but giving out such weak reasons such as what she cited, it is little wonder that others went looking for other motivations.

                • Why is that topic inflammatory, any more than advocating the end of college football, or film? The whole problem regarding Black Studies has always been academic rigor, and I was around when most of the departments were established, when the justification was E-X-T-O-R-T-I-O-N, not to put too fine a point on it. And if you aren’t going to teach Black Studies, the major is less useful than Phys Ed.

                  It was a blog post! Blog posts aren’t supposed to be scholarly essays, except maybe on the Volokh Conspiracy. It is intended to launch argument, not a purge. The original article in CHE was the sloppy one, but it was a puff piece about black scholars, so it was “OK”.

                  • deery

                    I’m not sure how a profile of the newest crop of Ph.d holders in Black Studies at Northwestern can be lazy or inflammatory, just boring. I guess if it they got all the names or subject matter that each were writing about wrong, but no one is saying that this is the case. But yet, here we are, so apparently just mentiong “black” can drive some people, on both sides, into a frenzy.

                    Given the history of race in Ameica, there are very few people who don’t know that the subject is inflammatory, and will be examined in a way, that say, a takedown of the film department won’t. That’s the historical context we all live in. But even if she were to try to takedown the film department in the same way, it would still be lazy and sloppy. I get that it was an opinion piece, but a journalist is still required to have more substance than that. And CHE has no obligation to continue an association with someone who wrote such a poorly reasoned, lazy piece. Perhaps if she put more substance in her second post detailing her thought process she would still be writing under their name, but instead she just doubled-down on her stupidity, and thus had to go.

  3. philk57

    Mr. Marshall,

    I am glad that you wrote on this situation. I was tempted to send a link of this to you, but wanted to avoid being an internet gadfly.

    Way back in 1980 while in grad school, I was very fortunate to be in a department that valued true diversity. That is, diversity of opinion. They cared little about your race, but expended major effort to ensure that the department had a very wide range thought – they also made certain that the core courses were distributed amongst those with various belief systems, which often made for very engaging discussions during lecture periods.

    One of my favorite examples of this diversity in opinion was the Aggregate Income class being taught by an actual Marxist true believer (works great in theory don’t you know). Since this was, of course, prior to the spectacular failure of the Soviet communism experiment, we had some very vigorous debates regarding the design of various economic systems and had to defend our positions rationally. If everyone is on the same side, how can you test your beliefs? The answer, of course, is that you can’t. Furthermore, you don’t have a chance to learn how to defend your ideas beyond attacking the motives of your opponent.

    I read down through some of the comments to the post by N.S. Riley. The oppositional comments were pretty much all accusing her of racism or prejudice. Yes, they often started by pointing out that her post was based on abstract titles, but then went right to the big gun of racial prejudice. Maybe Naomi Riley IS a racist, but you sure couldn’t prove it with her blog post.


  4. deery

    She deserved to go. If Riley had indeed shown that the dissertations she cited were bad in some objective way, undersourced, badly written, titles bearing no relation to the body of work they purported to be about, then she might have a case. But all she did was look at the titles, and perhaps an extremely short summary of the work (some of which were still in progress). She dismisses the subject matters as unimportant and irrelevant, all without telling us “why?”. Why is black midwifery (and midwifery in general has captured the attention of many, many people these past few years) so anti-intellectual that as a subject it is not deserving of further study? Or black Republicans? Or historical racism in housing? Why should Black Studies only be limited to examining high incarceration rates, low graduation rates, and high out-of-wedlock birth rates to meet her approval? Perhaps it wasn’t that the CHE no longer wanted to be associated with an unorthodox thinker, perhaps it is merely that wished to avoid associating with a lazy one.

    • She told us why she thought they were garbage, and her reasoning was sound, as far as it went. In any event, it was an opinion. She doesn’t like black studies programs, on principle, in theory, and in substance. That is not only a valid opinion, but one worthy of debate. She was fired for the opinion, not her execution of it. Wrong. Obviously, I’d say.

      • deery

        Her reasoning was *not* sound. I think that was the whole point. If you are going to dismiss a whole field based on the works of a few dissertations-in-progress, you should at least read them, or even just skim them. But her logic, such as it was, was “Look, Black Studies sucks! And these dissertations suck! Because they are Black Studies! ” There just wasn’t any meat in that sandwich. And after she was called out for it, she tried to weasel out of it, by saying that few people actually read dissertations. But if your title includes the instruction to Read the Dissertations!, you have committed a big integrity fail if you in fact, have not read the dissertations. As it stands, she has absolutely no way of knowing whether the people she cited as useless will contribute to the body of human knowledge or not. She might be right. But as someone else stated on her comments thread, if she is right, it would be by accident rather than any diligence or research on her part. If you are going to throw a bomb, do it from a solid position, rather than one of ignorance.

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