The removal of Naomi Shaefer Riley from the blogging staff of the Chronicle of Higher Education has been widely circulated in the cybersphere and the press, including Riley's own account in the Wall Street Journal and many of our own contributors at Minding the Campus. All of them understand the psycho-political dynamics behind the whole affair, but people unfamiliar with the social climate of higher education may not understand how Riley could have provoked such a harsh and voluminous reaction from the academic community, albeit given her provocative post.
It happened for two reasons. One, Riley's target is one of the more insecure units on campus. Black Studies developed in the wake of post-Civil Rights events such as the assassination of Martin Luther King, student demands for more socially-relevant courses, and the arrival of African American students to more and more colleges. Those circumstances have subsided, though, and as more African American content has entered into English, History, and other fields, people have questioned whether Black Studies should exist as a separate field.
Added to that, the long history of slavery and Jim Crow included a supremacist disregard for African American culture and thought. The memory still weighs heavily upon Black Studies, which alleges that it still has to fight for legitimacy and respect. As an African American Studies professor at Northwestern University put it in the Chronicle, citing a conference entitled "A Beautiful Struggle: Transformative Black Studies in Shifting Political Landscapes," the title "represents perfectly what black studies is, a struggle in its relationship with the academy for legitimacy and to highlight the histories of people who've navigated a racialized society." When Riley called for the end Black Studies, then, she entered a tense situation that Black Studies has occupied for decades. Commenters on the Chronicle site and signers of the anti-Riley petition may have surprised her, but feelings of resentment and disrespect have long simmered.
The insecurity of Black Studies, however, is only one expression of a deeper condition prevailing in several campus locales, particularly in departments that have no external measure of value. In the physical and biological sciences, researchers produce goods of tangible benefit--a cure for disease, a new technology--and they garner support in the form of foundation awards and Federal funding. Their work meets an objective standard. But in the "softer" fields of the humanities and less-empirical social sciences, value comes down to a human yardstick. You are not judged on how much money you bring in, how many students you teach, or how much they learn. You are judged by what a few people say about you. When you're in graduate school, success depends on whether a couple of faculty advisors approve your dissertation. You get a job because a hiring committee of four people liked you better than others they interviewed. Your manuscript gets accepted for publication because the editor sent it out to two experts in the field who approved it. At each stage, the outcome is decisive, often either a golden future or unemployment.
The process makes for a paranoid atmosphere. People fret over what others think, endlessly pondering the spoken and unspoken opinions of colleagues. Does so-and-so like me? What will he do when he becomes department chairman? People become thin-skinned and overreact to criticism. Cliques and conformity and gossip set in, and different factions learn to guard themselves and their turf cannily and fiercely.
Riley comes from the less nervous and more confrontational world of opinion journalism, where sallies such as her blog post are met with counter-sallies, not calls for removal. Academia works the other way, though, and if you add a racial angle to it, tensions rise to critical levels.
The great misfortune here isn't one person's standing, but the intellectual climate of the campus. Instead of speaking their minds, entertaining contrary opinions, and maintaining a vigorous marketplace of ideas and inquiries, people adhere to current pieties, monitor the prevailing winds, and balance their fear of colleagues with wrath and contempt for outsiders.