Bad Faith: Naomi Schaefer Riley and the War on Public Education

If you aren’t familiar with Naomi Schaefer Riley’s hit job on PhD students in African American Studies, here are the relevant documents:

  • Riley’s original post, entitled “The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations,” was published in the “Brainstorm” blog of the respected Chronicle of Higher Education.
  • She responded to the firestorm of criticism in this post–in which, as multiple commentators have noted, she defended her original post (subtitled with the command to “just read the dissertations”) by blithely admitting that she had NOT read any of the dissertations she mocked.
  • It is not hard to recognize the racism in Riley’s attack on African American graduate students and this response does so angrily and beautifully.
  • The PhD students she attacked by name released this statement, which is also a must-read (and the source for the phrase “hit job” which is right on).
  • My friend Ted Gideonse published this response, in which he demonstrates how Riley’s post violates the standards of academic scholarship that all college teachers require of our undergraduate students.
  • Riley’s attack, as all of the responses point out, was abetted by the Chronicle and, somewhat belatedly, the Chronicle fired her and issued an apology (of sorts).
  • Of course, Riley has responded to her firing (in the pages of, surprise, a Rupert Murdoch paper) by decrying the “academic mob” (I don’t see any reason to link to this last piece–you already know what it says).  UPDATE: In the interest of being a responsible critic, I link to it here.

So what could I possibly add to this discussion? Beyond adding yet another voice to the public denunciation of Riley and the Chronicle, I want to call attention to the bad faith that motivated Riley’s vile performance. While Riley’s racism and the Chronicle‘s negligence are indeed the most important things here, I think we also have to consider what Riley was hoping to accomplish with her post.  And I think this question will become more important as we consider how to deal with the conservative backlash around her firing.

The first thing I want to suggest is that Naomi Schaefer Riley was never really working for the Chronicle. She was writing for the Chronicle on occasion, of course, and being paid for it. But she was also very obviously doing so from a position within the set of overlapping foundations, institutes, editorial boards, and “think tanks” that constitute American neoconservativism. In Ted’s piece, he begins to trace Riley’s affiliations within the incestuous organization of American conservatism, pointing out Riley’s connections to the Institute for American Values, the Phillips Foundation, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, and the Wall Street Journal. If you wanted to, you could use this tool to take this analysis deeper into the vast web of conservative foundation funding. Or, you could read this piece that identifies the primary conservative foundations that are bankrolling the attack on “liberal professors”–foundations that are also bankrolling, perhaps not surprisingly, the Institute for American Values. But I’m not sure we need to go to all that trouble in order to recognize that Riley is more accountable to the Castle Rock Foundation and the Scaife Foundation and the Bradley Foundation than to the Chronicle or to the values of responsible scholarship.  She may have been writing for the Chronicle, but she is more or less a paid political operative for Big Conservatism.

And what has Big Conservatism been up to lately? As Sara Robinson notes in this piece, a subset of conservative talking points are starting to cluster around public higher education. Robinson focuses on Rick Santorum’s laughable assertion that the UC system no longer teaches American history–an assertion that, at the time, we all laughed at on Facebook and then gleefully refuted with almost no effort. But Robinson was not amused:

I’m a native-born speaker of right-wing code. And what I heard in Santorum’s ramble was, frankly, hair-raising. To my ears, it was a very loud and clear tip-off that conservatives are gearing up an all-out frontal assault on funding for America’s public universities.

Robinson’s point is that Santorum’s statement wasn’t an isolated gaffe, but rather a sign of the beginning of “the War on Public Universities.”  As she makes clear, conservatives are organized.  When they start talking about something, it’s not by accident.

I think we have to read Riley’s post in the same context.  As an operative of the Conservative Establishment, Riley has her talking points and she’s following them.  Her piece is part of a larger, coordinated attack on universities and their funding.  Note the telling parenthetical in her second post: “the people whom we expect to offer undergraduates a broad liberal-arts education (in return for billions of dollars from parents and taxpayers) never get trained to do so.”  The problem here isn’t just that African American studies programs are doing work that Riley finds trivial, but that these programs (and their ilk) are receiving “billions of dollars” to do so.  Riley’s attack on higher education is repugnantly racialized (in a way that we probably haven’t seen since the attacks on affirmative action in the 1990s), but I want to suggest that the ultimate goal here is to stop taxpayers (read: rich people) from having to fund public education.  (That the direct targets of Riley’s attack are graduate students at a private university doesn’t matter much; many students, professors, and research programs at private universities are funded with public money.)

This brings me to the second point I want to consider.  Who was Riley’s intended audience?  Did she really expect to convince a meaningful number of readers of the Chronicle that African American Studies is without merit?  Does she have any idea who reads the Chronicle?  It’s not unreasonable to posit that most of the Chronicle‘s readers are both left-leaning and unimpressed by “arguments” that consist mainly of making fun of esoteric dissertation titles.  It’s not, after all, Sarah Palin Magazine.  So why didn’t she find a publication with a more congenial readership?

I want to suggest that the readers of the Chronicle are almost entirely irrelevant to Riley’s purposes.  Her post was not written for us.  That it pissed us off is, more-or-less, gravy.  Rather, Riley wrote her post to provide raw material for conservative pundits and editorialists, state legislators, and wealthy university trustees–the people who are publicly leading the charge to defund higher education.  Riley’s piece wasn’t written to be read as much as it was written to be used.  And a piece in a respected, serious publication like the Chronicle is really useful.  Publishing an essay in the Chronicle is legitimizing, in a way that publishing the same essay in the National Review is not.  In National Review, a call to defund African American Studies looks predictably reactionary; in the Chronicle, the same call looks like a topic that’s worthy of debate.  Even as I write this sentence, I have no doubt that, using Riley’s post as an impetus, hack editorialists are working up their outrage, state senators are planning hearings, and trustees are calling university presidents to demand reports on African American Studies.

I don’t want to give the impression here that I’m at all sympathetic to the Chronicle for being “used.”  They knew what they were getting into when they hired Riley.  Let’s be frank: she wasn’t hired because of her academic credentials.  Look at the list of contributors to “Brainstorm.”  Every one of them has an advanced degree and all of them teach at respected universities; many of them are top scholars in their fields.  I don’t want to denigrate Naomi Schaefer Riley’s AB magna cum laude from Harvard, but that degree doesn’t usually grant you a spot at a table with Todd Gitlin and Carl Elliott (trust me).  The Chronicle didn’t hire Riley because of her academic experience or expertise; they hired her because she’s a conservative who is willing to say controversial things.  And this is probably a good business decision: if you want to drive traffic to your blog, it makes sense to hire a conservative troll.  But you don’t get to act surprised when the conservative troll starts acting like one–especially when you give her full editorial authority over all of her posts.

While I have suggested that Riley’s post is very intentionally part of a larger, coordinated assault by conservatives on public education, that doesn’t mean she played her part flawlessly.  Indeed, her argument was so shoddy that it ended up getting her fired.  I don’t think this was part of the plan.  I suspect that Riley is of more use to her employers as a writer at the Chronicle than as yet another blogger at Redstate.com.

However, this doesn’t mean that Riley and her cheerleaders (including her husband, who just happens to be a member of the Wall Street Journal‘s editorial board) will pass up the opportunity to make her firing into an object lesson about the academy’s intolerance of dissent.  This is where we need to resist the attempts to reframe this controversy as a question of academic freedom.  Naomi Schaefer Riley is not a maverick scholar with unpopular opinions.  She is someone who is paid by corporations and rich conservatives to help policy-makers defund and dismantle higher education.  And there is no reason that the Chronicle should support that.

4 thoughts on “Bad Faith: Naomi Schaefer Riley and the War on Public Education

  1. I find it especially telling that in the WSJ plea for pity, she has apparently learned– or remembered– how to read and cite supporting literature. A quick skim shows me at least three other people quoted there!

    Given that if she’d learned her lesson from the Chronicle debacle, she would not have written what she did in the Journal, the only conclusion I can come to is that she feels that the WSJ audience merits citing sources, to make her seem authoritative herself. The Chronicle? Not so much.

    It does seem like a massive troll-job to me, though that doesn’t make me feel bad for wanting the Chronicle to get rid of her. “Don’t feed the trolls” is a ridiculous reason to keep someone on your payroll or even your masthead.

  2. Actually the WSJ piece seems to round out your argument – or her campaign as you compellingly argue. She discusses her own cred as the author of a book, and reports on the events to the righties who might not have paid close enough attention to the events transpiring among the thinking and chattering classes. It’s a field report from a triumphant troll who managed to rattle the cages and make the liberals bear their radical teeth.

    • Nice reading. I really should have done more with her WSJ piece in my piece. And I love the phrase “field report from a triumphant troll.”

  3. Pingback: Friday! « Gerry Canavan

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