The Case of The Chronicle of Higher Education

I had about as much intention of rehashing this as I ever have any intention of buying generic breakfast cereal. But unlike King Vitamin some things beg to be reconsidered.

After a rather unseemly lack of professional judgement led the Chronicle of Higher Education to defend Naomi Schaefer Riley’s attack on black studies, in general, and the dissertations of three doctoral students in particular, I started a little petition.

In said petition and the blog post that accompanied my reasons for starting it, I was always very clear about my critique. I did not then, nor do I now, care if NSR is racist. Her personal beliefs about race are irrelevant to me and to my criticism.

I always cared about the professional ethics of a publication who professes to represent higher education.

Doctoral students are referred to CHE when it is time to enter the job market.We’re told to comb the want ads — online and in print — for an idea of hiring trends. In many ways, CHE is the dominant personnel filtering mechanism in a field that has very few cohesive forces. Small or large, liberal or conservative, private or public — almost all colleges and universities refer to CHE as the dominant resource on hiring and employment in our professional sector.

So, belittling doctoral students in the pages of CHE, be they virtual or “real”, is not at all like attacking someone on the Letters to the Editor page of your hometown newspaper.

It is more akin to publishing your most recent employment review in your company’s newsletter.

Most companies don’t allow such things to happen. Most industry publications don’t allow such things to happen. They have good reasons. Seeing your employment review in your company newsletter or professional trade magazine elevates all of your manager’s concerns about you to a whole new level. His gripes about you taking smoke breaks since he stopped smoking or her issues with your refusal to wear pantyhose become more fixed, permanent, and potentially damaging when they are endorsed, however implicitly, by a publication that represents your employer.

I did not think the young scholars in question deserved such ungrounded, mean-spirited, poorly articulated attacks on their work.

In academia we’re accustomed to criticism. Part of our social capital is in soliciting such criticism by submitting our articles to journals where the entire point of peer review is to be critical.

But in peer review there are rules.

CHE, it appears, had no such rules of engagement.

So, I asked them — professionally and politely, if firmly — to reconsider their position on endorsing NSR.

In the interim CHE editors attacked my integrity within public online spaces.

Media outlets picked up NSR’s story and has, so far, refused the mantle of balanced reporting in not asking me or the doctoral students attacked or anyone else involved for comment.

All of that could have gone without discussion were it not for today’s reporting from Fishbowl DC. I’ll ignore the untrue assertion that I ever charged NSR with racism alone for now to focus on how NSR characterizes her relationship with CHE editors to Fishbowl:

It seems NSR is still miffed about her dismissal. So she’s released internal emails documenting the supportive advice she received from CHE editors during this process.

And, forgive me, but I’m more than a little miffed myself.

They clearly show an awareness of my critiques. In fact, the CHE editors direct NSR to my blog:

On May 2, 2012, at 11:44 PM, Alex Kafka wrote:

Hi, Naomi. Pls. see and google the Purdue petition etc. I guess I’d urge you, predictably enough, to write a calm, respectful, substantive response to some or all of this. I think we’ll also see if the dissertation authors want to respond in a guest post. Let’s touch base by phone tomorrow, if that’s OK. I’ll be working from home in the a.m., so if you have a few minutes, could you call my cell, BLANK? Thanks.


She responds with text she later cuts and pastes for her published rebuttal. In said text she willfully refuses to engage a single argument I put forth. Instead she chooses to characterize the thematic content of blog commenters as handy bullet points which, I can only surmise, are symbolic representations of rhetorical straw-men.

To: Alex Kafka
Subject: Re: Critiques of your post

Alex, I will give you a call in the morning. I am happy to hear you out on the subject but I am not sure that this disagreement is substantive at all. The comments seem to boil down to this:

  • I am picking on people because they are black (and I am a racist)
  • I am picking on people even though I don’t have a phd
  • I am picking on people who are too young and inexperienced to defend themselves
  • I am picking on people even though I haven’t read their entire dissertations

All I can say is that if these dissertations were all written by old white men I would still think they were irrelevant and unnecessarily partisan. I have not called people names. Over the years I have critiqued dozens of dissertation and other research topics by academics. There is a long list of disciplines that I would happily get rid of, as I’m sure you know.

And how do the CHE editors respond to her casual circumvention of the substantive debate they claim to want?

They sympathize with her arguments.

From: Alex Kafka
Date: May 3, 2012 12:03:10 AM EDT
To: Naomi Riley
Subject: RE: Critiques of your post

Points well taken. I think it’s that last one that might be bugging them the most. But yeah, let’s talk. Even if it were a post saying just what you do below, boiling things down, then responding, even tersely, to each point, that would at least indicate that you’ve heard them.

OK. Gotta sleep now. Just ate too much at a nice birthday dinner for my dad’s 91st (!). You can see some pix of it, him, and him and my mom here:

We’ll talk tomorrow. G’night.


In the process CHE becomes a perfect case study for what I call the institutional logic of racism. It works, by the way, for hetereonormativity, CIS privilege, able-bodied privilege, etc.

It is an understanding that CHE is, before it is the paper of academe, an institutional actor in an institutional field undergoing serious structural change.

There are many ways to handle this kind of seismic organizational reconfiguration. There are entire fields of study devoted to those patterns of behavior. But few of them offer any discourse on the dark elephant in the room: when your institutional field operates within a raicalized social context, race will always be an issue.

NSR has said that the CHE knew exactly what they were getting when they hired her. I’m inclined to agree with her. It would be hard for them to not know her ideology or style of debate.

That they invited her to join their staff and not one of the many conservative thinker, writers, or public intellectuals who offer substantive debate on issues of race, class, education, and social history is indicative of an organization who made a choice about their response to the challenges it faces.

CHE chose to trade in the currency of racialized rhetoric. It’s cheap currency in the U.S. but its expensive as hell to spend.

And that’s what CHE learned when it chose poorly in its initial defense of NSR. It learned that there are still some dark, chaotic places that reasonable people don’t want to tread.

What the emails between CHE editors and NSR show is that the editors at CHE aren’t such reasonable people.

There’s a reason NSR felt so comfortable attacking private citizens from a powerful perch. There’s a reason that, despite her professed distaste for many other disciplines, she chose to respond to an article on black studies. There’s a reason that despite the article in question citing several tenured professors of black studies NSR chose to critique doctoral students. I’m even beginning to think that there’s a reason why, in her initial post, she apologizes for “being late” in responding to said article (was she always supposed to respond to it?). There’s a reason she double-downed and upped the snark and rancor in her follow-up post. CHE editors had her back. Until they didn’t.

And that leaves us here with the same questions I started this journey with. Is this who we are in academia? Is this how we engage people we disagree with? Are we so lacking in creative imaginings of alternative publishing models that we passively accept the grotesque flailing about of an organization that has nothing left to sell but cheap seats to  “Survivor: The Racist Season?”

I received my fair share of white power hate mail and a few scholars and colleagues no longer return my calls or emails. But for the most part almost everyone who reached out to me after I started the petition shared my concern about the coarseness and lack of civility in academic discourse. From across the ideological spectrum people thought we could do better.

I still do.

So, after telling the Chronicle that they should be ashamed of themselves and ignoring NSR altogether (kinda like how she ignores  both me and the substance of my criticism), I’m ready to talk about the real issues here. Let’s challenge power, not the pawns.

If you’d like to have a conversation about how scholars, administrators, and other invested parties can reimagine academic publishing models so that real currency and not cheap racist/sexist/CIS/ableist currency is being exchanged, drop me a line.

I’m thinking a tweet-up.

Or a G+ chat.

Or real actual face-to-face interaction.

But I’m definitely thinking there’s something better than the model and institutional logic the Chronicle of Higher Education is presenting us with.

If you’re thinking similarly consider asking your library why they still subscribe.

Consider asking your search committees to reconsider where they publish job ads.

Consider asking your colleagues who publish in CHE to think about that choice.

Or, do nothing at all.

But, forgive me if I go in another direction.

4 thoughts on “The Case of The Chronicle of Higher Education

  1. I am shocked and dismayed by your unprovoked and groundless attacks on King Vitamin, one of the most marginalized and powerless of breakfast cereals. I call on you to publish an immediate retraction. Further, I call for a serious and engaged dialogue about the embedded systems of power that authorize certain cereals as “yummy” while degrading others as “nasty.” I have a petition …

    (Too soon?)

    Seriously, though–that stuff is like chewing through airplane wreckage, huh? The roof of my mouth always needs like two weeks to recover.

    Also, yes to everything you said.

  2. i think it’s interesting that the public conversation is *still* about naomi schaefer riley (her firing, etc), and *not* about the context of the situation (that the chronicle gave her a platform).

    i also find it really disheartening that in the internal emails, naomi’s supervisor further reduces the discussion to a single bullet point. and while i DO think that bullet point is legitimate and worth discussing … as someone from english studies, the text, after all, is preeminent and where we argue from–not our silly musings of the title or cover of the book … this reductionism is disappointing at best, infuriating at worst. what i find disturbing is how ignorant the chronicle appears to be of acadmic culture and norms. this is not how we conduct ourselves … we carefully and thoughtfully read and interpret texts. i do not see either naomi or her supervisor carefully or thoughtfully reading your blog post.

    and fyi, i don’t have a phd either, but as someone who works in academia and with academics on a regular basis, i’ve learned the culture and the respect of the community, doctoral degree or not.

  3. The Chronicle told its bloggers (in a document not quoted here) they could pretty much vomit onto the page. Only later did the editors decide that they wanted to adhere to the same kind of standards found on official editorial pages. But then they only punished one person for one post. Indeed, the real blame here should be on the Chronicle — not because they gave Riley a platform, but because they apparently had no plan and not much of an idea of what they were doing or how to fix things once they went wrong.

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