Slouching into the Past: A Marxist Read on the Riley Kerfuffle

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In response to “Black Studies: ‘Swaggering into the Future,’” Naomi Schaefer Riley penned “The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations.” To put it mildly, her piece generated no small amount of controversy, ending (or beginning) with her dismissal from The Chronicle of Higher Education’s blog Brainstorm. Both in print and online Ms. Riley tells her side of the story in the Wall Street Journal. She ends her remarks with the following:

My longtime familiarity with the absurdities of higher education did not, I confess, prepare me for this most absurd of results. The content of my post, after all, is hardly shocking; the same thing could have been written 30 years ago. And perhaps that’s the most depressing part of all this. Despite the real social and economic advancement that has been made by blacks in this country, the American faculty is still stuck in the 1960s.

Consider the following modest proposal: a Marxist read on the Riley kerfuffle. It’s a return to the 1960s, but it’s not about race. It’s about economics.

Here’s the argument: Criticizing a single tenured academic does not threaten that academic’s income nor the income of his colleagues. If someone is criticized, then that could be fantastic for the discipline, and for that academic, too (file the criticism under to power, speaking truth). However, if the entire discipline is criticized, then, from an economic point of view, professors have a problem, for at least two reasons.

First, tenured professors in a department cannot lose their jobs when they face the kind of public criticism that Ms. Riley offered. But they can all lose their jobs, at some (maybe most?) universities, if their entire department is eliminated. Criticizing one professor just highlights the controversial, thought-provoking, etc., appeal of that professor. But criticizing an entire discipline is genuinely threatening. If the entire discipline is discarded, then each and every professor in the department that teaches that subject can be discarded, too. As Peter Eckel writes in his Changing Course: Making the Hard Decisions to Eliminate Academic Programs,

One of the more significant cost-saving trade-offs is between retaining tenured faculty and reaching financial goals through salary savings… . Many faculty contracts stipulate that faculty can be released upon the dissolution of their academic departments or when the institution is under financial duress… . Releasing tenured faculty who have significant salaries most likely will generate immediate and larger savings (153).

Though Eckel himself writes that “it is probably wise to retain tenured faculty,” the threat remains. The original “Black Studies” article reveals, amidst the swaggering, a genuine economic concern.

They express confidence in the intellectual value of their field, despite budget cuts that threaten some programs, attacks on the value of humanities departments more broadly, a brutal academic job market, and a reluctance by society as a whole to confront the residual effects of racial discrimination.

Notice that the first three concerns are economic (if one takes “attacks on the value of” in economic terms). It’s only the last one that is discipline specific. So I think that Ms. Riley would still be blogging for Brainstorm if she had criticized a single professor, or even a handful. Conversely, there would have been considerable upheaval if she had chosen any other academic discipline in its entirety, though, depending upon the discipline, I doubt she would have been dismissed from Brainstorm.

On to my second point: Academics have a concern for the public perception of their discipline in part because public perception influences how a discipline is viewed inside university walls. The Chronicle is followed by academics, but it is regularly read by … administrators. And administrators are the ones who are brainstorming (to use the word) about necessary cost savings. Should they eliminate departments (and all the professors therein) or should they try to achieve unpopular and disputed penny-pinching measures? Should they make class sizes larger or promote online classes? Ms. Riley, in criticizing an entire discipline, offered administrators some low-hanging fruit. (If The Chronicle doesn’t think that this discipline is worth the money … .) No one wants a provost to read, “The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating English Literature? Just Read the Dissertations,” etc.

This concern is recognized, at least in part, by Ms. Riley’s critics. Over at the Center for the American Progress Eric Alterman offers his thoughts on the whole affair. He’s not a fan of Ms. Riley’s piece. “Indeed,” he writes, “the real problem with Riley’s post was not that it was racist or hateful but that it was lazy and stupid.” Nevertheless, he recognizes that

There would appear to be some nervousness among some scholars about the worthiness of black studies as a topic separate from more traditional studies—just as there is for Latino studies, women’s studies, Asian American studies, queer studies—and at least some of the emotionalism of the reaction might be attributable to that.

But what’s the “worthiness” of a discipline? Is it a question of honor and respect, financial security, or both? I don’t think it’s a question of honor and respect, because he speaks so poorly of conservatives that I cannot imagine that he would want their honor and respect, or would want black studies to have their honor and respect. So it must then be economics.

Or at least that’s what Marx would say.