the road not taken

If you’re part of the editorial leadership at the Chronicle of Higher Education, you have a problem. You know that the American academy regularly comes under fire from conservatives who believe that universities are places where conservatism is mocked, traditional values assaulted, and students crassly indoctrinated into left-liberalism. Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia — no righty he — has noted in his own discipline a “statistically impossible lack of diversity” in political affiliation. So what do you do?

Well, here’s one thing: you hire as a blogger a well-known and very serious critic of the academic enterprise, Naomi Schaefer Riley. This demonstrates that you’re not afraid of harsh criticism, that you’re modeling a university culture that’s open to widely varying points of view. You know that much of what your audience holds dear will get treated pretty roughly at times, but that’s a price you’re willing to pay to demonstrate an open mind and open ears.

But then Riley writes a blog post that thousands of your readers think rather too rough, and an unapologetic follow-up. You perceive that the angry people come from your core readership. These times are not kind to the balance sheet of many periodicals, and the Chronicle isn’t immune to the general affliction — especially now that a serious rival has emerged. To keep Riley on will court further outrage in the form of boycotts and canceled subscriptions, and those consequences will be hard to face. So you can her.

That’s the story to this point.

It’s a tough situation with no clear win, but did you do the least bad thing you could have done? In the short term, maybe so. You could have tried editing — i.e., let’s admit it, policing — your bloggers more rigorously, which would mean not singling out one offender, but trying to hold everyone to certain standards of civility. But even assuming that your bloggers would consent to be edited, you don’t have the staff for that. So given the petitions and the likelihood of canceled subscriptions… .

But that’s thinking in the short term. Perhaps in the long term there’s something to be gained by keeping an advocatus diaboli around. By firing Riley you’ve pacified your base, but you’ve also created a mini-martyr and have re-solidified the liberal-indoctrination narrative. Might there not have been some virtue in writing an editorial on the necessity of tolerating a wide variety of views within the discourse about the academy — even views that most of your readers find offensive? Might you not have encouraged further responses to Riley, on the principle that the best remedy to bad speech is more and better speech? Might you not have allowed the other Brainstorm bloggers to handle whatever criticism seemed to them necessary? By taking such action, and explaining it carefully and (if necessary) repeatedly, you might have been able to create, admittedly only over the long term, a better environment for debate about the academy. I can understand why you didn’t, but I feel that the road not taken was probably the better road.