The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Inept Crisis Response

UPDATE: Click here to read my interview with Liz McMillen, editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Earlier this afternoon, I received an email from Betsy Rothstein, the editor of the popular Fishbowl DC website. She asked me to comment on a recent incident involving The Chronicle of Higher Education and one of its bloggers.

Here’s the story: Last week, Naomi Schaefer Riley, a blogger for The Chronicle’s Brainstorm blog, wrote a critical piece about the validity of “black studies.” I thought the piece was unfair and cherry picked examples. Here’s a brief excerpt:

“Seriously, folks, there are legitimate debates about the problems that plague the black community from high incarceration rates to low graduation rates to high out-of-wedlock birth rates. But it’s clear that they’re not happening in black-studies departments.”


Writer Naomi Schaefer Riley

Given my dim view of her work, it may surprise you that I’m on her side. But I am. And that’s due to The Chronicle’s lousy response.

By late last week, The Chronicle had received many angry comments from its readers – and more than a few demands for Ms. Riley’s firing. Last Thursday, the blog’s editor, Liz  McMillen, responded by encouraging readers to weigh in:

“Many of you have asked The Chronicle to take down Naomi Schaefer Riley’s recent posting, “The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations.” I urge readers instead to view this posting as an opportunity—to debate Riley’s views, challenge her, set things straight as you see fit….Please join the debate.”

But last night, Ms. McMillen reversed course and fired Ms. Riley. She wrote, in part:

“We now agree that Ms. Riley’s blog posting did not meet The Chronicle’s basic editorial standards for reporting and fairness in opinion articles. As a result, we have asked Ms. Riley to leave the Brainstorm blog….I realize we have made mistakes. We will thoroughly review our editorial practices on Brainstorm and other blogs and strengthen our guidelines for bloggers.”

McMillen’s statement appears to me to be a tacit admission that The Chronicle had little in the way of guidelines for its bloggers. But they still found it appropriate to fire Ms. Riley, despite not being able to point to any specific rule that she had violated. So much for selling the blog as having “a range of intellectual and political views.”

Editor Liz McMillen, Editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education

Here’s where I got involved.

Before responding to Fishbowl DC’s request, I called The Chronicle of Higher Education and asked to speak with Liz McMillen. I was forwarded to Amy Alexander, The Chronicle’s Editorial Promotions Manager. She told me to email my request, which she said would be more efficient than asking her to “run to the other side of the building.”

After emailing her my request, which specifically stated that I wanted to speak to Liz McMillen by phone and not via email, she responded with an email that said:

“Just heard back from her: She asks that you send me your exact questions.  She is swamped, says she will get to them ‘as soon as she can.’”

I didn’t have time to email her back since Fishbowl DC was on deadline; as a result, they missed their chance to influence my quote. And as usually happens in those situations, my quote was more negative than it otherwise might have been. Here’s how I was quoted by Fishbowl DC:

Brad Phillips, who writes the Mr. Media Training Blog, points a damning finger at The Chronicle of Higher Education, calling it the “worst of both worlds.” He told FBDC, “Although I don’t agree with Naomi Schaefer Riley’s viewpoint, it appears that she’s the victim of an editor who buckled under public pressure. Just a few days ago, the blog’s editor was encouraging vigorous debate about Riley’s article; the editor did an about face when it became clear that her readers were upset. The Chronicle is now in the worst of two worlds – appearing to have stifled a voice with no specific rationale, while simultaneously selling their blog as ‘a range of intellectual and political views.’ The Chronicle of Higher Education looks to have lacked clear guidelines regarding appropriate content, and this incident is yet another reminder that blogs need to maintain clear guidelines for their writers.”


So what should The Chronicle do now?

First, they should begin responding to press calls quickly. If they don’t speak on their own behalf more aggressively, their critics will happily fill the news vacuum and speak for them.

Second, they should pledge to release their new editorial guidelines. Ms. McMillen said that they will create more stringent guidelines for their bloggers. She should pledge to make them available publicly, and promise to release a preliminary guideline document by a date certain (within a few weeks).

Third, they should explain their decision more fully. At the moment, their decision looks like little more than political expediency. Unless that’s the conclusion they want the public to draw, Ms. McMillen should explain more about her specific reasons for firing Ms. Riley.

As of now, The Chronicle of Higher Education’s response is violating at least five of the seven rules of a crisis. They’ll need to act quickly if they have any chance of regaining control of this story line.

UPDATE: Wednesday, May 9, 2012, 10:15am: Ms. McMillen has still not responded to Fishbowl DC’s media request. And Fishbowl DC decided to needle her for her decision to be silent by writing the following:

“The Chronicle of Higher Education is so terrifically busy. So much so that in the past 14 hours Editor Liz McMillen, who fired contributor Naomi Schaefer Riley after she wrote a post that — gasp! — dared to make waves, hasn’t had time to reply to our questions.
Spokeswoman Amy Alexander wrote us twice to inquire if Liz had gotten around to responding to our request for comment. “She’s swamped,” Alexander said, promising that she’d keep checking in with her.
While we appreciate Alexander’s tireless efforts to get McMillen to comment, we’d prefer that McMillen find her spine as opposed to say, another excuse as to why she didn’t back her writer after not implementing blogger guidelines in the first place.”

I’ve often written that a failure to respond usually deepens the crisis. Ms. McMillen could have avoided Fishbowl DC’s updated post (and mine) by maintaining an open line of communication with the press. For her sake, I hope she begins doing so quickly.

UPDATE: May 9, 2012, 10:30am: Naomi Schaefer Riley, the writer in the middle of this storm, just responded to my email by saying: “No I was not provided with guidelines.” That confirms my belief that she was fired for political reasons, not cause.

UPDATE: May 11, 2012, 4:50pm: Two days ago, a man named Bob Lalasz left two comments on this story, which you can see in the comments section below. Both comments disagreed with the premise of the advice I had offered, and took Fishbowl DC to task for not adequately confirming their story. What Mr. Lalasz did not disclose until I received a tip from a reader earlier today is that he is Ms. McMillen’s husband. I find his lack of disclosure – especially given his career in science communications – both shocking and appalling.

UPDATE: May 12, 2012, 10:20am: After posting my update yesterday afternoon, Bob Lalasz and I traded several emails. In each, he accepted full responsibility for his lack of disclosure, explained what motivated his actions, and apologized without reservation. I found his emails to be self-aware, forthright, and entirely human. I accepted his apology, and ask that you read through the comments below before forming a final judgment.

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