Student Newspaper Adviser Punished for Critical Coverage

A well-liked community college professor in California was not rehired after student journalists he advised took on the college's administration.

October 22, 2019
 
Ethan Anderson, The Inquirer

Student journalists at Diablo Valley College, a community college in Northern California, are still reeling from the unexpected departure of their newspaper adviser, Fernando Gallo, who they believe was not rehired in a retaliatory move by administrators.

Students and colleagues described Gallo, who advised the staff of the student newspaper, The Inquirer, as a beloved and respected instructor who helped guide young journalists through a turbulent semester that included reporting that criticized administrators for their response to multiple incidents of racism on campus.

Gallo was not retained as The Inquirer's faculty adviser after he defended the newspaper's coverage of what many students believed were mishandled incidents.

The reporting ruffled more than a few feathers. And just before the start of the fall semester in August, Gallo, who, according to college records received consistently positive performance reviews and student evaluations, was out of job.

“Fernando taught us to stand up for our reporting,” said Emma Hall, The Inquirer’s editor in chief, who considered Gallo her mentor. “He taught us integrity and how to be brave. What was even more great was that he always defended our rights as journalists, even if it meant taking on administration.”

“But that was then, and right now, I don’t think anyone working for or at DVC has our backs, which really scares me,” Hall said.

For his part, Gallo, an alumnus of the University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism, said the action caught him off guard but he readily acknowledged that he supported the students, which he considered an essential part of his job as adviser.

"I'm very much on the students’ side," he said. "And I don't know if that's in an administration's interest when the student body is very upset with them.”

Gallo, 34, taught several media and communications classes as an adjunct professor at Diablo Valley and its sister campus, Los Medanos College, from fall 2017 to 2018. He said he has also taught at San Francisco State.

Gallo was hired as adviser for The Inquirer by Mary Mazzocco, the previous adviser of nine years and chair of the journalism department, who retired in December 2018. He began his tenure at the start of the spring semester last January. Diablo Valley has not hired a full-time faculty member in the journalism department since her departure.

After Mazzocco's departure, the program launched a process called Revitalization, wrote Obed Vazquez, dean of the English and Social Sciences Division, in which the journalism program is housed. Revitalization “gives the college an opportunity to review the program and make recommendations about it, how to improve, re-structure, expand, to grow,” Vazquez wrote in an email. He said that faculty members were “hired as needed” and the program will continue to seek full-time faculty. For now, it has just two adjunct professors.

The journalism program was understaffed and leaderless during the spring 2019 semester, when several negative incidents on campus made local and national news headlines.

Violent threats made against a political science professor who had criticized white supremacy and two separate campus shooting threats in March and December drew media attention to the Pleasant Hill campus.

It was not an easy year for students, faculty or the relatively new president, Susan Lamb, who'd taken over in December 2017.

There had been other incidents of white supremacy and threats on campus during Mazzocco’s tenure. But The Inquirer covered each incident separately, and the pattern did not become a story of the college's “dysfunctional administrative atmosphere” until a student drew racist graffiti in a bathroom stall in March 2019, Mazzocco said.

Response to Racism

The Inquirer staff learned about the racist graffiti in March through an email sent only to faculty members. The student body’s knowledge of the incident was limited to posts they saw on Twitter, Hall said. The Inquirer reported on the incident, then published an editorial saying administrators “left students in the dark” and “remained silent for days” about the graffiti. In an email to faculty, obtained by Inside Higher Ed, Lamb called the editorial “misinformation.” She later wrote in a letter to The Inquirer that the decision not to notify students immediately was because of an ongoing investigation by campus police of the source of the graffiti, and to avoid giving attention to the perpetrator.

“My feeling was, she's attacking a student club,” Gallo said. “It seemed like it was intended to have a chilling effect, like it was intended to get us to shut up or she was going to keep badmouthing us.”

Lamb’s letter did acknowledge that the students had a point about wanting to be informed by the administration.

“I understand that there are individuals who have differing opinions and feel that students should be notified of every incident immediately,” she wrote. “And perhaps, you are right."

Student groups on campus released statements and staged walkouts to demonstrate their anger, said Gavin Rock, the paper's former sports editor. Students praised the newspaper for “uncovering” the issue, he said.

“We shed light on an issue that would’ve gone otherwise unnoticed,” said Rock, who now studies journalism at Sacramento State. "It was being inadequately addressed by the administration."

The Inquirer's coverage prompted reporters from professional news outlets to cover the events on campus. Administrators decided to start hold listening circles and implemented safe spaces.

Despite all the attention and criticism, students felt that administrators continued to brush off the graffiti incident, Rock said. The Inquirer “called out” one administrator for being on her phone while students shared their concerns about the environment on campus during a listening session -- a meeting that the newspaper staff was not permitted to record or photograph -- said Pavlina Markova, an Inquirer reporter and editor who covered the event.

Hall said students of color confronted Emily Stone, the dean of student support services, about her phone use during the session and asked her to stop. Markova and Hall both separately interviewed Stone for their article before it was published, they said. Within days, The Inquirer received five searing letters to the editor from faculty members and administrators defending Stone and calling the article “biased in nature” and “poor ‘journalism.’”

Michael Powell, a history professor who wrote one of the letters to the editor, went to the Inquirer newsroom a week after the listening session and aggressively questioned Gallo about when his letter would be published, according to a complaint Gallo filed with the human resources department. The Inquirer editors had decided to publish just two of the letters because they all contained the same language and appeared to be part of a coordinated campaign to intimidate the newspaper.

“When I told him that it was the decision of my editors and that it was unlikely to be published, he reacted angrily and raised his voice,” Gallo wrote in his complaint against Powell, which was ultimately dismissed. “I stayed seated and asked him to speak calmly with me, but he refused. He stayed standing and continued to pace back and forth around the room in an aggressive manner … I asked him not to swear at me in my newsroom, and he sarcastically stepped right outside the doorway in response.”

Retaliation or Restructuring?

Gallo only lasted as adviser for one semester. On Aug. 15, 11 days before classes began, he received an email from Vazquez, dean of the English and Social Sciences Division, informing him that he would not be teaching at the college, as they had originally agreed.

“With the new schedule there are no classes for you,” he wrote two days later, after Gallo asked for clarification.

Until then, Gallo assumed he'd be teaching three classes as scheduled for fall 2019 and serving as a “lab coordinator” assisting in the newsroom. Students were registered for classes he was listed as teaching until days before Aug. 26, the first day of classes, Markova said.

Lamb defended the decision and said her administration has been open to interviews with The Inquirer.

“As president, I know that The Inquirer will print articles that I agree with and articles that I disagree with, both now and in the future,” she said in a statement. “However, that is the role of the press and of student newspapers, to be the voice of the students and to stimulate critical thinking and discussions on a college campus.”

Lamb also said the college was committed to strengthening the journalism program, which “has been struggling with enrollment in recent years.”

Mazzocco disputed Lamb's assertion about enrollment. She said the college added three more sections of a mass media course due to demand and the program’s news writing course was consistently full during her time at the college.  Some individual classes struggled with enrollment due to a shortened semester and longer class periods which presented scheduling conflicts for students, a problem about which Mazzacco said she informed Vazquez.

Mazzocco, who was a tenured professor, blames herself for what happened to Gallo. She was protected from administrative backlash, but Gallo was not, she said.

“I thought that I had left somebody in place who would be able to maintain the program,” Mazzocco said. “Fernando always had positive evaluations. He is a teacher that a lot of students really fall in love with. He’s got a lot of energy, and I thought he did some good things for the program. It’s very frustrating and upsetting, and I feel responsible.”

Gallo’s was an “enthusiastic” and “encouraging” presence in The Inquirer's newsroom, Markova said. She said The Inquirer’s coverage has suffered as a result.

“We knew Fernando, and we really feel the gap between the quality and knowledge and over all the way how the newsroom is run,” Markova said. “The new adviser is uneasy about [critical] coverage, whereas Fernando always wanted it to get out there … He would … explain that this is journalism, and we publish what we think is important to know.”

Adviser Protections

Gallo appealed the decision to United Faculty, the Contra Costa Community College District’s faculty union, which said the union felt “some frustration regarding the late notice” that Gallo received about the decision not to rehire him, said the UF Appeals Committee's written determination, which noted problems with how the decision was made and the lack of clarity and timeliness in the notification. In normal circumstances, the chair of the journalism department would have made the decision, and the UF recommended a tenured faculty member step in to fill this role, according to the determination.

Despite the appeals committee's finding, the union’s “hands were pretty tied with regard to the determination,” wrote Jason Mayfield, chair of the appeals committee. Mayfield did not reply to multiple requests for comment.​

“As a part-time employee, assignments are done per semester,” Vazquez wrote in a statement. “Fernando Gallo was not fired.”

Removing or changing the job descriptions for advisers is an easy way for institutional leadership to “disrupt” student press coverage, the Columbia Journalism Review reported in an article about administrators at the University of North Alabama rewriting the job description for the faculty adviser for the student newspaper to require a Ph.D. for the position. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education cited “pressure on advisers” as one of the top warning signs of student press freedom violations in a report released last week.

Gallo said he never officially signed any contract to name him adviser -- DVC simply did not rehire him for classes for the fall semester. Gallo said a faculty leader told him two campus police reports about his behavior in a campus parking lot might have also played a role. Both were minor complaints about aggressive driving, and police never cited or charged Gallo. Lamb and Vazquez did not mention the police reports to Gallo or in public statements.

Rock, the former editor of The Inquirer, said he's still bothered by how Gallo was treated.

“He wasn’t trying to poke the bear or throw elbows,” Rock said of Gallo. “He said that while we shouldn’t be going out of our way to provoke the administration, we should be holding them accountable. He emphasized accountability, not using the platform for retaliation or coming off as a jerk to people.”

Mike Hiestand, senior legal counsel for the Student Press Law Center, a nonprofit that advocates for the First Amendment rights of student journalists, said he was skeptical about Diablo Valley administrators' stated reason for not rehiring Gallo.

"It seems to push the imagination a little bit," he said, noting that laws that protect student publication advisers in California don't distinguish between adjunct or full-time professors.

“School officials really need to get on board with what the law allows,” Hiestand said. “The fact that they can punish advisers for what the student media publishes, that’s just out of touch.”

Jim Ewert, general counsel for the California News Publishers Association, also didn't buy Lamb's explanation that the decision not to rehire Gallo was “based on the needs of the department and the program” and not The Inquirer’s critical coverage.

“They used the fact that he was an adjunct professor as an explanation for why they didn’t give him classes, but that doesn’t tell me why they let go of a very well-credentialed professor,” Ewert said. “That points more towards raising very serious doubts about their legitimacy in their decision to remove him after these controversial stories were published … it really casts a shadow over the campus and expressive rights of the students on that campus.”

California Education Code states that at a public college or university, “an employee shall not be dismissed, suspended, disciplined, reassigned, transferred, or otherwise retaliated against solely for acting to protect a student engaged in conduct authorized under this section, or refusing to infringe upon” students’ First Amendment rights.

However, it may be hard to prove an Education Code violation in court, should Gallo decide to pursue a complaint, Ewert said. Gallo said he is not interested in spending the time and effort on a legal battle and will continue applying for journalism teaching jobs at California schools.

“If I was tenured, they wouldn't have been able to do anything,” Gallo said. “But since I wasn’t, they saw that an easy way to change the coverage would be to change the adviser. It was very clear that I was pro-student.”

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