CALIFORNIA — A faculty adviser for a student newspaper in California was removed from his position less than two weeks before the fall semester began, a move the student editor believes was a result of critical coverage of administrators.
For a single semester, Fernando Gallo, a former journalist, served as head adviser to the Inquirer, the student publication at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, California. He had been teaching journalism classes at the community college since February 2015.
Gallo is gone from the campus entirely — he was listed in a pre-printed fall course catalog to teach six journalism courses and later told he would not be teaching any classes at all.
This story was first reported by Inside Higher Ed.
Gallo’s removal comes after the Inquirer published a series of reports in March about racist graffiti found around campus, specifically an editorial that criticized the school’s administration for how they handled the situation.
Emma Hall, a sophomore and editor-in-chief of the Inquirer, said while she hopes she’s wrong about why Gallo was let go, the school ultimately “remove[d] our adviser in a really, really shady way” that she thinks was a direct result of the Inquirer‘s reporting.
Under California law, student media advisers at public colleges are protected from punishment over students exercising their First Amendment right.
“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 conduct that is protected” by state and federal law.
The Inquirer is a digital-only publication, currently staffed by 12 journalism students. The Inquirer also publishes a magazine toward the end of each semester.
There is not a journalism department at DVC, and all journalism instructors are considered part-time employees.
Racist Graffiti Coverage
On March 6, racist graffiti containing slurs toward African American engineering students and a drawing encouraging lynching students of color were found in a campus bathroom. DVC faculty members were made aware of the incident late that night via an email from President Susan Lamb, but students were not notified until two days later.
The delay prompted the March 11 editorial from the Inquirer, titled “DVC left students in dark about racist graffiti.” The editorial board asked why students were not made immediately aware of the incident. They also questioned why there was no clear solution by administration to handle or prevent a similar situation in the future, since this was not the first time threatening graffiti had been found on campus around that time.
It’s kind of amplifying a bigger issue on campus
Hall said she was concerned the situation was not getting the attention it deserved by administration and feared students were going to be continually left in the dark. Inquirer reporters conducted “person on the street” interviews the day after the graffiti was discovered and found only one student who knew about it.
Hall said the Inquirer devoted substantial coverage to the incident because it was something students were seriously concerned about.
“There’s a lot of students who are very, I think, irritated and think that this situation speaks to a greater issue at DVC with race,” Hall said. “It’s not just someone going around bathrooms and tagging it to be an asshole, it’s kind of amplifying a bigger issue on campus.”
Gallo said he advised them that as student journalists, they have a responsibility to be the voice of students on campus. So if students were mad about being left in the dark, then that should be amplified.
“They were pissed off,” he said. “They were mad that they felt like administration was treating them like children and that they were not being up front with them about all these incidents, and I said ‘well if that’s what you think and that’s what you’re hearing, then that’s what we should do, that’s what we should talk about.’”
On March 12, four days after the graffiti was found, DVC held a listening circle on campus for students to voice their concerns to faculty members.
“When we went to the listening circle,” Hall said, “there [were] a lot of students who were really scared to be on campus and really frustrated and agitated by how administration was handling the situation.”
The Inquirer later reported that according to two students, an administrator was texting throughout the event and rolled her eyes at points during the discussion.
The piece was met with stiff backlash from two faculty members who submitted letters to the editor defending the administrator’s record on social justice. One wrote that “[t]he Inquirer has practiced poor ‘journalism’ in reporting this story.”
A third faculty member, Matthew Powell, had also sent a letter to the editor in defense of the administrator. Hall said the point was becoming redundant, so she chose not to publish Powell’s letter.
A week later, Gallo said that Powell confronted him in the newsroom and wanted to know why the letter wasn’t being published. After telling him that was not his decision to make, Gallo said Powell became angry and cussed him out.
Gallo filed an HR complaint against Powell, but it was later dismissed.
In an email to the SPLC, Powell pushed back against the claim.
“I have had one very brief (perhaps 5 min.) conversation with Mr. Gallo whom I had just met in that moment. I can only offer a simple refutation to the accusation that I ‘cussed’ or ‘became confrontational’. Beyond that my behavior was neither unusual nor untoward,” he wrote.
On March 13, a campus-wide walkout over the graffiti drew hundreds of DVC students to the school’s common area. There, students of color again expressed their concerns to Lamb.
Hall said while DVC is a transitional school with a lot of commuters, there’s a strong African American community on campus who were upset with the administration’s lack of transparency.
“There were too many instances last semester where we had the voices of students of color, specifically black students, be swept under the rug and not talked about enough, and it was incredibly frustrating,” Hall said.
According to U.S. News & World Report, in 2017, of 19,775 DVC students, 5% were African-American, 25% Hispanic/Latino and 17% Asian.
Also on March 13, multiple local news stations cited the Inquirer’s editorial on air. It soon became the Inquirer’s most read story of the semester.
“We found that there was an enormous, overwhelming response to [the editorial], more than the paper had gotten in a couple of semesters, so then that’s what began to dictate our coverage,” Gallo said.
Lamb, the same day, sent an email to faculty members claiming the Inquirer had published “misinformation” in the piece, and submitted a letter to the editor claiming a statement she made in the March 11 editorial was misrepresented.
Gallo said he was taken off guard by Lamb’s email.
“I don’t remember a lot of student groups being namechecked by the president of the college, so it was certainly startling,” he said.
Gallo went on with business as usual until June 26, when Dean of English and Social Sciences Obed Vasquez emailed him and asked for a meeting concerning his fall class schedule. At the meeting, Gallo said Vasquez recommended a plan where Gallo would teach three journalism courses instead of the six he was scheduled, and he would no longer serve as adviser to the Inquirer.
Gallo said Vasquez’s reasoning for the switch was so Gallo wouldn’t be overworked during the semester. Vasquez did offer him an assistant position with the Inquirer so he could stay in the newsroom, which Gallo accepted.
A month and a half passed before Gallo followed up with Vasquez on August 15, asking for confirmation on the courses he’d be instructing. Vasquez responded with “[t]here have been changes to the plan, and we will not be going forward with it.”
Gallo replied, asking if he could know what classes he might be teaching so he can start prepping, but received no response.
Two days later, Gallo sent a follow-up email, again asking for clarity on his schedule. Vasquez responded, “[w]ith the new schedule there are no classes for you.”
Gallo replied two minutes later, “I don’t understand, is this disciplinary? I [went from] overload to nothing, can I appeal this choice? Please help me out here, Obed. I have been very loyal to the program and done a lot of extra work.” Vasquez did not respond.
Gallo, who was even teaching a summer course at the time, said he felt out of the loop when a new journalism instructor was hired that summer. The new hire would eventually become Gallo’s replacement.
Hall wrote a letter to Vasquez on Aug. 17 expressing her strong disappointment that Gallo would not be returning.
“The dean essentially told me that our program was on revitalization,” she said.
I don’t understand, is this disciplinary? … can I appeal this choice? Please help me out here
In an email, Vasquez told the Student Press Law Center that the journalism program’s revitalization efforts have been in the works since last semester, and that Gallo stepping in as an adviser for a semester didn’t mean he would stay there permanently.
“As a part time employee, assignments are done per semester, Fernando Gallo was not fired. In the Spring semester, the program was approved to enter Revitalization, an official process, which gives the college an opportunity to review the program and make recommendations about it, how to improve, re-structure, expand, to grow,” Vasquez wrote.
“While students perceived that events in reporting in the spring semester affected decisions about Fernando,” he continued, “they were not aware of other conversations about the program that had nothing to do with the coverage provided by the newspaper.”
Lamb, also said in an email that Gallo’s exit from the college was not based on the Inquirer’s reporting.
“In spring 2019 Fernando Gallo was a part-time “at will” instructor with Diablo Valley College,” Lamb wrote. “Due to a tenured faculty member’s sudden departure, Mr. Gallo was asked to advise the college newspaper, the DVC Inquirer, for one semester. I understand that the student editor has expressed online her concerns that articles published in the Inquirer during the spring semester led to the hiring of a different part-time instructor for the fall semester.”
“The decision regarding the hiring of a different faculty advisor had nothing to do with publications in the Inquirer but was based on the needs of the department and the program,” she continued.
Classes began at DVC just nine days after Gallo found out he wouldn’t be returning as the Inquirer’s adviser. Very much blindsided by the news, Hall wasn’t sure what direction the publication was heading.
“That really freaked me out, because I had no idea who our adviser was going to be, what was going to happen with the department and I had no idea how I was going to talk to my staff about this guy who we all sort of loved and adored just being gone in the midst of moments,” she said.
Hall said Gallo had transformed the Inquirer in just a semester as an adviser, calling him an “incredibly encouraging” leader.
“It’s going to sound really corny, but he really did make our newsroom into this sort of family, team unit,” she said. “He was really like all of our mentors and really taught us how to be journalists.”
I had no idea who our adviser was going to be, what was going to happen with the department, and I had no idea how I was going to talk to my staff
Hall said she’s had to work overtime to make sure the Inquirer is still producing quality journalism.
“I’ve been taking in a lot of hours making sure we still publish content, making sure that my staff doesn’t get so depressed that Fernando is gone and making sure everyone knows what their job is,” she said. “It’s taken a huge toll on my academic workload and my mental health.”
But the publication hasn’t lost its stride, Hall said. A month-long investigation by the Inquirer uncovered the name of a former student found responsible for two cases of racist graffiti. That student, however, was not found responsible for the incident in March.
On Oct. 9, another occurrence of racist graffiti was reported on campus, marking the sixth time racist graffiti has been found since the March 6 incident, according to the Inquirer. Hours after it was found, Lamb discussed campus racism with students of color.
Gallo Defends The Reporters
Gallo still unequivocally defends the Inquirer’s reporting on the racist graffiti incident.
“I absolutely do feel like they handled it really well,” he said.
The coverage drew a lot of attention to the publication, which Gallo said helped the student journalists understand the effect they can have by spotlighting important issues.
“I think that feedback to their work really helped the reporters be like ‘wow, what I’m doing can have an impact; what I’m doing is important,’” he said. “It became more of a team atmosphere because everybody was pitching in. It was a very big story with a lot of people to talk to.”
“I was really proud of how they covered it,” he added. “I thought they did a fantastic job.”
I really want student journalism at DVC to be how it was … when we had Fernando around
Gallo said criticizing DVC’s administration was never the sole aim of the publication. He instructed reporters to call out any wrongdoing that affected students, regardless of who was at fault.
“I don’t want to say that my goal was to hold the administration accountable,” he said. “I think my goal was to help them feel better prepared to be working journalists and to understand their role as journalists. That doesn’t mean that you have to go after administration, but that means that if you see something that’s wrong, no matter who has done it, you’ve got to point it out.”
Gallo said he’s currently on the job hunt after his appeal to be reinstated to DVC was dismissed. He hopes to continue teaching journalism and working as a student media adviser in higher education.
The fall semester will be Hall’s last at the Inquirer — journalism students are allowed a maximum of three semesters to work for the publication at DVC. Hall said she’s not sure what the state of journalism at DVC will be after she’s gone, something she stressed to Vasquez in her letter supporting Gallo.
She said the way Gallo led the Inquirer was exactly what DVC needs from its student newspaper.
“I really want student journalism at DVC to be how it was like when we had Fernando around, where it was pieces that were daring, pieces that held admin accountable, but mostly pieces that really voice the student population,” Hall said.
*Correction: A previous version of this story said Vasquez responded to an Aug. 17 letter by Hall in about two minutes, but that quick response was to a previous email sent in July. We corrected it to remove this mention.
SPLC reporter Joe Severino can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 202-974-6318. Follow him on Twitter at @jj_severino.
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