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Thursday, August 09, 2007

Errors in an Article on the UC Davis Sociology Department Lead to Questions about the Davis Enterprise

On July 20, 2007 the Davis Enterprise ran an article, "Sociology courses canceled - UC Davis instructor complains after his workload is decreased" by Davis Enterprise Intern Talia Kennedy, a recent graduate from UC Davis.

The crux of the article is that the Sociology Department due to budgetary problems had to cancel a number of courses for the upcoming year.
Responding to fiscal shortcomings, the UC Davis department of sociology has canceled several courses for the 2007-08 academic year. Though department officials spared many classes led by tenured faculty, they slashed 16 undergraduate courses, many of which were taught by lecturers and acting instructors — a move that has disheartened at least one lecturer.
The article cites a sociology lecturer, David Gharagozlou who believes that his race and ethnicity are the reason that his courses were canceled.
"I (am) disappointed," said David Gharagozlou, who was hired as a sociology lecturer two years ago. Three of the courses he taught during the 2006-07 school year were canceled, and the department chairwoman, Vicki Smith, assigned him to teach only one course in the fall.

Smith, who just completed her first year as leader of the department, cited budget cuts as the reason behind the changes both in a letter to Gharagozlou and in an interview with The Enterprise. However, Gharagozlou said he believes her decisions were based on personal attitudes about his background: Gharagozlou is a native of Iran, where he once taught at the University of Tehran. His research and instruction largely focuses on political and religious fundamentalism.

"My class evaluations were good and if the personal antipathy (is) the reason for that, maybe she doesn't like my origin," Gharagozlou said in an e-mail from Sweden. "I am sorry for her because this is unprofessional and if she favor(s) others then it is a sign of favoritism, which is (a) very weak attitude and it doesn't belong to (the) quality of leadership."
The article generated a strong reaction from many others in the sociology department. In a letter to the editor, Ara Francis, a graduate student, and 23 other signators, writes:
As a doctoral candidate in the sociology department, I was alarmed to read Talia Kennedy's article about recent course cancellations. In this piece, Ms. Kennedy draws from an interview with lecturer David Gharagozlou who suggested that the department chair, Professor Vicki Smith, canceled his classes because of favoritism, the religious and political content of his courses and his Iranian heritage. These were very serious statements, none of which were corroborated, and it is unsettling that this piece was published without further investigation.
The letter goes on to criticize the writer, Talia Kennedy for failing to interview other teachers (Ms. Kennedy only interviewed Gharagozlou)--10 lecturers and instructors in the Sociology Department--about their reactions to course cancellations. Furthermore, Ms. Kennedy did not point out that the budget problems are universitywide and not specific to the Sociology department.

Finally and this is perhaps the key, lecturers are the last hired and first "fired" when budget shortfalls arise. Lecturers serve as temporary and adjunct professors and they do not receive the priority that full-time university tenured or tenure-track professors receive. So it is natural that a lecturer would have their classes cut first rather than a university professor.

Says Ara Francis, et al in the letter to the editor:
It is my impression that temporary instructors like Dr. Gharagozlou and myself constitute a "flexible labor force." This means that we are given jobs when money is available, and we are the first to lose our jobs when budgets are cut. Indeed, this is an unhappy state of affairs. However, the current status of university lecturers is a structural problem that has little to do with the hiring decisions of individual department chairs.
This is however, the beginning and not the end of the story. Though the letter to the editor was signed by Ara Francis and 23 others, when it appeared in the Davis Enterprise only Ara Francis was noted as the sole signer of the letter.

According to Ms. Francis,
When Talia Kennedy's article was published on July 20th, it generated a lot of discussion on our electronic listserv, and someone suggested that we put together a letter articulating our concerns. I drafted the letter and received endorsements from three lecturers and twenty-one graduate students (most of whom also work for the sociology department as instructors or teaching assistants).
Furthermore, the title of the published letter reads, "More Investigation Warranted." Ms. Francis believes that would lead readers to assume that the letter called for further investigation into the allegations made by Dr. Gharagozlou's when in fact, that is "quite contrary to the spirit of the letter."

The biggest complaint was that the letter only contained Ms. Francis' name.
The most problematic aspect of the published letter was that [Davis Enterprise Editor and Assistant Publisher] Debbie Davis neither included nor referred to the twenty-four endorsements, despite the fact that the original letter - signatures included - met the 350-word requirement. Those signatures were central to the letter because they presented a direct challenge to Dr. Gharagozlou's claims. Indeed, most of the endorsers were temporary instructors also affected by recent course cancellations.
Ms. Francis would speak to Debbie Davis by telephone regarding the decision to exclude the other signatures. According to Davis Enterprise Editor and Assistant Publisher Debbie Davis who graciously responded to my inquiries via email,
"It is our policy to make a follow-up phone call to confirm letters to the editor that we receive via e-mail. As I told Ara Francis, the letter writer to whom you refer, since we could not confirm the additional signers of the letter, I did not list them."
Ara Francis disputes this claim by Ms. Davis:
"I easily could have provided verification because all but one of the signatories had requested via email that their names be added to the letter."
Debbie Davis acknowledged it would have been better to have at least noted that there were additional signers.
"In retrospect, I wish I had added the line "and 24 other signers" beneath her name when her letter was published. At her request, we did just that in a separate squib published on Aug. 1."
The handling of the matter drew further scrutiny and criticism from Ara Francis. While Davis was willing to publish a small blurb in the paper noting that the letter had received twenty-four signatures rather than one signature, she was inclined to let the matter drop and not devote any further space to this incident.

According to Francis,
She went on to tell me that she preferred to not publish anything further regarding this story - including a third letter to the editor that she had received from another graduate student - because Talia Kennedy is a summer intern who feels "devastated" about the fallout from her story. She stated that she didn't want to push this young woman "over the edge."
In fact, the situation leads to questions about how the newspaper screens and eventually "hires"and supervises interns. The interns are selected and supervised by Linda DuBois, an associate editor who is on vacation and unavailable for comment. Interns receive no pay, only experience.

According to Debbie Davis:
"[I] feel it is a newspaper's responsibility to help train journalists of the future. This is a profession where much can be learned by doing. Each story gives a young reporter more experience, more confidence and more tools for the next story. We learn best by doing."
Ms. Davis went on to describe the process by which they receive and accept applications from prospective interns during the spring. Associate Editor Linda DuBois then interviews the candidates "whom she believes will suit our needs." One key consideration in that process is whether the intern has the ability to live in the area, since they are not paid for their work.
"Since we do not pay wages, that is of some concern to us. For example, we'd be unlikely to hire an intern from New York state who would have to incur a large debt to complete the summer internship"
Somewhere along the way however, this process must have broken down, as a reasonable review of Talia Kennedy and her past record would have revealed some startling revelations.

An incident occurred in mid-May of this year in which thirty-one members of the California Aggie staff, where Talia Kennedy served as campus editor last year, called for the resignation of Ms. Kennedy and Peter Hamilton, the editor in chief of the student run news paper.

In a pointed letter signed by 31 staff members, they complained that they had "no confidence" in the Aggie's leadership namely Peter Hamilton and Talia Kennedy, the ambitions of Talia Kennedy to ascend to the position of editor in chief for the following school year, and a huge amount of unnecessary expenses incurred while attending an awards banquet.

Problems had been brewing all year long. As early as December of 2006, I had spoken with a number of individuals at the California Aggie who complained about the methods of Ms. Kennedy and her relationship with the editor, Peter Hamilton. This was in response to a number of stories we did last fall complaining not only of poor coverage in the Aggie, but the lack of responsiveness of the editors to these complaints.

The Davis Wiki reported on May 24, 2007:
"The Media Board put both Peter Hamilton and Talia Kennedy on administrative leave for the remainder of their terms. In response, Hamilton locked the Aggie staff out of the website (he was drawing pay for both Online Editor and Editor in Chief). Additionally, there are reports that Hamilton changed the lock on his office, preventing access from the rest of the Aggie staff."
Was the Davis Enterprise aware of these problems just two months prior to the article on the Sociology Department? According to Debbie Davis, they were not.
"I was not aware of any internal problems at the California Aggie involving Talia Kennedy. I don't believe Linda was either."
However, a quick search on Google of "Talia Kennedy" and "California Aggie" would have revealed this incident and might have called into question the hiring of this intern.

According to Ara Francis, problems with the story on the sociology department may lead to changes with how the paper mentors their student interns.
"[Debbie Davis] said that this situation has caused the paper to reconsider how they mentor their interns, and she agreed that the story had needed further work before going to print."
At the same time, she said that this issue wasn't important enough to pursue publicly. When I said it sounded like a "big mess," she replied that it was not, and that in fact, this situation it was "not even a bump in the road."
In the meantime, Talia Kennedy continues to intern at the Davis Enterprise until later this month when she will attended the UC Berkeley graduate school in their Journalism program.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting