Editor’s note: The following letter submitted on Sept. 1, 2019 is in response to the editorial titled ‘Ethics violations betray department’s integrity‘ which was published on May 21, 2019.

By Jesse Garnier

Associate Professor of Journalism, San Francisco State University

“The journalism department at SF State has an ethics problem.”

So began the staff editorial that topped page 2 of the final Spring  edition of the Golden Gate Xpress on May 21. Reading these words, and the 1,500 or so which followed, crumbled my heart.

Mostly, because I agree.

Over nearly three decades at SF State, as an educator, student, and  publication advisor, I have never witnessed anything near the scale or scope of the academic dishonesty I was forced to address over the last year with my students.

In 2018-19, I submitted to my chair formal reports concerning three  instances of fabrication, four of plagiarism, and another five regarding an explosion of cheating involving nearly two dozen assignments.

I had never before, not once, encountered the need to refer even a  single student for disciplinary action.

In each instance, I investigated and met with the student involved. More  than once, when I asked why students chose to cheat, I was met with the  answer: “Well, it’s better than not turning anything in.”

Well, no. It’s not.

Your best option, every time, is to complete the assignment, on your own, as directed, by your own hand.

The only other honest option is to not turn anything in. If, as some of  my students assert, my coursework was too difficult, this option preserves any high ground you may have to contest your grade, my teaching, or anything else.

But the parts of the editorial that stung most were those that were simply weren’t true.

The editorial contained multiple inaccuracies, key omissions, and, most seriously, a failure to observe even the most basic journalistic principles in the pursuit not of truth, but of a fact pattern gerrymandered to lead to a particular conclusion.

In this case, that conclusion was that our department, and I personally,  failed to take sufficient action to enforce or penalize violators of  journalism ethics and academic integrity.

That is simply false.

I took swift action, not only directly with the involved students, but  also as chair of our curriculum committee, I spearheaded an effort  within our faculty to step up our sanctions for violations of academic integrity and, in particular, journalism ethics on our student publications.

Shortly after Journalism faculty approved my proposal, I announced in class and on social media new policies for Xpress, including stiffer maximum penalties for plagiarism or fabrication, including failing the class, and the means for student editors to divert suspicious works out of the publication process to faculty advisors for review and, if necessary, academic discipline.

None of my actions were reported in the editorial.

One reason may be because I was never interviewed, on the record, on background, or otherwise, by any Xpress staff. My quotes, apparently, were gleaned from private conversations over the course of the semester.

I did all I could within a shifting, nebulous process that remains undefined. At least four separate policies have been conveyed to Journalism faculty over the last 12 months, and to this day we remain uncertain as to exactly what we are permitted to do to sanction cheating students.

Can we fail a publication student for plagiarism? When I asked directly, I got different answers from the Office of Student Conduct and from within my own college. This is unhealthy, dysfunctional, and ultimately harms both students and faculty, as has played out here.

After the editorial was published, I demanded, in writing, a formal retraction of several specific statements therein. Under California Civl Code 48(a), citizens have the right to demand in writing a published retraction or correction of statements they consider defamatory.

As a result of my demand, I was deemed to have a conflict of interest and was removed as Xpress faculty advisor in July, and I moved my office out of the Xpress newsroom. Despite statements I consider defamatory and injurious to my professional reputation after two decades in local and national journalism and nearly as long as a journalism educator, I was notified that Xpress is standing by their story and will not be issuing any retraction or correction.

By the time this piece is scheduled for publication, the editorial will have appeared on the Goldengatexpress.org home page for 119 days.

If you missed it, you can Google “Jesse Garnier ethics,” then click on the very first link.

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