Oftentimes when alumni return to campus, they are greeted with a warm welcome and a certain level of reverence.
When Jayson Blair returned to campus, he was greeted by a watchful audience ready to interrogate him about the downfall of his professional career.
To be fair, Blair is no ordinary alumni. A former rising star at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism and editor-in-chief of The Diamondback for the 1996-97 year, Blair is known for rocking the journalism world in 2003 when it was discovered he either plagiarized or fabricated information in at least 36 of the stories he wrote in his four years at The New York Times.
Though Blair has talked about the scandal in the 10 plus years since everything came to light, this was his first time returning to the University of Maryland.
“We all kind of sit here and say, ‘Of course, I’d never do that!’ But at the end of the day, would we?” Shannon Gallagher, the senior journalism student who reached out to Blair and got him to come to campus, said.
The path to getting Blair back at Merrill was a rather mundane one. Already interested in getting him to talk for a presentation for her Journalism ethics course, Gallagher connected with him on LinkedIn. It was then Blair who emailed Gallagher first, and after a few emails back and forth, she convinced him to come speak at Knight.
The hype was near tangible in the weeks leading up to Blair’s arrival. Classes would break off into tangents as students speculated what might happen when Blair set foot in the very school he betrayed over a decade ago. Some even joked a brawl might break out.
After an introduction from Gallagher, Blair spent the majority of the time answering her questions and describing the direct impact the fallout from the scandal has had on his life. Blair said he now works as a mental health coach aiding people in positions similar to his, and some of his clients seek him out specifically because of what happened.
Though his tone was light and casual throughout most of the talk, Blair made it clear coming back to the school where some of the professors who taught him still felt betrayed by what he did was not easy.
“This is a place where I was surrounded by a number of people who cared about me deeply,” Blair said.
Students filled the majority of the seats with those from Adrianne Flynn’s JOUR300 class in the front row and a host of professors in the very back.
There was no brawl, and no metaphorical punches were held, either. However, few held back from asking hard questions.
“How can I trust what you’re saying right now?” Gallagher asked early in the talk.
“Jayson, are you sorry?” Professor Sharon O’Malley asked when the floor opened to questions from the audience.
Reactions at the end of the discussion were mixed. The general consensus among students seemed to be they could never see themselves committing the same ethical transgressions Blair did.
Morgan Eichensehr, a senior multiplatform journalism major, described the talk as “overwhelming.”
Many students agreed, were they in Blair shoes, they could not fathom coming back to face the professors who taught them after a scandal like his.
Though O’Malley said she respected him being able to return to Merrill after all these years, she does not think it will change the way they discuss him in her ethics class.
“It sounded to me as if he were talking like it had happened to somebody else or as if it were something that happened to him, not something that he chose to do,” O’Malley said.
However, for some, Blair’s return was a form of catharsis and closure.
“He’s a human being, and we should listen to his story like we would listen to anyone else’s story,” Carl Stepp, another professor at Merrill who knew Blair when he attended the school, said. “ … I don’t think it’s right to demonize Jayson, but I think what he did was terrible.”
With the event now over, it is up to those in the journalism school to figure out how Blair’s legacy will affect each of them going forward.
“I think that everybody understands this is something that can ruin your career, ruin your reputation, ruin your relationships and change the course of your life,” O’Malley said. “If you really want to be a journalist, this is a road you do not want to go down.”
Featured Photo Credit: Jayson Blair, a former student of Philip Merrill and Editor-in-Chief of The Diamondback, answers questions after he was interviewed at Eaton Broadcast Theater as a part of a ethics presentation. (Josh Loock/Bloc Reporter)
Rosie Brown is a junior journalism major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.