Home | News | US professor cautions students against speaking Chinese, steps down over backlash

US professor cautions students against speaking Chinese, steps down over backlash

A US director of graduate studies has obliged with Duke University’s request for her to step down from her position after two emails she penned to students leaked online.

Screenshots of the emails – through which Megan Neely, Assistant Professor with the Master of Biostatistics program, urged Chinese speakers to solely use English in study areas and break rooms – were posted to Twitter late last week and later confirmed to be accurate by Duke University.

In the first email posted, Neely said faculty members had approached her for the names of students who they observed “speaking Chinese (in their words, VERY LOUDLY)” in common areas. She said the faculty members wanted the students’ details so they could “remember them if the students ever interviewed for an internship or asked to work with them for a master’s project”.

“They were disappointed that these students were not taking the opportunity to improve their English and were being so impolite as to have a conversation that not everyone on the floor could understand,” Neely wrote, before urging students to keep “unintended consequences in mind” when choosing to speak Chinese in the university building.

“I have no idea how hard it has been and still is for you to come to the US and have to learn in a non-native language. As such, I have the upmost respect for what you are doing,” Neely added. “That being said, I encourage you to commit to using English 100% of the time when you are in Hock or any other professional setting.”

She signed off by saying she was copying in second-year students as “a reminder given they are currently applying for jobs”.

Those sentiments were echoed in an earlier email, dredged up from February 2018. In it, Neely again said speaking Chinese in common areas might make it harder for students to land research opportunities.

Concerned Duke students started a petition not long after the first email was uploaded. In an attached statement, those who drafted it said that the incident could open up a larger discussion about diversity and inclusion of international students in the Duke community, noting students signed the petition alongside personal accounts of other cases of cultural insensitivity.

One poster was quoted as saying: “[T]his is not even the only incident of xenophobia towards Chinese internationals by Duke officials in the past few months. This is clearly behaviour that has become normalised for many in the administration.”

Dean of Duke University’s School of Medicine Mary Klotman sent out an apology the same day the initial email was posted online.

Klotman wrote:

To be clear: there is absolutely no restriction or limitation on the language you use to converse and communicate with each other. Your career opportunities and recommendations will not in any way be influenced by the language you use outside the classroom.  And your privacy will always be protected.”

In the email, she also confirmed that Neely was asked to step down as director of graduate studies for the master’s program.”

“We will always be committed to ensuring that you are welcomed and included in every aspect of university life,” she also wrote. “Sadly, this matter demonstrates that we must continue to work on overcoming deep-seated concerns about our cultural awareness and understanding.”

Klotman asked the Office of Institutional Equity to conduct a thorough review of the program in response to the emails.

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