The US and China have conflicting worldviews. Image: iStock
An academic has told students not to speak Chinese. Photo: iStock

On Saturday afternoon, Megan Neely, a Duke University professor and Director of Graduate Studies, sent an email to students at the Biostatistics department and warned them that speaking Chinese on campus could have “unintended consequences.”

The subject line of the email read: “Something to think about…” In it, Neely wrote that two faculty members had visited her office that day to look through headshots of Chinese students taken during orientation.

Their purpose was to identify a group of students they observed “speaking Chinese” – in their words, very loudly – in the lounge and study areas.

“They wanted to write down the names so they could remember them if the students ever interviewed for an internship or asked to work with them for a master’s project,” she wrote.

Neely explained in the email in bold and underlined text: “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.”

While she expressed sympathy for foreign students and the difficulties they face using English in America, she nevertheless encouraged them not to revert to their native Chinese tongue: “To international students, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE keep these unintended consequences in mind when you choose to speak in Chinese in the 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 [sic] respect for what you are doing. 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.”

Neely even went as far as to suggest in her email that speaking Chinese would hurt a student’s job prospects. She ended her email with: “Copying the second-year students as a reminder given they are currently applying to jobs.”

The emails went viral over the weekend and were widely shared on Twitter. While asking to recall a student’s name is innocuous, the professors’ requests seem to be for the purpose of blacklisting these Chinese students and rejecting their future attempts for work or mentorship. This goes against the very purpose of an academic institution and the equal opportunities it should provide for students.

One user, who went by the name Mark Song responded, saying Neely was ‘encouraging’ and ‘super respectful’ and likely wanted to help many Chinese students in the US improve their language skills.

“Speaking from personal experience, a lot of Chinese students backed [sic] in my highschool [sic] didn’t speak English unless they had to, and their English skills remained just about the same four years later,” he said.

Another user, who went under the name Frankie Huang, found the message hard to stomach. She wrote: “Reread this, even angrier now. The language is incredibly menacing: ‘unintended consequences’ for simply speaking Chinese during free time indicates there’s no end to the Othering of international students to make them feel inadequate and unwelcome.”

This was not the first time Neely told students they had to speak English. She sent another email on February 28, 2018, with the subject “To Speak English or To Not Speak English …”

She started off with “I don’t like being the language police” and went on to say that students speaking with friends in a native language “may give faculty the impression that you [sic] are not trying to improve your English skills and that you are not taking this opportunity seriously.

“As a result, they may be more hesitant to hire or work with international students because communication is such an important part of what we do as biostatisticians,” she wrote.

Duke’s Chief spokesperson Michael Schoenfeld confirmed with The Washington Post that the images circulating of Neely’s emails, written on Saturday and in February last year, were legitimate.

If the emails were not meant to be hurtful, they were at least insensitive. “It’s unbelievable that anyone in 2019 could be tone-deaf enough to send out that email. Let alone a professor at an elite school,” wrote Twitter user Roma Khudoleyev.

Mary E. Klotman, Dean of the School of Medicine, issued an apology for Neely’s message on Saturday. She said that the school would “conduct a thorough review of the Master’s of Biostatistics Program” and that Dr. Neely has asked to step down as director, effective immediately. She will be replaced by an interim.

A group of concerned students signed a petition on Saturday to investigate the matter. The petition explains: “As international students, we believe that the ability to speak in our native language creates a  much-needed space for obtaining academic, social, and moral support from our peers.  More  importantly,  the  flexibility of choosing which language  we  speak  is  an intimate  choice,  one  that  is  deeply tied to  our own individual  values, beliefs, and core  identity.”

On Sunday, Neely and Biostatistics department chair Elizabeth DeLong co-signed an apology to their students. “Although it was not meant to be hurtful, it came out that way and was clearly in error,” they wrote.

More than one million foreign students study in the United States each year, with roughly one-third coming from China. However, immigration policy changes, options for study elsewhere, and a ‘political climate that is hostile to immigrants and foreigners’ have caused a 6.6% slump in numbers in the 2017-2018 school year.

Within education, Asian Americans, in particular, have seen themselves tied up in a string of affirmative action cases across the US. Recent cases include alleged discrimination in admissions at Harvard College and at elite public high schools in New York.

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