Duke Professor Resigns After Telling Chinese Students to Use “English 100% of the Time”
An assistant professor at Duke University has resigned from her position as the Director of Graduate Studies for the university’s Medical Department, after students complained about an email encouraging them to speak English rather than their native language.
Dr. Megan Neely, PhD, has stepped down after it was made public that she sent a mass email to Chinese exchange students telling them that they needed to speak English “100% of the time” while on campus or in professional settings.
Neely instructed the students that they all needed to improve their English if they wanted to gain access to internships and that there could be “unintended consequences” if they were overheard speaking Chinese in a professional setting. “Something to think about…” was the subject line.
What in the entire hot hell https://t.co/HoMfTP2ksF— The Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom (@tressiemcphd) January 27, 2019
She also said she had gotten complaints from two separate faculty members that students were conversing in their native languages when having lunch or on breaks. According to Neely’s account, the faculty members proceeded to point out a small group who were heard speaking Chinese in the student lounge areas and wrote down the students’ names so the professors could remember them in case one of the students asked to work with them in the future.
“Both faculty members picked out a small group of first-year students who they observed speaking Chinese (in their words, VERY LOUDLY) in the student lounge/study areas,” the woman wrote.
Neely detailed an encounter she had with two faculty members where she was asked to present photos of her master’s students.
“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 in bold, underlined font. “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.”
A photo of the email was posted to Twitter Saturday morning, garnering nearly 14,000 retweets, 28,000 likes and major backlash against Neely.
One professor from Duke University sent out an email asking Chinese students not to speak Chinese in school building. pic.twitter.com/6xGkIeScJo— Hua Sirui 华思睿 (@siruihua) January 26, 2019
The professor additionally copied second-year students to remind them to do the same, “given they are currently applying for jobs.” According to someone tweeting about the incident, those students had already received a similar email last year.
The dean of the Duke University School of Medicine, Mary Klotman, published a letter of apology to students on Saturday:
“I have asked the university’s Office of Institutional Equity (OIE) to conduct a thorough review of the Master’s of Biostatistics Program and to recommend ways in which we can improve the learning environment for students from all backgrounds,” Klotman’s letter read. “In addition, Dr. Neely has asked to step down as director of graduate studies for the master’s program effective immediately and will be replaced by an interim DGS to be named shortly.”
Dr. Klotman continued assuring students that “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.”
Still, a group of students are petitioning for a “full-scale investigation into the actions of the two unnamed professors referenced in Dr. Neely’s email,” and the university’s adoption of a “zero tolerance policy for discrimination based on race, ethnicity, and national origin.” According to a public statement dated Jan. 27, 2,000 students had already signed the petition.
An additional statement was posted on Facebook by the Asian Students Association and the Duke International Association, pointing out that Neely’s behavior was not only “hypocritical,” but also “discriminatory.”
“Sending such emails to the entire department with discriminatory and threatening language is in no way an effective and appropriate approach to achieve a quiet public work space that is respectful for everyone,” the group said in a statement. “For graduate and international students who are already in precarious situations, depending on education or employment to stay in the country, these ‘recommendations’ are doubly forceful and coercive.”
In a separate message sent to students Sunday, the Department Chair of Biostatistics and Bioinformatics, professor Elizabeth DeLong, offered a “sincere apology” for Neely’s sentiment.
“We very much value our international students and their contributions to our program and we recognize that the message that was sent Friday was not appropriate,” DeLong’s message read. “Although it was not meant to be hurtful, it came out that way and was clearly in error.”
Neely also included a personal note in DeLong’s email to students, apologizing directly for her actions.
“I deeply regret the hurt my email has caused,” Neely wrote in the message. “It was not my intention. Moving forward, it is my sincerest wish that every student in the Master of Biostatistics program is successful in all of their endeavors. Please accept our sincerest apologies.”
Neely is still employed by Duke and will likely continue on as a professor of biostatistics.