Megan Neely stepped down Saturday as the graduate director of the Duke University School of Medicine’s biostatistics program after an email she wrote calling for Chinese students in her program to “commit to using English 100% of the time” in the school or in “any other professional setting” was published on Twitter.
Neely, who in earlier emails advised students that failing to speak English “may make it harder for you and future international students to get research opportunities while in the program,” will remain an assistant professor at Duke Medicine, according to campus newspaper The Chronicle.
In an email titled, “Something to think about …” she told students about two professors who had complained to her about students speaking Chinese—“in their words VERY, LOUDLY”—in the medical school buildings.
“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,” she wrote in bolded and underlined text.
“To international students, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE keep these unintended consequences in mind when you choose to speak Chinese in the building,” she continued. “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. 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.”
A similar email from Neely dated February 28, 2018, later surfaced on social media.
“While I completely understand the desire to speak with friends in your native language, I wanted to provide a different viewpoint on why this might be the best choice while you are in the department,” that email read. “Beyond the obvious opportunity to practice and perfect your English, speaking in your native language in the department may give faculty the impression that you 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. Bottom line: Continuing this practice may make it harder for you and future international students to get research opportunities while in the program.”
School of Medicine dean Mary Klotman sent an email to students announcing Neely’s decision to step down as graduate director Saturday evening. In it, she also announced an investigation into the program by the university’s Office of Institutional Equity.
“To be clear: there is absolutely no restriction or limitation on the language you use to converse and communicate with each other,” Klotman wrote. “Your career opportunities and recommendations will not in any way be influenced by the language you use outside the classroom.”
Duke’s Asian Students Association and Duke International Association released a joint statement Saturday evening condemning Neely’s emails and especially her suggestion that speaking in a language other than English would jeopardize students’ career prospects.
“For graduate and international students who are already in precarious situations, depending on education or employment to stay in the country,” it read, “these ‘recommendations’ are doubly forceful and coercive. For international students, speaking in their mother tongue is a means of comfort and familiarity with a home and culture that is already oftentimes suppressed within the United States. Within the bounds of one’s personal conversations, people should wholeheartedly be able to speak any language they wish—to strip away this agency is demeaning, disrespectful, and wholly discriminatory.”
The statement concludes: “The first description of Duke University that appears in a browser search touts its international campuses and its reputation as a ‘global university.’ Duke should prove it.”
This isn’t Duke University’s first run-in with accusations of its officials’ racial insensitivity. Vice president of student affairs Larry Moneta will leave the university at the end of the academic year after facing a backlash over getting two baristas at a campus coffee shop fired because he found a rap song they were playing offensive; later, he deleted his Facebook account after posting some problematic photos from China. And in 2014, executive vice president Tallman Trask III allegedly called a parking attendant a “dumb, dumb stupid [n-word]” after he struck her with his car.
It’s more shocking when something like this doesn’t happen in a year. If Duke were serious about dealing with their institutional racism, they’d clear house at the executive level and replace them with leaders that are serious about building an equitable campus environment.
I’m also offended that a university professor would write “upmost” in an email. It ain’t a word.
I know some people who would insist Megan Neely has a point. To which I say: All Americans in France and Italy have to speak to each other in painful, stilted French and Italian respectively, all of the time, even when their conversation partner or group is entirely American. The only place they can speak English in is in an enclosed, 100% private setting aka at home – and even then, only softly (not “VERY LOUDLY”) lest the neighbours catch wind. Sound Gestapo yet?
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