An assistant professor and director of the biostatistics master’s program at Duke University has been at the center of an investigation following complaints she made towards students speaking Chinese in an academic building.
On Jan. 25, Megan Neely wrote an email to approximately 50 biostatistics students. In the email, she said that two faculty members had complained to her about students loudly speaking Chinese in a common area, and that she was disappointed these students weren’t attempting to improve their English. She ended the email by asking for the names of the students in question, and stating that all international students should “keep these unintended consequences in mind when you choose to speak in Chinese in the building.”
This is not Neely’s first email of this nature. In February 2018, she sent a similar email after “many faculty” noticed students speaking foreign languages in break rooms.
“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 biostaticians,” the email stated, urging students to commit to using English in professional settings.
While Neely’s first email received little to no repercussions, that has not been the case for the most recent one. Dr. Mary Klotman, the dean of the medical school, has since written a letter to students in the program, confirming that there are no restrictions on speaking foreign languages with each other. Klotman has also confirmed that although Neely remains on the faculty, she has stepped down from her position as the program’s director of graduate studies.
A petition for a thorough investigation into the incident was signed by over 2,000 students and alumni as of Monday, and the university’s Office of Institutional Equity will be conducting a review of the biostatistics master’s program and the faculty members who made the original complaints to Neely.
“I deeply regret the hurt my email has caused. It was not my intention,” wrote Neely in an email to program members.
Universities across the U.S. are currently working to attract top international students, despite the negative rhetoric toward foreigners peddled by President Trump and other prominent politicians, and incidences such as this one can have devastating blows to a university’s reputation abroad.
“Duke’s engagement with China, with Chinese students and with Chinese scholars is broad, deep and long standing…” said Duke Vice President for Public Affairs Michael Schoenfeld in an interview. “We deeply regret that this particular incident might have compromised the very valuable and mutually beneficial relationship that Duke has with its Chinese students.”
In Duke’s case, approximately 15 percent of their entire student body comes from China. 36 of the 55 students in the biostatistics master’s program are from China, and Chinese scholars make up one-fifth of the program’s faculty members.
The long-term consequences of this event are not yet known, however, Chinese officials commented on the inappropriateness of the email. Foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang imagined the situation occurring in reverse.
“If a Chinese university required that American students not use English to communicate, I think this would not be normal,” said Shuang in a press briefing.
At a time when relations between the U.S. and China are strenuous, due in part to a temporary truce on a trade war which may resume on March 1, the Duke incident seems to be inciting the intense feelings of the public. It has drawn thousands of comments in China on social media, with some classifying it as racial discrimination and calling for Chinese universities to ban English on their campuses.