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Duke apologizes after professor tells grad students not to speak Chinese at school

Duke apologizes after professor tells grad students not to speak Chinese at school

Duke University Professor Megan Neely, director of graduate studies, emailed biostatistics master’s students Friday urging them to “commit to using English 100% of the time” at the school and workplace.
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Duke University Professor Megan Neely, director of graduate studies, emailed biostatistics master’s students Friday urging them to “commit to using English 100% of the time” at the school and workplace.

The dean of Duke University’s medical school has apologized and says an administrator who advised graduate students not to speak Chinese at the school will be replaced, according to a letter released by the university.

Professor Megan Neely, director of graduate studies, asked to step down as director but remains an assistant professor, a university spokesman said Sunday.

According to an online petition calling for an investigation and posts on social media, Neely emailed first- and second-year biostatistics students in February 2018 and again Friday urging them to “commit to using English 100% of the time” at the school and workplace. The story was first reported in the student newspaper The Chronicle.

In the Friday email, Neely said two faculty members had approached and asked her to see photos of students. She shared photos, and the faculty members identified a group of first-year students they said had been talking very loudly in Chinese in the student lounge and study areas.

“Both faculty members replied that 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,” Neely wrote in the email. “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.”

“To international students, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE keep these unintended consequences in mind when you choose to speak in Chinese in the building,” Neely’s email 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. 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.”

Efforts to reach Neely by her work phone and email were unsuccessful Sunday.

On Saturday a group calling itself Concerned Students posted an online petition responding to Neely’s remarks. They asked for an investigation of her and the unnamed faculty members and said they were “disheartened” to be scolded for speaking their native language in non-classroom settings.

“Duke has a long tradition of celebrating its diverse student body,” the students’ letter said. “In a time like this, we believe that the University has an even stronger imperative to continue that tradition of respect and support for different voices.”

“One thing we can agree with Professor Neely is that as international students, the choice to pursue our studies and career at Duke is, indeed, a ‘tremendous undertaking,’ the letter continued. “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.”

‘The language police’

Friday’s email was not the first time Neely urged graduate students to speak English. In a 2018 email posted with the online petition, Neely said she didn’t want to be “the language police” but said she had received numerous complaints.

Speaking a language other than English “might not be the best choice while you are in the department,” she wrote. Some professors might think foreign students were not trying to improve their English skills or taking their educational opportunity seriously, she wrote..

“Bottom line: Continuing this practice might make it harder for you and future international students to get research opportunities while in the program,” she wrote.

On Sunday, Mike Schoenfeld, Duke’s vice president for public affairs and government relations, said the university’s Office of Institutional Equity will look into the issues the emails raised.

“To restate: Duke does not have any restriction or limitation on the language that can be used outside the classroom,” Schoenfeld said by email. “Indeed, we believe that a global university should reflect the languages and cultures of our students. And further, career opportunities and recommendations should never be influenced by the language students use to converse outside the classroom.”

A substitute teacher at a Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C. school was caught in a video that appeared to show the teacher scolding a student for speaking Spanish.

Hurt and angered

In a letter to Master’s of Biostatistics students, Dr. Mary E. Klotman, dean of Duke’s medical school, apologized for Neely’s message and said Neely had asked to step down as director of graduate studies.

“I understand that many of you felt hurt and angered by this message,” 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.”

The Office of Institutional Equity review will recommend ways to improve the learning environment for Master’s of Biostatistics students from all backgrounds, Klotman wrote.

Biostatistics is branch of statistics that explores the genetic origins of disease, drug therapies and how to reduce health care costs without compromising patient care, among other issues, according to the Department of Biostatistics and Bioinformatics’ website.

The department has over 50 faculty members affiliated with programs across the School of Medicine, according to the website. They include the Duke Clinical Research Institute, the Duke Cancer Institute, the Durham VA Medical Center, the Duke Molecular Physiology Institute, the Center for HIV/Aids Vaccine Immunology, the Duke Center for Aging, the Duke Center for Genomic and Computational Biology, and the Duke Center for Applied Genomics & Precision Medicine.

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Mark Schultz is the deputy metro editor for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun. He has been an editor, reporter and photographer in North Carolina for 30 years.
Jane Stancill has reported on higher ed for The News & Observer for 20 years. She has won state and national awards for her coverage of education.
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