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Mind your language, American professors

Mind your language, American professors

MONDAY, February 04, 2019
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Duke University used to be a dream school for Asian students. Not anymore, after assistant professor Megan Neely sent an email to biostatistics graduate students recently telling them to “commit to using English 100 per cent of the time”.

In the email, Neely, who has since resigned as director of graduate studies in the biostatistics department, said that two faculty members had complained to her about two students “speaking Chinese… very loudly” in the student lounge and study areas. “Both faculty members … 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 continued.
If the implication wasn’t clear enough, Neely spelled it out in the next paragraph: “To international students, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE keep these unintended consequences in mind when you choose to speak in Chinese in the building… That being said, I encourage you to commit to using English 100 per cent of the time when you are in Hock or any other professional setting.”
If this is not a threat that students speaking Chinese would not be considered for internship or research projects, what is?
True, Neely has resigned, but disappointingly the North Carolina university has not identified the other two faculty members involved.
If the two international students were talking in their mother tongue, what was “so impolite” about them? The two professors could not understand the language, so they asked the director of graduate studies for the names of the two students so as not to recommend or admit them to research projects in the future.
Isn’t this racial discrimination?
What are the department’s criteria for selecting students for research or internships? These are the questions I hope the three faculty members will answer.
The term “very loudly” used by the two Duke professors is offensive to all those who love their mother tongue. How loud is “very loudly”? I assume “very loudly” is a subjective and discriminating description of those who converse in any other language other than English. As human beings, the professors were wrong to associate the students’ behaviour with their careers. As academics, they were unprofessional for suggesting the two students would never work with them irrespective of their academic performance.
According to Neely, the two professors said they wanted their international students to use their opportunity to practise English. But that does not explain why the Chinese language should not be spoken in the entire building. By communicating with each other in their mother tongue, students from the same country combat homesickness.
Of course, foreign students studying in a country where English is the lingua franca should be encouraged to speak in English. But the students have the freedom to choose which language they want to use in a private conversation. And any attempt to force the students to do otherwise is an infringement upon their individual rights.
Duke is an elite university where faculty members are supposed to be knowledgeable and sensitive to racial discrimination, especially since its students come from diverse ethnic and social backgrounds. The three professors apparently do not measure up to those standards.
Moreover, after receiving the complaint from her colleagues, Neely abused her position as director of graduates by trying to coerce the Chinese students into obeying non-existent, discriminatory rules.
This ugly incident went viral on the Internet and social media. But similar abuses in other US universities may have gone unreported.
On many US campuses, the resentful wall against Asian students, many of whom pay disproportionate amounts in tuition, is akin to the elephant in the room.
Mostly, the wall has nothing to do with language, for Chinese students could not have enrolled in Duke if their English-language skills were not satisfactory. American schools should rethink how to ensure their faculty members and other staff adopt the right attitude and make all the students part of their community.