Megan Neely, who had been the university’s director of graduate studies in the biostatistics department, told the program’s students in an email Friday to only speak English on campus and in professional settings. The email titled “Something to think about…” triggered a petition with over 1,900 signatures and has been shared across Twitter as well as Chinese social media site Weibo.
In the email, Neely claimed two unnamed faculty members complained to her about a group of students speaking Chinese “very loudly” in a common area. They asked to see photos of the first and second-year students so that they could “remember them if the students ever interviewed for an internship or asked to work with them for a master’s project.”
A university spokesperson confirmed in an email to USA TODAY that images of the email shared online were authentic.
“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 the Friday email. “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 respect for what you are doing,” she continued. “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.”
“Don’t be racist,” one Twitter user commented. “This is RIDICULOUS. I wrote in English so that you, the narrow-minded DUKE UNIVERSITY professor, can understand it.”
The university’s Asian Students Association and International Association posted a joint statement that called the email inappropriate and unprofessional.
“For international students, speaking in their mother tongue is a means of comfort and familiarity with a home and culture that is oftentimes suppressed within the United States,” the statement said. “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.”
Meanwhile, Weibo users have already viewed the hashtag “Duke University bans speaking Chinese” 6.7 million times, the South China Morning Post reported.
Previously, Neely warned biostatistics masters students not to speak languages other than English on campus. In a February 2018 email, the screenshot of which a university spokesperson confirmed to USA TODAY, Neely told students doing so may make getting research opportunities in the program harder.
By Saturday afternoon, the medical school’s dean told the program’s students in an email that Neely asked to step down as director, effective immediately. Mary Klotman apologized for the message, adding the university respects every culture and language. The dean also said she asked the university’s Office of Institutional Equity to review the biostatistics program and recommend learning environment improvements for “students from all backgrounds.”
“There is absolutely no restriction or limitation on the language you use to converse and communicate with each other,” Klotman wrote in the letter. “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.”
More than 1,900 students had signed a petition as of Sunday afternoon calling for a full investigation of Neely’s emails and to identify the unnamed faculty members. The petition calls for an independent committee and “appropriate remedial measures.”
Neely still works as an associate professor, the school newspaper The Chronicle reported.
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