University Deals with Blowback After Professor Tells Chinese Students They Must Speak English

An assistant professor at Duke University’s School of Medicine has stepped down as leader of the school’s Master of Biostatistics program after telling Chinese students that they must speak in English only. The professor, Megan Neely, also threatened the students with the loss of research or internship opportunities if they didn’t comply with her rule. She said in an email that she had heard other faculty complaints about the students’ use of the language.

Her statements, sent to first- and second-year students in an email on Jan. 25, 2019, provoked outrage not only on Duke’s campus, but also on various social media platforms throughout the United States and in China. On the Chinese social media platform Weibo, many users have described the email as racist.

As for students at Duke, their anger was compounded when CNN reported that Neely sent a similar email almost a year ago. In that message, too, she stated that openly speaking Chinese could impede students’ ability to land research opportunities. Duke’s vice president for public affairs and government relations confirmed the authenticity of both emails.

The Duke Asian Students Association and the Duke International Association issued a joint statement expressing disdain for Neely’s threats and the complaints of the anonymous faculty members. Meanwhile, a student petition began circulating on Jan. 27 asking the university to investigate the unnamed faculty. So far, it has collected over 2,000 signatures.

Officials at Duke are doing what they can to mitigate the damage. Mary Klotman, dean of the School of Medicine, sent a letter to the program’s students reiterating her respect for students of all cultures and languages. She also assured students that they are free to converse in the languages of their choice. Furthermore, she announced that the office of Institutional Equity is set to investigate Duke’s biostatistics program and to evaluate what it can do better to serve students from diverse backgrounds.

Chinese individuals currently form the largest group of international students in the U.S. and are reported to have contributed $9.8 billion to the American economy in 2016, according to a report by the U.S. Commerce Department.