Duke University professor warns students of ‘consequences’ for speaking Chinese

A Duke University professor has stepped down, after an email in which she warned Chinese students to speak English on campus or face “unintended consequences” went viral.

Screenshots of the group email, sent to grad students in the Department of Medicine, made the rounds on social media on Saturday.

The director of the biostatistic graduate program, Dr. Megan Neely, wrote that two faculty members had told her about a group of Chinese students who were speaking Chinese “VERY LOUDLY” in study and lounge areas on campus.   

The faculty members, Neely explained, took note of the students’ 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.” Presumably, the faculty members would shoot down their applications.

“PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE keep these unintended consequences in mind when you choose to speak in Chinese in the building,” Neely warned, telling the offending students to “commit to using English 100% of the time.”

Neely’s approach found little sympathy on campus as more than 1,000 students signed a petition calling for an investigation into the incident, according to Duke University’s student newspaper.

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Accusations of racism flowed on Twitter, many from Chinese users.

“Students are free to speak whatever language they want in their down time,” one person wrote. “This is discriminatory and utterly shameful.”

By Saturday evening, Neely was asked to step down, and Mary E. Klotman, Dean of the Duke University School of Medicine, apologized to the offended students.

While Neely’s email passed on the concerns of other faculty members, the professor herself issued a similar warning before. In 2018, she told students that while she doesn’t like “being the language police,” students who speak in Chinese might give teaching staff the impression that “you are not trying to improve your English skills and that you are not taking this opportunity seriously.”

Talking loudly in study areas, she also said, “is just plain rude.”

Outrage is common currency on university campuses, but this particular case could hurt Duke financially. Chinese students make up the largest group of international students with 1,324 on campus in 2017, and the university opened a campus in Kunshan, China last fall. As of Sunday, the hashtag ‘Duke University bans speaking Chinese’ was read almost seven million times on Chinese social network Weibo, the South China Morning Post reported.

With international grad students paying $32,000 per semester in tuition and fees alone, the loss of these students would hit Duke’s pockets hard.

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