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Duke University asked a professor to step down from her administrative role after she sent an email to students advising them not to speak Chinese in the medical school building and suggesting that failure to speak in English in nonclassroom settings could make it harder for them to get jobs and internships and secure research opportunities with faculty.

Megan Neely, an assistant professor and director of graduate studies for a master’s program in biostatistics, sent an email Friday to first- and second-year students in the program warning them of what she wrote were complaints from two other unnamed professors about students speaking in Chinese in the student lounge and study areas.

“Hi All,” Neely wrote. “I had two separate faculty members come to my office today and ask if I had pictures of the [master's in biostatistics] students. I shared with them the head shots of the first- and second-year cohorts taken during orientation. Both faculty members picked out a small group of first-year students who they observed speaking Chinese (in their words, VERY LOUDLY) in the student lounge/study areas. I asked why they were curious about the students’ names. 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. 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.” (Emphasis per original email.)

Neely's email continued, “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 U.S. and have to learn in a non-native language. As such, I have the upmost respect for what you are doing. That being said, I encourage you to commit to using English 100 percent of the time when you are in Hock or any other professional setting.”

She added, “Copying the second-year students as a reminder given they are currently applying for jobs.”

In a previous email, sent last February, Neely wrote that “many faculty” had noticed students were not speaking in English in the departmental break rooms. “While I completely understand the desire to speak with friends in your native language, I wanted to provide a different viewpoint on why this might not be the best choice while you are in the department. Beyond the obvious opportunity to practice and perfect your English, speaking in your native language in the department may give faculty the impression that you are not trying to improve your English skills and that you are not taking this opportunity seriously. As a result, they may be more hesitant to hire or work with international students because communication is such an important part of what we do as biostatisticians. Bottom line: Continuing this practice may make it harder for you and future international students to get research opportunities while in the program.”

That email continued, “Please keep these potential downstream effects in mind when you choose to or choose not to speak in English outside of the classroom. That being said, I have tremendous respect for what the international students are doing by enrolling in a graduate program in a foreign country -- it is a tremendous undertaking.” 

Neely did not respond to a request for comment Sunday.

Mary E. Klotman, dean of the Duke University School of Medicine, sent an email to biostatistics students apologizing for the email sent by Neely on Friday and saying she had asked the university’s Office of Institutional Equity “to conduct a thorough review of the Master’s of Biostatistics Program and to recommend ways in which we can improve the learning environment for students from all backgrounds.”

Klotman also said that Neely had been asked to step down as director of graduate studies “effective immediately.” A Duke spokesman said that Neely has stepped down from her role as director of graduate studies; she remains an assistant professor of biostatistics and bioinformatics.

“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 incident reflects tensions that can arise on campuses as faculty who may or may not be adept in intercultural relations adapt to teaching an increasingly international population. If Neely’s account of her conversations with other professors is accepted at face value, she seemed to see her role as an adviser, yes, but also as a messenger conveying concerns expressed by other faculty members, including the two professors who she said came to her office to write down the names of first-year students they’d heard conversing ("in their words, VERY LOUDLY") outside the classroom in Chinese.

“This behavior is not only hypocritical -- given Duke’s dependence on international students and faculty for their undergraduate and graduate programs, desire to present itself as a ‘global university’, and partnership with Duke Kunshan University -- but also discriminatory,” the Asian Students Association at Duke and the Duke International Association said in a joint statement about the emails on Facebook. Duke Kunshan is a reference to Duke’s branch campus in China.

“Sending such emails to the entire department with discriminatory and threatening language is in no way an effective and appropriate approach to achieve a quiet public work space that is respectful for everyone. For graduate and international students who are already in precarious situations, depending on education or employment to stay in the country, these ‘recommendations’ are doubly forceful and coercive,” the statement continued.

“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. It is also important to indicate that one’s use of another language should not at all be an indication of deficiency in English. It is ultimately extraordinarily xenophobic to believe so and should have no place in an environment like Duke.”

A petition circulated online calls for a “full-scale investigation into the incident surrounding Professor Neely’s email correspondences and the actions of the unnamed faculty members” and calls on Duke to release a report with the findings of the investigation. The  organizers of the petition, who have chosen to remain anonymous but describe themselves as a group of concerned students across various Duke departments and schools, said the petition had received more than 2,000 signatures as of 2 p.m. on Sunday and that the petition had been delivered to multiple Duke administrators, including President Vincent Price.

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