Not an Isolated Incident

Recent controversy over email from Duke professor about Chinese students speaking Chinese in lounges reflects larger tensions in academe, experts say.

February 5, 2019
 
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The email was ostensibly offering advice. Yet it was incredibly offensive to many.

You probably know the story by now (and if you don’t, here’s a link). In short, a Duke University faculty member and the director of graduate studies for a master’s program in biostatistics wrote to students last Friday advising them not to speak Chinese in the student lounge. The faculty member, Megan Neely, wrote that she was following up on complaints of two other professors who came to her office to ask for pictures of students and picked out those they had observed speaking Chinese (“in their words,” she wrote, “VERY LOUDLY”) in the student lounge and study areas. According to Neely’s email, they wanted to know who the students were so they could write down their names and remember them if they were to apply for internships or to work with them on a master’s project in the future. They apparently were disappointed the students were not taking the opportunity to improve their English.

“To international students, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE keep these unintended consequences in mind when you choose to speak in Chinese in the building,” said Neely’s email, which advised them to speak in English 100 percent of the time they were in the classroom building. Neely sent the email to first- and second-year students in the program, copying the second years, she wrote, "as a reminder given they are currently applying for jobs."

The email was swiftly and widely condemned. Within two days a student-organized petition asking for a full investigation had more than 2,000 signatures -- "We are disheartened," the petition states, "when Duke’s faculty members implied that students of diverse national origin would be punished in academic and employment opportunities for speaking in their native language outside of classroom settings" -- and the incident had been covered by virtually every major national publication you could name.

But newsworthy as it was, what may have been most notable about this incident was the way in which these attitudes were explicitly laid out in an email sent to all students. The Duke email follows closely on a case at the University of Houston in which a professor sent a message to students about personal hygiene and body odor, singling out particular cultural groups and their eating habits, and another at the University of Liverpool in which the British university's international advising office sent an email to international students about academic integrity singling out Chinese students. The email, for which the university leadership has apologized, said that Chinese students are "usually unfamiliar with the word" for cheating in English and provided a Chinese translation.

The emails raise the question of how widespread these kinds of attitudes are. How common is it for faculty and administrators to harbor attitudes toward international students that could be characterized as culturally insensitive or even outright discriminatory or hostile? It’s hard to say for sure, but experts who have studied international students’ experiences and faculty perceptions of international students say what happened at Duke for example is not an isolated incident. And as higher education has grown more international -- the number of international students on U.S. campuses has nearly doubled in a decade, even when factoring in a recent dip in new enrollments -- incidents like these may be getting more attention than ever before.

"Now that international student discrimination is being tied to potential loss of tuition revenue, it becomes something that university leaders may be talking about, whereas over a decade ago when I was writing and talking about this in open forums it wasn't getting as much attention, because the financial implications were nowhere near as large back then as they are now," said Jenny J. Lee, a professor at the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona who has written about international students' experiences of “neo-racism,” “neo-racism” referring to discrimination on the basis of cultural difference or national origin. Research Lee coauthored based on interviews with 25 international students from 15 countries found that most of the students from Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East experienced some discrimination, whereas none of the students from Australia, Canada or Europe reported facing discrimination.

Discrimination frequently took the form of insulting jokes and statements made about their home country -- not just by other students but also by faculty and administrators. Several students reported feeling frustration or contempt from faculty or administrators in relation to their accents. ("Too often," Lee has written, "a 'foreign' accent, particularly Asian accents, was equated with 'stupidity' and sometimes even ridiculed, whereas European accents were more tolerated and appreciated.") Students in the study also perceived that domestic students were favored over them in getting teaching appointments.

“The international students who reported to me back then over 10 years ago indicated that they had never shared any of these incidents to anyone,” Lee said. “There are fears of deportation, fears of retaliation from faculty members, fears that the university will not act and there will be negative consequences to their status as students or their visa status. All of that created this culture of silence. I’m hoping that this [the Duke case] is an example of how things are changing and also sending a message to international students that they can be protected -- that the university will side with them.” In the Duke case, Neely was asked to step down from her position as director of graduate studies (she remains an assistant professor), and the medical school dean apologized and promised an investigation.

Christina Yao, an assistant professor in the educational administration department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who has researched international students' experiences, said she thinks outright hostility on the part of faculty toward international students is uncommon. By and large, she said, higher education is guided by values of diversity and inclusion and faculty see the benefits of having a diverse student body in their classrooms, whether those students are domestic students of color or international students.

"The bigger issue," Yao said, "is not faculty and administrators who are necessarily hostile to international students, but I think there is a high expectation that we expect international students to come to the U.S. and they adapt to how we do things. They adapt to our structures of writing. They adapt to our norms of writing. We’re a predominantly English-speaking country in the United States and [the assumption is] everyone has to speak English."

“There probably is a lack of that cultural competency,” she said, “but I think it’s rooted in us being very comfortable in our expectations that people conform to how we do things. And sometimes where that cultural competency is lacking, I think a lot of that is rooted in language dominance."

"I don't think the Duke case is an isolated incident," said Li Jin, an associate professor of Chinese at DePaul University who along with a colleague surveyed DePaul faculty about their perceptions of international students. One finding of their survey was that faculty far and away viewed students' English proficiency as their biggest challenge -- but that faculty who were born outside the U.S., who spoke two or more languages, and who were nonwhite were all comparatively less likely to point to challenges related to English proficiency.

"It shows clearly that faculty in this incident are concerned about their international students' English language skills, which is largely reported in previous studies," Jin said via email. "This particular incident reflects three deeper issues faced by many universities with an increasing number of international students: 1) latent intolerance of multilingualism, which mirrors certain attitudes toward immigrant assimilation in the larger American society. 2) outdated knowledge about second language development. Many empirical studies have shown that appropriate use of the mother tongue actually provides cognitive, metacognitive, and psychological support for adult learners' second language development. However, many Americans including faculty outside the language education field still hold a traditional view that the mother tongue is an interference for second language development, thus prefer an English-only approach when advising their international students."

Thirdly, she continued, "there is lack of training and support for faculty who have to teach and advise an expansive international student population. For instance, the director of graduate studies could have advised the two concerned faculty members how to help their own international students who they think face language challenges instead of punishing their international students by depriving them of future academic and professional opportunities. Thus, my primary takeaway of this incident is university faculty need to receive training to have a better understanding of the challenges faced by their international students … as well as of resources and support they can provide to their international students. University administrators also need to take notes as to how to provide additional resources to support faculty's new role in helping international students if they wish to maintain the enrollments."

Jason Schneider, an assistant professor of writing, rhetoric and discourse at DePaul who conducted the survey of DePaul faculty with Jin, said the survey didn't explicitly document what he would characterize as "negative" views toward international students. "However, I think this is partly a result of the survey questions we used, which were more oriented towards understanding faculty perceptions of international students’ unique strengths and challenges, as well as faculty’s own challenges and experience," Schneider said in written answers to questions.

"Nonetheless, I think there are ways that our data indicate the kinds of negative views that are implicit in the Duke incident. For example, when we posed an open-ended question, 'In working with international students, what unique challenges have you encountered inside and outside of the classroom?' the majority of responses actually focused on perceived student problems, e.g., English language challenges, reluctance to participate in class discussions, limited understanding of U.S. notions of academic integrity. A much smaller number of faculty wrote about their own teaching challenges, e.g., effectively explaining assignments to international students. The link between this and what happened at Duke is a view among some, maybe many, faculty that the challenge of international student adjustment to the U.S. academic reality falls wholly on the students. Or differently, the view seems to be that students arrive with shortcomings and deficiencies, and any teaching challenges that we may have as faculty can be attributed to those supposed shortcomings and deficiencies, not to our own inability to rethink our pedagogies in response to changing demographics. Some seem to believe that if students want to succeed, they just need to figure how to do it."

Chris R. Glass, an associate professor and graduate program director for the higher education program at Old Dominion University, has written extensively about the crucial role faculty can play in helping international students feel a sense of belonging on campus. The majority of international students he has surveyed report that their interactions with faculty have been positive, but he said that perceived slights can corrode students' sense of belonging. Such slights, Glass said, "can be anything from a faculty member skipping a student during class introductions to tending to suspect cheating if Chinese students are sitting together in a classroom. These are perceived as purposeful slights that show that a student in some ways doesn’t belong, and doesn’t have the kind of freedom to operate as maybe a domestic student.”

Like Lee, however, Glass noted that students may be feeling more empowered to speak up than they were in the past. “It used to be, I think, that when I would talk to international students, these perceived slights would be received and then absorbed, and I think what’s interesting about this story and some of these other stories that are coming out is they are now going viral and the politics of it is changing from the student side."

The dynamics of international student mobility are changing, Glass said. “Historically, the idea was we’re importing talented international students into our top-tier STEM programs and a U.S.-dominated liberal world order. Those are the old rules of the game. The new rules of the game are these students have a lot of choices. These students have a lot more financial resources. They feel far more freedom to speak up. The politics of belonging have been turned on their head, in the sense that the person who doesn't feel like they belong in this new world is the professor and the graduate program director.”

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