Duke University Professor Steps Down After Asking Students To ‘Only Speak English’

Megan Neely, an Assistant Professor of Biostatistics and Bioinformatics and the Director of Graduate Studies at Duke University, has stepped down after she sent an email urging students to only speak English in the department’s building.


What Happened?

In an email sent to first- and second-year students in the program on Friday, January 25, Neely urged international students to refrain from speaking Chinese in biometrics building or “any other professional situation.”

She said that not speaking English could lead to “unintentional consequences” for international students.

In the email, Neely said that two unnamed faculty members approached her and asked to see pictures of all the biometrics graduate students. “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 area.”

Neely said that the faculty members told her “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 masters 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.”

“To international students,” the email continued, “PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE keep these unintended consequences in mind when you choose to speak Chinese in the building.”

Neely added that she respected international students for learning “in a non-native language” but “I encourage you to commit to using English 100% of the time when you are in Hock [the faculty building] or any other professional setting.”

Screenshots of Neely’s email were shared on Twitter over the weekend by Hua Sirui, a producer for Now This News. The email has since gone viral as people found it to be deeply offensive.

One professor from Duke University sent out an email asking Chinese students not to speak Chinese in school building. pic.twitter.com/6xGkIeScJo

— Hua Sirui 华思睿 (@siruihua) January 26, 2019

A group of graduate students issued a petition called for an investigation into Neely’s emails, as Duke’s student newspaper The Chronicle reported.

“Our academic and professional success depends on the University fulfilling its commitment to creating an inclusive environment for everyone, especially those who already struggle to overcome both explicit and implicit biases as well as barriers in an increasingly divisive American society,” the petition said. “We are dishearted, therefore, when Duke’s faculty members implied that students of diverse national origin would be punished in academic and ployment opportunities for speaking their native language outside of classroom settings.”

A joint statement from the Asian Students Association and the Duke International Association at the university have expressed similar concerns, according to BBC.

“These emails warning students that not speaking English could harm their chances of getting research opportunities are examples of discrimination that should not be tolerated by the University,” the statement said. “Sending such emails to the entire department with discriminatory and threatening language is in no way an effective and appropriate approach to achieving a quite public workplace that is respectful for everyone.”

“To condemn students for speaking non-English languages, especially when they are simply conversing with one another in a non-professional setting, is not only an unprofessional and inappropriate approach to the incident at hand but also just another indication for Duke’s lack of commitment to real diversity.”

Mary Klotman, Dean of the Duke University School of Medicine, announced in a statement to the community Sunday, January 27 that Neely would be stepping down as the director of studies for the biometrics program and that an investigation would be launched to determine “ways in which we can improve the learning environment for students from all background.”

“Sadly, this matter demonstrates that we must continue to work on overcoming deep-seated concerns about our cultural awareness and understanding. We take this challenge seriously and you have my personal pledge that it will be addressed quickly and sensitively,” Klotman announced.


Who Is Megan Neely?

Megan Neely is a former Assistant Professor of Biostatistics and Bioinformatics and the Director of Graduate Studies at Duke University. She is stepping down as the director of graduate studies due to an email urging international students to “commit speaking English 100%” in the department’s building and that speaking Chinese might lead to “unintentional consequences.”

Besides the petition called for an investigation into Neely’s emails, others have argued that the incident has been overblown.

Three students from the program, who asked to stay anonymous, expressed support for Neely to BBC.

“Dr. Neely is a great instructor and definitely not a racist, not even close,” one Chinese student said.

Another Chinese student told BBC that Neely “always willing to help” students of all nationalities, and he hoped the university would investigate the two unnamed faculty members mentioned in her email instead.

A third student said: “Megan is truly the best instructor and mentor I ever had… She made a mistake [with her email], but we still know what was her intention and how much she cares about us.”

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