Megan Neely, an assistant professor at Duke University in North Carolina, is facing criticism for reportedly telling Chinese students they weren’t allowed to speak in their native language. Neely was the director of the biostatistics graduate program at the university. She was removed from the school when screenshots of a controversial email she sent to students began circulating around campus, according to BBC News.
The incident started when Neely became frustrated by a group of students speaking Chinese loudly in the student lounge at the department. Her frustration was stemmed from the distraction they were allegedly causing to other students attempting to study nearby. However, she was also irritated that the students were choosing to converse in their native tongue rather than trying to work on their English skills. Neely also found it rude that the students did not attempt to include others in their conversation by speaking a language more could understand.
Updated photos (cropped to remove room #) Happening at #Duke: profs asking dept prof for pictures of students who are speaking #chinese to not recommend or refer them for internships. How is this okay in this day and age??@DukeU @aaldef #racism@NBCAsianAmerica @HPAsianVoices pic.twitter.com/2ydKhixqZn— Julia Wang (@juliachangwang) January 26, 2019
The professor stated these concerns in an email that she then sent out publicly to her biostatistics students. “To international students, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE keep these unintended consequences in mind when you choose to speak in Chinese in the building.” While she commended international students for learning a foreign tongue, she also said, “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.”
The message did not go over well. A group of concerned students quickly put together a petition complaining that “students of diverse national origin would be punished in academic and employment opportunities for speaking in their native language outside of classroom settings.” More than 2,000 people signed the petition, including alumni and students from other schools. The petition encourages others to treat international students with more respect and understanding as they learn how to adapt to a culture and language they aren’t used to.
The situation quickly got widespread attention on social media, many calling Neely a racist and condemning her for her actions. Still others, including students, wondered if she really deserved the backlash she received. A few international students from the program stated that they believe she had good intentions when sending the email, but that her words quickly got twisted and taken out of context. However, the students are reportedly afraid to speak out publicly in support of the professor. They worry that doing so will be interpreted as them betraying their home country.