Duke voices support for Asian students and asks for review of biostatistics program

Duke apologizes after professor tells grad students not to speak Chinese at school

Duke University Professor Megan Neely, director of graduate studies, emailed biostatistics master’s students Friday urging them to “commit to using English 100% of the time” at the school and workplace.
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Duke University Professor Megan Neely, director of graduate studies, emailed biostatistics master’s students Friday urging them to “commit to using English 100% of the time” at the school and workplace.

Duke University’s Office for Institutional Equity will review the “learning environment” at the school’s Masters of Biostatistics and Bioinformatics department after an administrator warned international students to strive always to speak English while in their main research building on campus and in “any other professional setting.”

Duke spokesman Michael Schoenfeld said Monday that the office, which works throughout the university on diversity, employment equity, harassment prevention and other workplace issues, has been asked “to recommend ways in which to improve the learning environment for all students” in the program.

Fifty-four students are enrolled in the graduate biostatistics and bioinformatics program, Schoenfeld said, and about two-thirds are from China.

Also on Monday, Schoenfeld reiterated the university’s regard for its Asian students, faculty and staff, in light of the medical school incident as well as Facebook posts from a top Duke leader about China last year that some viewed as offensive.

“Every institution will be tested by situations like this, and it’s important for us to acknowledge them, to address them quickly, specifically and in detail, to learn from them and to continue building a community,” Schoenfeld said.

Schoenfeld noted that the university has had important connections to China dating back to the school’s roots as Trinity College more than a century ago.

Email about language

On Friday, all the biostatistics and bioinformatics students received an email from Megan Lee Neely in the department that said two faculty members had approached her and asked to see photos of students. She shared photos, she said, and the faculty members identified a group of first-year students they said had been talking very loudly in Chinese in the student lounge and study areas.

“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,” Neely wrote in the email. “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.”

An administrator has stepped down at Duke University over an email that advised Chinese students to avoid speaking their native language at a campus building. Harry Lynch N&O file photo

Neely went on to say, “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 US and have to learn in a non-native language. As such, I have the upmost [sic] respect for what you are doing. That being said, I encourage you to commit to using English 100% of the time when you are in Hock or any other professional setting.”

The email was shared widely across the internet, including on the Facebook page of Duke’s Asian Students Association. The group issued a statement on its page, along with the Duke International Association, saying the email reflected hypocritical and discriminatory behavior at a university with a relatively high enrollment of international students.

“For international students, speaking in their mother tongue is a means of comfort and familiarity with a home and culture that is already oftentimes suppressed within the United States,” the statement said. “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,” the statement continued. “It is ultimately extraordinarily xenophobic to believe so and should have no place in an environment like Duke. And the idea that foreign language does not have a place in work settings and that foreign students should speak English, for fear of retribution otherwise, enforces the idea that all immigrants need to conform to sociocultural and linguistics norms that are predominantly white, otherwise they are cast as “ungrateful for the opportunity” and punished. It frighteningly recalls a racist and xenophobic past where Asiatic peoples were explicitly banned from this country and this university. And it reminds us of a present in which the movement to make English the official language of the US is thinly veiled anti-immigrant white supremacy.”

In a letter to Master’s of Biostatistics students, Dr. Mary E. Klotman, dean of Duke’s medical school, apologized for Neely’s message.

A post on the Asian Students Association’s Facebook page on Monday afternoon said Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy would host an open facilitated forum later in the day to discuss the emails.

Email from last year

The group also noted that Neely had sent another, similar email in February 2018. The Duke Chronicle posted the email in a story online and said the university administration had confirmed it came from Neely. In it, Neely said, “I don’t like being the language police,” but said other, unnamed faculty had complained about students’ failure to speak English. She also chided them for speaking too loudly while in the break room and for eating meals in “the main kitchen,” close to faculty and staff offices, rather than a student kitchen farther away.

Neely did not respond to interview requests on Monday.

According to Data USA, 5,822 people graduated from undergraduate and graduate programs at Duke in 2016. Of those, 2,494 were white, the data-collection agency said. The next-largest ethnic group was Asian, with 770 graduates.

In addition, Duke recently opened a liberal arts and research university in China, Duke Kunshan University, a joint project with Wuhan University. It accepted its first class of graduate students and undergraduate exchange students in August 2014, and launched its four-year undergraduate degree program in August 2018, according to its website. The school says its first class consists of students from 27 countries, most of them from China and the U.S.

Comments about China

Larry Moneta.

In December, the Duke Chronicle reported that Larry Moneta, vice president for student affairs at Duke, had posted a series of photos on Facebook from a trip to China with comments that drew ire from Duke’s Asian students. The first post, the Chronicle said, depicted two bags of Lays potato chips, one with a flavor of Mexican Tomato Chicken flavor and another with Italian Red Meat flavor, with the caption “Reason to move to China … NOT!”

Moneta made two more posts, one showing a measurement of Kunshan’s air quality and the other showing a squat toilet, the Chronicle said, with similar captions. Afterward, Moneta told the Chronicle he put his Facebook account on hold so he could reflect on his social media presence.

Moneta, who has served as Duke’s vice president for student affairs since 2001, announced last year that he will retire at the end of the 2018-19 school year.

He received criticism last year after he spoke up about the lyrics of a rap song that was playing in the former Joe Van Gogh coffee shop on campus. The incident led to the firing of two baristas who worked there and the owner closing the campus location.

Moneta said the coffee shop incident did not influence the timing of his retirement.

Schoenfeld said he did not yet know when the review by the Office of Institutional Equity will be complete or whether it will be made public.

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