Duke U. professor removed over “speak English” comment. “Racist”? Insensitive/Tone deaf? Thoughts?

Please read the article before responding. The professor emailed students at the request of other faculty members. Internationals do tend to stay together, but there seems to be more to this story. Please keep the discussion polite and civil. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-47022374

When people speak loudly in any language in a public space, people are disturbed, which IMO is the real issue. It amazes me the number of people who think that shared space is their living room.

No, I don’t think the professor is racist, just misguided in not addressing the real issue.

I go with tone deaf.

Her email expressed the overheard opinions of other unnamed faculty members. If she wasn’t just assigning her own concerns to invented others, it sounds to me as if she was trying to be helpful. She should have been a lot more careful with her wording, and it was a mistake to put it in writing at all.

The issues was in part the volume of their conversation (agree that people are often unaware of how LOUD they are, in many places, especially when on the cellphone, but I digress…) but this was the second issue:

One could argue that the native English speakers were having conversations that some of the internationals could not easily understand. What is the best way to help the internationals integrate into their academic community? Do they want to? Many self segregate for a variety of personal reasons… There is not an easy answer to this.

Note that she has only been removed as director of the program, not as a professor. It may not have been her intention to be racist, but it sure came out that way.

If the problem is loud talking, there’s no need to modify that the talking was in Chinese.

If the problem is speaking in Chinese, making other students feel excluded, or slowing down your English learning by missing out on practicing English, that should be done privately to the students. I don’t think it’s unprofessional to talk in your native language to someone else who shares that native language. It is unprofessional, if there are others in the group who would like to be part of the conversation and can’t be, but that really doesn’t sound like it was the case here.

I spent five years in Germany both working and taking classes in various settings. I was pretty invested in improving my German, but I also was rarely tempted as there were seldom large groups of people who preferred to speak English. One of the problems with programs like this, is that if you have a large cohort of people with similar backgrounds they are going to tend to cling together. There are proactive things that the program should consider doing to create friendships across cultural divides.

That assumes the students are interested in creating friendships across cultural divides. Not always true, IME.

People put out the dumbest emails/texts/twitters, they just really need to reread what there sending out before they push the send button.

It’s not addressed in the article but I wonder if part of the issue was that some international students come with weak English skills and that can affect their ability to communicate in the lab or as TA’s. Students who are committed to immersive language learning are more likely to pick up English language skills than those who continue to use their native language on a regular basis.

I agree that the emails were insensitive but it seems to me she was trying to help the students.

The thread title is inaccurate, and somewhat inflammatory.

@damon30 the thread title is based on the title of the article linked. Did you read it? I in fact played with the title several times to try to be diplomatic, to use/include the title of the article quoted and stay within the character limit. Maybe your issue is more with the title of the original article.

When I first read the article I thought this prof was trying to give students a heads up about possible preconceptions. My real issue was with the other profs wanting the students’ names, with the implication that they wouldn’t be given the same crack at opportunities. That said, there is some validity that english communication skills are important, especially in a TA role. I just think the whole situation was handled and worded very poorly.

I actually feel very strongly about English language skills in TAs!

Seems like a “shooting the messenger” type incident, since Neely was the (not very diplomatic) messenger that some other unnamed faculty members had significantly more problematic (to the students in question) views on the matter. That is, unless she invented the unnamed others for the message.

More local news article:

I’ve read a couple other articles on this as well. Some of them seem to be gently nudging at the veracity of the professor’s story.

I wonder if the two professors who allegedly wanted to see a photo of the entire cohort, pick out the students who were speaking Chinese, and create a PERMANENT black mark against them really exist. They might, but then again they might not. If they do, that seems like INCREDIBLY unprofessional behavior on the faculty members’ part. It is one thing to advise students to take full advantage of opportunities to work on their language skills. It is quite another to threaten them with educational and career blocks if they do not conform by speaking English in the classroom building at all times.

It is also interesting that this same professor put out a similar warning to students a year earlier, with “many faculty” allegedly concerned by Chinese students speaking Chinese to each other.

I’m pretty confident that there is no rule in the Duke student handbook precluding people from speaking Chinese. If a group of students taking Chinese language skills were practicing their language skills in a lounge, I doubt they would be reprimanded. I think it’s pretty problematic to police Chinese students for speaking Chinese if you wouldn’t police American students for speaking Chinese.

As for whether they were “loud”…loud is in the ears of the beholder. I have definitely had to have a word with a colleague of mine who has been known to play wiffle ball in the hall, so I get it, but I handled that myself at the time the disturbance was occurring. I didn’t send an email to the entire department.

There were definitely better ways to handle this. There will almost certainly be a fact-finding investigation.


another article in IHE:


My $0.02: it was pretty dumb. If the school/biostat program is concerned about their students not being proficient enough in English to get a job, then they could easily make English proficiency a requirement for admission. (Of course, some of those International kids have no intent of staying in the US; they come to the US to learn and then take their skills ‘home’ with them.)

“Shooting the Messenger” is exactly what I perceived this when reading about this incident on Chinese social media. Many of my friends thought the same way, as in “no good deeds go unpunished”, I feel sorry for this professor.

“Two separate faculty members” came to her office to ask to view photos. Assuming this means two faculty members at separate times came to her office, I’m not buying it. Sure, there definitely are grad students who come here and don’t take advantage of opportunities to improve their English and this does affect their employability, but I think this email is not only unfortunate but is partly made up.

I think this is a clear cultural issue with the faculty and should be addressed by administration. It gives me a terrible negative impression of Duke as a global campus. This was not in the classroom and unless Duke has an “only english” policy on campus (which they wouldn’t), this should be addressed, and not just with the person sending the message. What if this was American students in China, talking with fellow American students about the upcoming superbowl and speaking in english. If they were too loud, then certainly they can be told to lower their voices, but to the faculty who wanted to know their names so they would not select them for opportunities, they should choose to work at a school that does recruit or admit international students.

Some cultures do seem to speak more loudly than others. Italians, Chinese… it may be what they are used to.

I am not sure why offering ones opinion on which language to speak is seen as racist or insensitive. This mornings media also crucified Tom Brokaw for his opinions……… This is my opinion. I am just trying to help or engage in conversation. You do not have to agree with it. Our system of laws allows me to have it. It may be offensive to you. That is okay. You will survive. Calling out someone as “racist” is the biggest threat to freedom of speech in our society. This is my opinion.