Duke Chinese Student Leaders Respond To Official Who Sent Offensive Email

After telling students that they should speak English, Megan Neely stepped down from her role as program director but remains a teacher at the school.
Megan Neely stepped down as a graduate program director at the Duke School of Medicine telling Chinese students in an email on Jan. 25 that they should speak English.
Megan Neely stepped down as a graduate program director at the Duke School of Medicine telling Chinese students in an email on Jan. 25 that they should speak English.
aimintang via Getty Images

Members of Duke University’s Asian and international student groups have a few words for a Duke professor whose offensive email directed toward the university’s Chinese students came to light over the weekend.

Student leaders of Chinese descent spoke to HuffPost after Megan Neely, of the Duke School of Medicine’s biostatistics master’s program, claimed two faculty members complained to her about hearing Chinese spoken “very loudly” and suggested the use of the language was “impolite” and could have “unintended consequences.”

“I encourage you to commit to using English 100% of the time when you are in Hock or any other professional setting,” she wrote in an email on Friday.

She has stepped down from her role as program director but remains an assistant professor at the school, Michael Schoenfeld, its vice president for public affairs and government relations, confirmed for HuffPost.

The Chronicle, a Duke student newspaper, reported that Neely sent a similar email in February 2018.

Helen Yang, a Chinese-American student and a co-president of the Duke International Association said she felt a “combination of anger and confusion” after reading Neely’s message.

“I reread the screenshots of the emails multiple times in an attempt to make sense of them, only to accept that the only real reason why someone would send such a message is due to multiple levels of ignorance, racism, and xenophobia,” Yang said via email. “Not only was there a lack of empathy in the way that she expressed her feelings, but there was an overall indication of foreigner and Other imposed on so many students at Duke.”

Michelle Li, the president of the Asian Students Association, said it didn’t take long for the email to circulate among Duke students and beyond, making their way to WeChat, a social media platform widely used by those from China. Many of the students could “relate innately to the concept of being ostracized for speaking a foreign language.”

While Neely insisted on students speaking English and claimed her colleagues were disappointed the Chinese students “were not taking the opportunity to improve their English,” Duke already requires its students who speak English as a second language to pass a standardized language exam. Yang emphasized that proficiency in another language does not necessarily indicate insufficient knowledge of English. Moreover, conversing in a native language can be an important cultural and personal connection to heritage, she said.

“To strip someone’s agency away from that is incredibly damaging and violent,” she added.

The leaders noted that recently there were problematic racial incidents at the university. In 2013 the university’s Kappa Sigma Fraternity came under fire for hosting an “Asia Prime” party in which partygoers wore stereotypical cone-shaped hats and sumo wrestling costumes. And Chinese international students have not always been welcomed by all on campus. Sherry Huang, a Chinese student and a co-president of the school’s International Association, said that “there might have been certain stereotypes and labels imposed on Chinese international students by others on campus.”

“This is not an isolated incident,” Yang said. “This may be an incident which received massive national and widespread attention, but there are plenty of ... similar sentiments.”

The university’s Office of Institutional Equity will review the biostatistics master’s program “to recommend ways in which we can improve the learning environment for students from all backgrounds.”

“To be clear: there is absolutely no restriction or limitation on the language you use to converse and communicate with each other,” the medical school’s dean, Mary Klotman wrote in a message to students. “Your career opportunities and recommendations will not in any way be influenced by the language you use outside the classroom. And your privacy will always be protected.”

But the student leaders said they wish to see more action from the university. Yang called on the school to avoid treating the controversy as just “a PR nightmare; this is about the identities of so many people.”

“There needs to be tangible action from the University to address this incident — an apology needs to be founded in meaningful actions otherwise it will flatten,” she said. “This is about something much larger than an email, and the University needs to actively prove that they care about the communities they say they serve.”

In addition to the investigation, Li said, the university should reveal the identity of the faculty members who allegedly complained to Neely about the students speaking Chinese. The results of the investigation should also be made public, and the program, along with the university as a whole, should commit to meaningful action to avoid discriminatory culture, Li said.

The students said they would like the student body to do much more to make connections with international students and understand them outside erroneous stereotypes.

“I hope students, whether international or domestic, can make more efforts to genuinely reach out to one another before making assumptions or judgments about their cultures, personalities, and socioeconomic backgrounds,” Huang said.