China education
Get more with myNEWS
A personalised news feed of stories that matter to you
Learn more
Across Duke University’s graduate and professional programmes, 1,300 of about 8,500 total students come from China. Photo: Duke University

Duke University professor apologies to Chinese speakers over language row

  • Academic steps down from graduate studies post after urging students to ‘commit’ to speaking English and warning of potential damage to their career

A Duke University professor and administrator who sparked an outcry by admonishing students for speaking Chinese has issued a personal apology amid an internal review by the school.

Megan Neely, who stepped down as graduate studies director in the medical school’s biostatistics master’s degree programme, issued the apology in an email on Sunday to students in the programme.

It came two days after she sent a message to a student email list urging students to “commit” to speaking English in an academic building and suggesting possible consequences for those who did not.

“I deeply regret the hurt my email has caused. It was not my intention,” said Neely, who remains an assistant professor at the university in Durhan, North Carolina. “Moving forward, it is my sincerest wish that every student in the master of biostatistics programme is successful in all of their endeavours.”

The warning she emailed to students on Friday angered Duke’s international students, as well as social media users outside the campus community.

Chinese students represent 36 of the 55 students in the biostatistics master’s degree programme, and Chinese scholars represent one-fifth of the program’s roughly 50 faculty members. Across Duke’s graduate and professional programmes, 1,300 of about 8,500 total students come from China.

Duke also partners with Wuhan University on Duke Kunshan University in China, which began enrolling students in 2014.

Neely’s email on Friday urged students to “commit to using English” in the building housing the programme.

She said in the message to an email list for the program’s students that two faculty members came to her to complain about students loudly speaking Chinese in a common area.

She wrote that both were disappointed the students were not working to improve their English and “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”.

The email urged international students to “keep these unintended consequences in mind when you choose to speak in Chinese in the building”.

Amid an angry response, Neely stepped down as the program’s director of graduate studies, according to a letter from Dr Mary Klotman, the medical school dean.

Klotman also apologised to students in the programme in her letter, saying there was no restriction on using foreign languages in conversations with one another.

She said the university’s Office of Institutional Equity would conduct a review of the biostatistics master’s programme.

The Duke Chapel on the campus of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, in 2010. Photo: Bloomberg

A petition demanding a thorough investigation, including scrutiny of the two faculty members who complained, was signed by more than 2,000 students, alumni and others as of Monday, its organisers said.

The Duke Asian Students Association also issued a statement over the weekend slamming the Friday email as discriminatory and hypocritical, especially “given Duke’s dependence on international students and faculty for their undergraduate and graduate programmes”.

“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 association said.