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Duke professor's email to Chinese students was sadly unsurprising, UNC students say


First-year biology major Lucia Wang is a Chinese American student from Apex, N.C. When she first heard about the article from The Chronicle at Duke University regarding a Duke assistant professor who asked Chinese students to speak English while on campus, Wang says she brushed it off at first. After reading comments on the article, she changed her mind. "I don't see how you could think she did nothing wrong," said Wang. "I feel like the way the Duke students acted was right." 

After emails from a graduate program director at Duke University telling international students not to speak Chinese in study lounges surfaced online Saturday, Duke has found itself facing national backlash.

On Friday afternoon, Megan Neely, then-director of Duke’s Master of Biostatistics program, emailed students and told them that two unnamed faculty members had asked to see photographs of first-year and second-year biostatistics students. 

“Both faculty members picked out a small group of students who they observed speaking Chinese (in their words, VERY LOUDLY) in the student study/lounge areas,” 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."

This was not the first time Neely emailed students about speaking a language other than English in Hock Plaza, where the biostatistics department is located. 

“Beyond the obvious opportunity to practice and perfect your English, speaking in your native language in the department may give faculty the impression that you are not trying to improve your English skills and not taking this opportunity seriously,” Neely wrote in a February 2018 email. 

Neely stepped down as director of the graduate program Saturday, but remains in her role as an assistant professor, according to The Chronicle, Duke's student-run newspaper.  

On Saturday, a group called Concerned Duke Students launched a petition for Duke to investigate Neely and the two unnamed faculty members Neely referenced in her email. 

The group issued a statement about the petition, in which they said Don Taylor, a Duke public policy professor and member of the Academic Council, told the group the university’s Office of Institutional Equality “is opening an investigation of this matter and the department.” 

UNC junior Joanna Zhang, who also takes classes at Duke, said she first saw the screenshots of Neely’s emails on Duke’s Facebook meme page. Zhang said she thought it was unreal, but despite her initial shock, she thought the content of the emails was unsurprising because of other experiences she has had at the university. 

“Before this article even came out, I found it really weird because Duke has two libraries, one is called Perkins and one is called The Edge, and Perkins is jokingly referred to as ‘the white library,’ whereas The Edge is jokingly referred to as ‘the Asian library,’" Zhang said. “Whenever I did enter Perkins, I was only there for like 15 minutes before I got up and moved to The Edge because I felt weird.” 

In December 2018, Larry Moneta, vice president of student affairs at Duke, received backlash after posting three photos on Facebook during a visit to Duke Kunshan University in Jiangsu, China, according to an article published by The Chronicle. The first photo depicted two bags of Lay’s chips, in the flavors Mexican Tomato Chicken and Italian Red Meat, and was captioned: “Reason to move to China...NOT!”

The other posts were a screenshot of an air quality measurement and a photograph of a squat toilet. Each had a similar caption. 

Michelle Li, president of Duke’s Asian Student Association, told The Chronicle that she thought the posts were “at best, very culturally insensitive, at worst, very racist."

“I think that this one little situation of the emails is a just an example of a larger issue at Duke that no one talks about,” Zhang said.

UNC first-year Lucia Wang, who first saw Neely’s emails in a viral tweet posted by Hua Sirui of NowThisNews, said the emails highlight an issue that extends beyond the study lounges of Hock Plaza. 

“When I saw the tweet that was saying that that professor had sent a similar email in the past, I was thinking, ‘Oh this is actually such a big problem,’” Wang said. “It’s discouraging that such a highly esteemed person would hold these views, and even if they don't recognize it, it's still there. The way that she worded her email, it wasn't very respectful, and she didn't realize that what she said was really offensive, which is a problem.”

UNC first-year Jerrick Li said he first read about the emails in an article posted online by New York Times. Li said, as a Chinese-American student, that he believes the emails were not too out of the ordinary.

“I think it reflects a pervasive attitude in the media and an animosity toward the Chinese culture in general,” Li said. “For example, if you look at recent news articles, a lot of it is about the current trade war, ideological differences, how Chinese international students can't assimilate into American culture.”

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