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Duke adviser steps down over email sent to Chinese-speaking students

January 27, 2019
Duke University in Durham, North Carolina was voted #18 in Forbes' list of best employers.

An adviser to graduate students at Duke University has stepped down from the role due to an email she sent to students.

The email was sent to a group of biostatistics masters students by Megan Neely, an assistant professor and a director of graduate studies, and addressed the use of Chinese language within the department.

A screenshot of Neely’s Jan. 25 email titled “Something to think about...” was validated by Keith Lawrence, a spokesperson for Duke University, and references two comments made to Neely by faculty members.

According to Neely’s email, two faculty members came to her office and asked her about a small group of first-year students who they observed speaking Chinese “in their words, very loudly” in the student lounge areas.

The faculty members told Neely they wanted the students’ names so they could remember them “if the students every interviewed for an internship or asked to work with them for a master’s project.”

The email then reads: ”[Those faculty members] 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.”

The email went on to read: “To international students, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE keep those unintended consequences in mind when you choose to speak 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 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.”

Following complaints from students, Mary E. Klotman, the Dean of the School of Medicine, sent an email in response to Neely’s.

“I understand that many of you felt hurt and angered by this message,” the email read. “To be clear: there is absolutely no restriction or limitation on the language you use to converse and communicate with each other. Your career opportunities...will not be influenced by the language you use outside the classroom.”

According to Keith Lawrence, a spokesperson for Duke University, Professor Neely asked to step down from her role as an advisor to the students but will continue to serve as an assistant professor of biostatistics at the school.

A group of students started a petition to investigate the “discriminatory emails.” The petition includes screenshots of both emails and a letter dated Jan. 26 asking students to sign in support of the university conducting a “full-scale investigation” surrounding Neely’s actions.

2,000 people had signed the petition Sunday afternoon.

WRAL has reached out to Duke University for comments.

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