Grad program director steps down after warning students not to speak Chinese

The director of graduate studies for a School of Medicine program has stepped down and the dean of the medical school has asked the Office of Institutional Equity to conduct a thorough review of the program in response to emails that surfaced Saturday.

Screenshots of the emails sent by Megan Neely, director of graduate studies for the Master of Biostatistics program, were posted online Saturday afternoon. Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, confirmed that the screenshots were accurate to The Chronicle Saturday night.

The screenshots showed Neely asking students to use English after two unnamed colleagues approached her about students speaking Chinese in lounge or study areas. The two colleagues were trying to identify the students they heard speaking Chinese to record their names in case the students ever applied for an internship or were interviewed by them, she wrote in the email. 

“I have asked the university’s Office of Institutional Equity (OIE) to conduct a thorough review of the Master’s of Biostatistics Program and to recommend ways in which we can improve the learning environment for students from all backgrounds,” wrote Mary Klotman, dean of the medical school, in an email to students in the program Saturday afternoon. “In addition, Dr. Neely has asked to step down as director of graduate studies for the master’s program effective immediately and will be replaced by an interim DGS to be named shortly.”

The Chronicle reached out to Neely for comment about the emails Saturday afternoon, but did not receive a response in time for publication. The Chronicle emailed Klotman for comment Saturday night, but did not immediately receive a response. 

First-year and second-year students in the Master of Biostatistics program received an email Friday afternoon from Neely, who encouraged them to “commit to using English 100% of the time” when they are in Hock Plaza—where the department is located—or other professional settings.

According to screenshots of the emails, Neely wrote that two faculty members had stopped by her office and asked to see photos of the first- and second-year biostatistics masters students so that they could identify a group of students who were “very loudly” speaking Chinese in a lounge or study area.

“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,” she wrote, according to the screenshots that were posted online.

The email from Klotman, provided to The Chronicle by Keith Lawrence, executive director of news and communications, apologized for the comments made in Neely’s email. Klotman reassured students that they were not restricted in the languages they could speak on campus.

“There is absolutely no restriction or limitation on the language you use to converse and communicate with each other,” Klotman wrote in the Saturday email. “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.”

A committee of Chinese graduate students at Duke has drafted a petition calling for the University to set up “an independent committee to conduct a full-scale investigation into the incident surrounding Neely’s emails and the actions of the unnamed faculty members.” As of Saturday evening, more than 1,000 students had signed the petition.

According to Songhui Zhao, a graduate student in the biology department, the committee has sent the petition to several administrators, including President Vincent Price; Kathryn Whetten, co-chair of the University Diversity Task Force; Paul James, assistant vice president of the Office of Institutional Equity; and Don Taylor, chair of the Academic Council. 

In her email, Klotman also acknowledged remaining issues with cultural awareness at Duke and pledged to continue improving the situation.

“We will always be committed to ensuring that you are welcomed and included in every aspect of university life,” she wrote. “Sadly, this matter demonstrates that we must continue to work on overcoming deep-seated concerns about our cultural awareness and understanding.”

UPDATE: Schoenfeld confirmed by email Saturday night that Neely currently remains an assistant professor after stepping down from the director of graduate studies role. 

Bre Bradham

Bre is a senior political science major from South Carolina, and she is the current video editor, special projects editor and recruitment chair for The Chronicle. She is also an associate photography editor and an investigations editor. Previously, she was the editor-in-chief and local and national news department head. 

Twitter: @brebradham



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