As most people on campus have probably heard, Megan Neely, previously the director of graduate studies for the Master of Biostatistics program, stepped down from that position after emails sent by her to students in the program went public. In the emails, Neely, at the behest of two as-of-yet-unnamed professors in the department, instructs students to commit to speaking English while in departmental spaces.
I do not condone the statements Neely made in the email. They were rooted in racist and xenophobic ideas about what types of speech are permitted in our university spaces. They were insensitive, poorly worded, and alienating to an already heavily marginalized group on campus. They were not only damaging themselves, but also a reflection of a harmful Western-centric ideology that is alive and well on our campus, in our country, and around the world.
But while I am concerned about this ideology, as a student and member of the university, I am also concerned by how we react to situations like this one. We have reached a point in our campus discourse where it has become increasingly difficult to critique the administration without specifically advocating for the downfall of individuals and increasingly difficult to critique student response without being immediately branded a racist-sympathizer.
Make no mistake: Neely’s actions were problematic, but they were also complex. Neely was acting at the direction of (at least) two faculty members who likely have no small amount of power within her former department. These professors’ threats to purposefully endanger students’ future employment prospects based on the language they choose to speak is a clear example of racism.
But it is also inarguable that most employers implicitly demand good-to-excellent English in their hiring process. The fact is, our world is rife with non-purposeful racial and cultural bias as well as explicit racism, especially in terms of employment. Is it really so far-fetched to argue that it was precisely Neely’s job to prepare her graduate students for this terrible but unavoidable social reality? No one should have to accede to oppressive power structures. But to ignore these structures, especially as one enters the broader world, is naiveté.
There are other complications. In her February 2018 email, Neely explicitly presents her instructions as a messenger and not a commanding authority: her words are “comments” she’s received from other department members; she is “[providing] a different viewpoint.” Most tellingly, “the most recent report [was] from the chair of the department.” A reading of the original email makes it obvious that to a large extent, Neely was acting as an intermediary. In other words, she was just the face of a larger power structure.
Again, I am not trying to argue that Neely was correct in her actions. She wrote and signed the email, and she is responsible for its contents.
I acknowledge that a common tactic used by those in power in situations like this is to throw up a confetti of excuses and convoluted logic that may seem to resemble what I’ve written in the previous paragraphs. I promise you that I am writing this column in good faith. I am not trying to muddy the waters. But I challenge anyone to take a hard look at this sprawling collision of cultures, social norms, power dynamics, and internal politics within a high-pressure biostatistics department, and tell me that the situation is as simple as Megan Neely being a racist who should be tossed out of the university.
I am not trying to muddy the waters; I am trying to point out that the waters are muddy.
If we’re willing to acknowledge that the problem is complex, then we must also be willing to acknowledge that the solution may also be complex. But, at least in my experience, that acknowledgement was not made. Instead, the vast majority of students overheard a “Neely is racist” joke, threw a couple likes on the meme page, decided Neely was a racist in the simplest terms, accepted her resignation with a grin, and then prepared to move on to the next outrage. (Anyone want to bet it involves Moneta?)
This pattern of student engagement in the affairs of our university is shallow, rooted in anger, and most importantly, not productive in fighting oppressive ideologies. It is also a pattern I’m personally familiar with. I grew up as a secular South Indian boy in Marietta, Georgia. I know firsthand what it is like to exist in an environment that is opposed to one’s identity. I know firsthand how easy it is to react to that environment with jokes, anger, and bitter resentment of those in power. I don’t bring up these facts to garner sympathy, or to protect myself from criticism with pathos.
I bring them up because they taught me something important: the ultimate enemy will never be a person, but an ideology. And ideologies aren’t fought with firings and scapegoats: they’re fought with discourse. They’re fought with education. And they’re fought by questioning the roots of racism in our society. These things are hard. Hard to make actionable and hard to measure in terms of efficacy. They are not nearly as satisfying as a resignation. But they do have the advantage of actually addressing the problem, instead of putting an administrative band-aid over it.
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Ultimately, the question of how we as a campus react to issues like this is a complex one. I believe that as a community of diverse, incisive individuals, there are a variety of valid solutions that could be advocated for in reaction to this situation. Personally, I believe that Neely’s resignation from the director position did more harm than good. It allowed many on campus an easy outlet for their anger, at the direct expense of addressing the full complexity of the situation. I’m sure many will have well-thought out critical responses to that belief and this column.
So don't limit your responses to these issues to a scroll through the meme page or an angry Facebook comment. Talk about them in their full complexity. Write about them in their full complexity. And please, feel free to do it all in Mandarin.
Mihir Bellamkonda is a Trinity sophomore and a managing editor of the editorial pages.