Current and former students of the Master of Biostatistics program condemned discrimination against Chinese speakers, but expressed mixed feelings towards the Megan Neely email incident that unfolded in January.

Neely, then-director of graduate studies for the Master of Biostatistics program, emailed all students in the program Jan. 25, encouraging them to speak English "100% of the time" in Hock Plaza—the building that houses the department. Neely stepped down from that role the day after sending the email.

She wrote in the email that two faculty members had approached her, asking to see headshots of the first- and second-year cohorts. The faculty members wanted to remember students whom they had “observed speaking Chinese (in their words, VERY LOUDLY) in the student lounge/study areas” if those students “ever interviewed for an internship or asked to work with them for a master’s project," Neely wrote in the email. 

After screenshots were posted online the next day, Department Chair Elizabeth DeLong sent an apology email—signed by both her and Neely—to the students, acknowledging the Friday email was “not appropriate.”

Neely also sent an email in February 2018 urging students in the program to speak English. 

She stepped down from the director of graduate studies role the same day the screenshots went online, but she remains an assistant professor of biostatistics and bioinformatics.

Mary Klotman, dean of the medical school, wrote in an email Jan. 26 that Duke’s Office of Institutional Equity would "conduct a thorough review" of the Master of Biostatistics program and would make recommendations for how the program "can improve the learning environment for students from all backgrounds."

President Vincent Price, along with 35 other members of the University’s leadership, sent an email Feb. 1 to all students, faculty and staff in response to the incident, urging the Duke community to commit to "building an inclusive and welcoming environment.”

In an email sent to The Chronicle on behalf of Klotman, Jill Boy, associate dean and chief communications officer of the medical school, wrote that leaders of the medical school and the biostatistics department have met with students and would "continue to provide students as well as faculty and staff [with] opportunities to express their concerns and ideas in a confidential and welcoming place."

Education and training has been provided for faculty and staff, and additional training opportunities are planned, she continued in the email. 

Boy reiterated that Duke’s Office for Institutional Equity (OIE) is still working on a review of the department. 

"The review process was extended to ensure everyone had an opportunity to participate, and we expect to see information from that review soon," she wrote on Klotman's behalf. "Our expectation is that report will provide us with additional ideas." 

David Page, new chair of the biostatistics department who will take office in June, has "expressed his strong commitment to providing a respectful and inclusive environment," Boy added.  

Neely did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story. DeLong also did not respond to multiple requests for comment. 

Students craft a petition

A committee of Chinese graduate students, self-identified as "concerned Duke students," drafted a petition Jan. 26 pushing the University to set up “an independent committee to conduct a full-scale investigation into the incident surrounding Professor Neely’s email correspondences and the actions of the unnamed faculty members.” 

In the petition, the committee indicated that they were upset at the behaviors of both unnamed faculty members and Neely. 

"We are disheartened, therefore, when Duke’s faculty members implied that students of diverse national origin would be punished in academic and employment opportunities for speaking in their native language outside of classroom settings," the petition stated. "We were demoralized even more that a Duke graduate program director explicitly condones and even encourages such discriminatory practices by our faculty members." 

The committee also told The Chronicle in January that it does not represent the views of the entire Chinese student body at Duke nor the graduate student body as a whole.

Inappropriate email, friendly department

A second-year biostatistics masters student from China said she was offended by Neely’s email but doesn’t think discrimination is prevalent in the department. She asked to remain anonymous, in part because she feels her opinion on Neely is different than many of her peers. 

The student said that she thinks the language that Neely used in the email was inappropriate, as it seemed to criticize students because they were “speaking Chinese,” not just because they were talking loudly. 

The student noted she also received the email that Neely sent in 2018. She said she agrees that international students should improve their communication skills, since English is their second language. 

“Most [Chinese students] speak English on academic, business and even private occasions, as long as there is at least one person present who doesn’t speak Chinese,” she said. “But it is unreasonable asking us to use English even when talking to our Chinese peers—it is almost impossible.”

There is a friendly atmosphere in the department, she added. Faculty members sometimes celebrate different festivals, such as Thanksgiving and Lunar New Year, with international students. 

“I feel that [staff and the faculty] have been helping us learn more about American culture and introduce Chinese culture to the American student body,” she said. “Some of the faculty members are even learning Chinese themselves to better communicate with us.” 

Neely has been helpful when international students, including the student herself, seek assistance with their academic and professional development, she noted.

“Although the email is offensive, I don’t think it is fair to deny all her contributions to the department and students,” she said.

The student explained that one reason that faculty members may find students’ conversation disruptive is that the student lounge is located right outside the workspace of staff and faculty members in the department. The department could address this problem by separating work spaces from leisure areas, she added.

She also said that since the incident, faculty members in the department have been very understanding toward the international students' situation. 

“We all hope the University can play an active role [in] solving this problem,” she said. “The incident could generate positive influence if it helps the Duke community better recognize the needs of international students and lessen discrimination at large.” 

'Absolutely improper and hurtful'

A Duke alumna who graduated from the Master of Biostatistics program in 2018—who wished to remain anonymous to share opinions in conflict with her peers—said she has mixed feelings about the incident.

“I am strongly against racism of any form,” she said, adding that she hopes OIE takes the issue seriously.

She indicated that she received the email Neely sent in 2018, which she said was phrased in “a politer manner.”

But, she said that the email Neely sent in 2019 was "absolutely improper and hurtful despite Neely’s good intention." She noted that the two faculty members mentioned in the email "should be condemned for their act, too."

She said that Neely received a lot of online criticism following the incident, and she wonders if it is fair that Neely stepped down from director of graduate studies before the official investigation is completed by OIE. 

The alumna said that some students sometimes behaved impolitely—including talking loudly in the public area—in Hock Plaza, on the floor where the department of biostatistics and bioinformatics is located. But these behaviors should not be related with the nationality or ethnicity of the students, she added.

“Anyone who felt offended could accuse them of those behaviors, but it’s irrelevant to the language they are speaking," she said. 

She also acknowledged the importance of practicing English and improving communication skills for graduates of the program. Most graduates who enter the job market are employed by hospitals, pharmaceutical companies and other agencies where many employees are medical professionals but do not necessarily know much about statistics, she noted.

“We need to explain and interpret data to them in a way that they could understand, which requires proficient English communication skills,” the alumna said. 

The alumna said that during her two years on the program, she had a pleasant experience, acquiring both technical and social skills. 

“Some people think that my own experience may not be representative and cannot prove that everyone else is not a victim of racism, which I totally agree with,” she said. “That’s what this [OIE] investigation should find out.”