A Duke University professor who warned Chinese students against communicating in their native language and urged them to speak English instead has stepped down as the head of a master’s program and apologized after her emails sparked outrage on campus and on social media.
Students are calling for a further investigation into the emails and claims that those speaking Chinese outside of class might not be given the same opportunities as other students.
In her message sent to students on Sunday, Megan Neely wrote: “I deeply regret the hurt my email has caused. It was not my intention. Moving forward, it is my sincerest wish that every student in the Master of Biostatistics program is successful in all of their endeavors.”
“Something to think about,” read the subject line of an email Neely sent Friday. Neely, who headed the Master of Biostatistics program in the university’s School of Medicine, sent the email to first and second-year students in the program. In it, she urged the students to “commit to using English 100% of the time” in a professional setting.
In the email, Neely said that she had been approached by two faculty members who complained about international students speaking Chinese in student lounge and study areas.
“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,” Neely wrote in bold, underlined type. She said the faculty members asked to see photographs of the students in the program so that they could “remember them if the students ever interviewed for an internship or asked to work with them for a master’s project.”
“To international students, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE keep these unintended consequences in mind when you choose to speak Chinese in the building,” Neely’s email continued. “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 (sic) 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.”
On Sunday, Neely apologized in a joint statement with the chair of the biostatistics department.
“We very much value our international students and their contributions to our program and we recognize that the message that was sent Friday was not appropriate,” the statement said. “Although it was not meant to be hurtful, it came out that way and was clearly in error.”
Neely sent a similar email last year
Neely sent a similar email to students in the Master of Biostatistics program in February 2018.
In that email, Neely wrote that she had received reports from faculty that many international students were not speaking English in the department’s break rooms. She said that she wanted to offer students advice on why that “might not be the best choice.”
“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 that you are not taking this opportunity seriously,” she wrote in the February 2018 email.
“Bottom line: Continuing this practice may make it harder for you and future international students to get research opportunities while in the program,” the 2018 email continued.
Michael Schoenfeld, Duke’s vice president for public affairs and government relations, confirmed the authenticity of both emails to CNN. CNN reached out to Neely for comment.
Though Neely has stepped down as director of the program, she will continue her role as an assistant professor of biostatistics and bioinformatics, Schoenfeld said.