Until recently, Neely was also the director of graduate studies in Duke’s biostatistics department. Early Saturday afternoon, she sent an email to dozens of Duke students that started out innocuously enough.
“Something to think about . . . ” the subject line read.
The message was addressed to all first- and second-year biostatistics graduate students at the North Carolina university.
Neely said in the email that two faculty members had visited her office earlier that day, asking for pictures of biostatistics graduate students. She said she obliged, then asked why they wanted to know.
According to Neely, her colleagues wanted to identify students they had observed “speaking Chinese (in their words, VERY LOUDLY)” in the student lounge and study areas.
“Both faculty members replied that they wanted to write down the names so they could remember them if the students ever interviewed for an internship or asked to work with them for a master’s project,” she wrote.
Neely underlined the next part of her email in bold: “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.”
If the implication wasn’t clear enough — that Neely was encouraging students to speak only English or else face unseen barriers to future opportunities within the department — she spelled it out in her next paragraph:
“To international students, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE keep these unintended consequences in mind when you choose to speak in 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 [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.”
Neely closed her message by noting she was copying second-year biostatistics graduate students on the email “as a reminder” because they were in the process of applying for jobs.
“Happy to discuss more,” she wrote. “Just stop by my office.”
Images of Neely’s email soon hit the Internet and were widely shared, sparking outrage. Many pointed out that the students were conversing with one another during what appeared to be their own time, outside the classroom — and that the United States does not have an official language anyway.
Others accused Neely and the unnamed faculty members of racial discrimination and questioned whether the students had been targeted because they were speaking Chinese as opposed to another foreign language.
“I’m an international student. Let’s guess how many times I’ve been asked not to speak French,” one Twitter user wrote, appending three eye-roll emoji to the message.
Mary E. Klotman, dean of the Duke University School of Medicine, emailed all biostatistics graduate students on Saturday to say Neely had “asked to step down” as director of graduate studies for the master’s program, effective immediately, and would be replaced by an interim director.
Klotman said she had asked Duke’s office of institutional equity to conduct a thorough review of the master’s program, adding a “personal pledge” that the matter would be “addressed quickly and sensitively.”
“I understand that many of you felt hurt and angered by this message,” she wrote. “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 and recommendations will not in any way be influenced by the language you use outside the classroom. And your privacy will always be protected.”
On Sunday, Elizabeth DeLong, the biostatistics department chair, sent a follow-up email to biostatistics students apologizing for the situation.
“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,” DeLong wrote, according to text of the message provided to The Washington Post. “Although it was not meant to be hurtful, it came out that way and was clearly in error.”
DeLong’s email was jointly signed by Neely and included a direct statement from the assistant professor.
“Please accept our sincere apology,” they concluded.
Duke spokesman Michael Schoenfeld confirmed in an email to The Washington Post that the images of Neely’s email Saturday were legitimate. He also confirmed that images of an additional email from Neely that had surfaced, from February 2018, were legitimate and under review.
In a February 2018 message to biostatistics students (subject line: “To Speak English or To Not Speak English . . .”), Neely said faculty members were complaining about international students not speaking English in the department’s break rooms, although she did not specify the offending foreign language or languages.
“I don’t like being the language police, but I have gotten these comments enough times in the past few weeks that I feel like I should share them with you,” Neely wrote then, noting that the most recent complaint was from the department chair. “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 again warned that not speaking English could have the “potential downstream effects” of not getting research opportunities in the program, because faculty members would be hesitant to hire international students.
Asked whether any action would be taken against the unnamed faculty members who were complaining about students not speaking English, Schoenfeld said the matter would be part of the university’s review.
The Duke Chronicle, the college’s independent student newspaper, reported that first-year Chinese graduate students in the biostatistics department had issued a statement, in Chinese, asking for a “thorough investigation of the incident.” The students, who did not want to give individual interviews, also asked for the unnamed faculty members to be identified, according to the newspaper.
By Sunday, news of the email had spread on Weibo, a Chinese social media site similar to Twitter, with the hashtag “Duke University bans speaking Chinese” viewed more than 6.7 million times on the platform, according to the South China Morning Post.
Stateside, a petition started by “concerned students” at Duke urging the university to investigate Neely’s emails and the unnamed faculty members had more than 1,900 signatures as of Sunday afternoon.
“We are disheartened . . . 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 are demoralized even more that a Duke graduate program director explicitly condones and even encourages such discriminatory practices by our faculty members.”