Duke Prof. Resigns after Urging Students to Only Speak English on Campus

Duke Chapel at Duke University (Wikimedia Commons)

An assistant professor at Duke University has resigned amid backlash after sending an email Friday that urged students to speak “English 100% of the time” while on campus and in professional settings.

Megan Lee Nealy resigned from her position as director of graduate studies for biostatistics after university administrators learned of the email she sent to first- and second-year students, in which she warned that their academic careers might suffer if they used their native languages around professors.

“To international students, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE keep these unintended consequences in mind when you choose to speak in Chinese in the building,” Neely wrote, according to screenshots of the message obtained by the New York Post. “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 building. Copying the second-year students as a reminder given they are currently applying for jobs,” she added.

Neely, who will remain on as an assistant professor despite resigning from her administrative post, subsequently explained that she felt compelled to address the language issue after two professors complained to her that a group of Chinese students were speaking their native tongue “VERY LOUDLY” in a student lounge.

“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,” Neely wrote of the professors. “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.”

Mary Klotman, dean of the Duke University School of Medicine, apologized on Neely’s behalf and rejected her recommendation that students use English in professional and academic settings.

“To be clear: there is absolutely no restriction or limitation on the language you use to converse and communicate with each other,” Klotman said in a statement obtained by the Post. “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.”

The university is also looking into a separate email Neely sent last February, in which she cautioned students that using their native language might convince professors that they were not trying to improve their English.

A number of Duke professors have spoken out against Neely and a group of students has circulated an online petition calling for the university to formally investigate Neely’s conduct.

“As international students, we believe that the ability to speak in our native language creates a much-needed space for obtaining academic, social, and moral support from our peers,” the petition reads. “More importantly, the flexibility of choosing which language we speak is an intimate choice, one that is deeply tied to our own individual values, beliefs, and core identity.”

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