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USC Professor Placed on Leave after Black Students Complained His Pronunciation of a Chinese Word Affected Their Mental Health

University of Southern California campus in Los Angeles. (Jupiterimages/PHOTOS.com/Getty Images Plus)

The University of Southern California has placed a communications professor on leave after a group of black MBA candidates threatened to drop his class rather than “endure the emotional exhaustion of carrying on with an instructor that disregards cultural diversity and sensitivities” following the instructor’s use, while teaching, of a Chinese word that sounds like a racial slur.

Greg Patton, a professor at the university’s Marshall School of Business, was giving a lecture about the use of “filler words” in speech during a recent online class when he used the word in question, saying, “If you have a lot of ‘ums and errs,’ this is culturally specific, so based on your native language. Like in China, the common word is ‘that, that, that.’ So in China it might be ‘nèi ge, nèi ge, nèi ge.’”

In an August 21 email to university administration obtained by National Review, students accused the professor of pronouncing the word like the N-word “approximately five times” during the lesson in each of his three communication classes and said he “offended all of the Black members of our Class.”

The students, who identified themselves as “Black MBA Candidates c/o 2022” wrote that they had reached out to Chinese classmates as they were “appalled” by what they had heard. 

“It was confirmed that the pronunciation of this word is much different than what Professor Patton described in class,” the students wrote. “The word is most commonly used with a pause in between both syllables. In addition, we have lived abroad in China and have taken Chinese language courses at several colleges and this phrase, clearly and precisely before instruction is always identified as a phonetic homonym and a racial derogatory term, and should be carefully used, especially in the context of speaking Chinese within the social context of the United States.”

The students accused the professor of displaying “negligence and disregard” in using the word and said he “conveniently stop[ped] the zoom recording right before saying the word,” calling his actions calculated. 

“Our mental health has been affected,” the group continued. “It is an uneasy feeling allowing him to have the power over our grades. We would rather not take his course than to endure the emotional exhaustion of carrying on with an instructor that disregards cultural diversity and sensitivities and by extension creates an unwelcome environment for us Black students.”

The students added that the incident “has impacted our ability to focus adequately on our studies.”

“No matter what way you look at this, the word was said multiple times today in three different instances and has deeply affected us. In light of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the recent and continued collective protests and social awakening across the nation, we cannot let this stand,” the group concluded, before calling for an immediate remedy to the situation. 

In response, Dean Geoff Garrett apologized for the professor’s use of a “Chinese word that sounds very similar to a vile racial slur in English,” in an email on August 24 obtained by National Review, saying “understandably, this caused great pain and upset among students.”

“I am deeply saddened by this disturbing episode that has caused such anguish and trauma,” he said.

The dean announced that a new instructor would immediately take over instruction for the remainder of the class.

Two days later, in an email to members of the USC Marshall Graduate Student Association Executive Board, Patton apologized, explaining that he has taught the course for 10 years and had been given the example by several international students years ago.

“The inclusion is part of a deep and sustained effort at inclusion as I have reached out to find and include many international, global, diverse, female, broad and inclusive leadership examples and illustrations to enhance communication and interpersonal skill in our global workplace,” he said. 

“I have since learned there are regional differences, yet I have always heard and pronounced the word as ‘naaga’ rhyming with ‘dega,'” the professor wrote.

He added that the transcript of the session records his pronunciation as “naga” and that his pronunciation of the word comes from time spent in Shanghai. 

“Given the difference in sounds, accent, context and language, I did not connect this in the moment to any English words and certainly not any racial slur,” he wrote.

“Unfortunately messages have circulated that suggest ill intent, extensive previous knowledge, inaccurate events and these are factually inaccurate. Fortunate [sic] we have transcripts, audio, video, tracking of messages and a 25 year record,” he wrote. “I have strived to best prepare students with Global, real-world and applied examples and illustrations to make the class content come alive and bring diverse voices, situations and experiences into the classroom.”

He said he had received positive feedback on the lesson in years past but accepted blame for failing “to realize all the many different additional ways that a particular example may be heard across audiences members based on their own lived experiences.”

In a statement to Campus Reform, USC said Patton “agreed to take a short term pause while we are reviewing to better understand the situation and to take any appropriate next steps.”

According to a brief bio on the school’s website, Patton is “an expert in communication, interpersonal and leadership effectiveness” who has received “numerous teaching awards, been ranked as one of the top teaching faculty at USC and helped USC Marshall achieve numerous #1 worldwide rankings for Communication and Leadership skill development.”

“Professor Patton has extensive international experience, has trained, coached and mentored thousands of leaders worldwide, and created scores of successful leadership programs,” the bio adds.

Send a tip to the news team at NR.

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