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The University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business’ dean is on the defensive after receiving widespread backlash for his handling of an incident in which a communications professor at the school used a Chinese word that sounded like a slur in English, a new email obtained by National Review shows.
Professor Greg Patton 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.’”
A group of students who identified themselves as “Black MBA Candidates c/o 2022” complained to university administration in an email, accusing the professor of pronouncing the Chinese word in a way that resembled 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 incident led the university to assign another instructor to Patton’s class while he “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 statement from USC to Campus Reform.
After an online petition to “Re-instate USC Marshall Professor Greg Patton” collected more than 11,000 signatures and a group of more than 100 global alumni signed a letter criticizing the university’s treatment of Patton, dean Geoff Garrett sent an email to Marshall staff on Wednesday saying that he wanted to “offer some clarification about the situation,” because “some of the reporting about the situation has been inaccurate.”
The email had two attached letters — one from the dean and another from provost Charles Zukoski on behalf of the dean and the president.
In Garrett’s letter, dated September 6, he claimed “It was absolutely not my intention to cast any aspersions on specific Mandarin words or on Mandarin generally.”
“The student complaints we received had nothing to do with the Mandarin language but focused on the use of a polarizing example Professor Patton used when trying to make a reasonable and important point about communication,” he continued. “In his apology to students, he noted he could have chosen a better example to illustrate his point.”
Patton had apologized in an email last month, saying 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.”
Garrett went on to say that Patton agreed to not finish out the accelerated course that ended last week and that administration is “following standard university procedures to explore the complaints students have raised.”
The provost’s letter echoed Garrett’s: “the course was scheduled to run for three weeks and, after student complaints were lodged, the professor volunteered to step away for the final two weeks. He was not dismissed nor suspended nor was his status changed. We are required to investigate all complaints and have a thorough process for doing so which we began immediately.”
“The complaints occurred in a course in communication across cultural lines,” the provost continued. “Its purpose is to prepare students to be successful in business around the world. There is no intent to impose U.S. cultural norms on communications in other languages and cultures.”
Zukoski finished by assuring that the university’s “internal procedures are fair and appropriate.”
However, in an initial August 24 email, the dean had apologized for Patton’s use of a “Chinese word that sounds very similar to a vile racial slur in English,” saying “understandably, this caused great pain and upset among students.”
“It is simply unacceptable for faculty to use words in class that can marginalize, hurt and harm the psychological safety of our students,” he wrote. “We must and we will do better.”
He added that he was “deeply saddened by this disturbing episode that has caused such anguish and trauma.”
The dean’s initial apology was in response to the group of students alleging that Patton had purposely mispronounced the word and that the phrase should always be “identified as a phonetic homonym and a racial derogatory term, and should be carefully used.”
“Our mental health has been affected,” the group wrote. “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 dean announced his reconsidered stance only after alumni of “more than a dozen nationalities and ethnicities” sent a letter standing behind Patton.
“Most of us are Chinese, some ethnically, some by nationality, and many others have spent extensive time in China,” the letter reads. “Most of us live in China. We unanimously recognize Prof Patton’s use of ‘nei ge’ as an accurate rendition of common Chinese use, and an entirely appropriate and quite effective illustration of the use of pauses. Prof Patton used this example and hundreds of others in our classes over the years, providing richness, relevance and real world impact.”
The group continued: “We are also deeply disappointed that the spurious charge has the additional feature of casting insult toward the Chinese language, the most spoken in the world, and characterized it and its usage as vile. We feel Marshall should be open to diversity in all areas – not only those areas convenient for the moment. We further suggest that any attempt to degrade this matter and suggest that a Chinese word different in sound, tone, accent, context and language itself is ‘exactly like’ an offensive US term would be naive, a disgusting and intentional stretch and would further degrade important societal discussion.”