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The Great USC Chinese Homonym Panic of 2020

I wanted to follow up on this story briefly by linking to some news accounts of the matter—CNN (Jessie Yeung), BBC (Kerry Allen), and the New Zealand Herald; the first two add some material on international reactions, e.g. (from CNN):

The controversy has even made waves on social media across Asia; many in Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China responded with disbelief, sympathy for Patton, and a fair bit of ridicule.

Numerous comments on the Chinese social media site Weibo pointed to the Chinese song “Sunshine Rainbow Little White Horse” by Wowkie Zhang, in which nei ge is repeated throughout the chorus. [I listened to it, and it does have an absurd bizarro rap quality to it. -EV]

Other Weibo users echoed American criticisms that this may be an example of cultural sensitivity gone wrong, with a few comments likening the incident to “literary inquisition,” the historical Chinese persecution of intellectuals for their writings.

“I’ve watched the video of the professor’s class, and read the email letter his students sent, and the statement from the school,” one person wrote on Weibo. “I only want to say, this is ridiculous. It’s just too ridiculous.”

I also wanted to mention an e-mail that I’ve been sending since Monday, in various versions, to various people. I haven’t gotten any substantive answer, but I thought I’d flag the question:

One thing that nags me about the Patton matter is that all the news accounts report just that the complaint came in an e-mail by “Black MBA Candidates c/o 2022.” Is there any information on how many students signed on to the e-mail, or confirmation that they were indeed black MBA candidates in the class of 2022? At least the counterletter from the 100+ students has names, and a few searches on the more unusual names suggest they check out. I just wonder whether this might have been either a prank that the Dean fell for [I assume not, but who knows?], or perhaps a reaction of a very small and unrepresentative group of black students who managed to be seen as speaking for black students generally just by dint of their signature.

Of course, it’s also possible that this did come from all, most, or many of the class of 2022 black MBA candidates; and of course my substantive view on the matter doesn’t turn on that. But I’m always interested, just as a student of organizational politics, in how these things develop (especially in a situation where a school should recognize that either of the obvious options can create possibly bad publicity, indeed possibly bad worldwide publicity).

If anyone does know the answer, please let me know!

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Eugene Volokh

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