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USC Faculty Reaction to the Great USC Chinese Homonym Panic

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From ‘Scared to Death to Teach’: Internal Report Cites ‘Chilling Effect’ (Chronicle of Higher Education, Tom Bartlett):

An anonymous survey of 105 professors at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business [conducted by the business school’s Faculty Council] suggests that many of them have lost confidence in the dean, and that they feel “livid,” “betrayed,” and “scared of students” after a fellow faculty member was “thrown under the bus,” as several of them described it, following a controversy over his use of a Chinese word.

The faculty member, Greg Patton, a professor of clinical business communication, used the word nèige (那个), which literally means “that” in Mandarin, but is also commonly used as a filler word like “um” or “er.” It was part of an example during a Zoom class last month on how such words can prove distracting during presentations. The word is pronounced “nay-ga,” and some Black students in the class complained in an email to administrators that it sounded like the n-word.

The business school’s dean, Geoffrey Garrett, sent an email to students saying that he was “deeply saddened by this disturbing episode.” He pulled Patton from the class and replaced him with another professor.

The Council’s summary of the survey, with many quotes from faculty members, is here. (Both the Chronicle and I have confidence that this copy of the survey results is authentic.) Some excerpts from the summary:

There was … an overwhelming sense of vulnerability, worry, insecurity, fear, and anxiety.

Another theme that emerged was that they felt that Prof. Patton was not afforded due process, that harm was done to his reputation, and that he was not supported by the administration. The feelings that were most commonly expressed around this theme were anger, disappointment, betrayal, and outrage….

And from faculty quotes:

“There was no judge, jury, or anything, only cancellation. If faculty with long records of good performance can lose reputation in a flash or parts of their job for this kind of 5-second mix up, which can happen to anybody by accident given how much material we have to cover, it means we will become a society where people always talk slow, prescreen every word, and take the safest possible route on everything they say. By nature, that will make us irrelevant.”

“After the initial shock, my overwhelming reaction now is simple: fear.”

“This is how it makes me feel about the administration, and specifically Dean Garrett: Livid. Furious. Betrayed. Appalled. Far beyond frustrated. Far beyond exasperated.”

“If the dean will do this to Greg, who is next?”

“Frankly, I am glad I am in the sunset years of my career. My heart goes out to my junior colleagues for whose sake I hope this madness abates and we practice what we preach—thoughtful, open dialogue and a chance for everyone to be heard, not just a vocal minority with an axe to grind.”

[Answering the question, “Do you feel you have the skills and tools to handle diversity and equity issues in your classes?”] “To what end? Do I have the skills and tools to dance away and keep the conversation shallow enough to avoid angering people?”

“Honestly I don’t think anybody can possibly have such magical skills in the current climate, which Dean Garrett and the rest of the administration are now making worse.”

And the report makes clear that these are not just the grumblings of a small portion of the faculty; the reactions appear to be broad and deep.

My speculation: The business school administration was buffaloed by the “Black MBA Candidates c/o 2022” student letter and its demands, because it saw the perils of standing behind its faculty. In the words of another excellent article published today on the controversy, by Conor Friedersdorf in the Atlantic,

This controversy is most significant, however, as a bellwether of how administrators respond when young people take offense beyond reasonable limits. To mollify some of its business students, USC was willing to undermine a professor in good standing.

Academics elsewhere are watching. They see the majority of faculty, alumni, and outside observers saying, “This goes too far,” and the bureaucracy holding firm. So far, USC administrators have not admitted error. They have not apologized to Patton or reinstated him to his classes. And they have left business faculty so fearful and insecure that some are self-censoring to protect their positions.

But the administration didn’t see the perils of “throw[ing its faculty] under the bus,” perils that this survey—and some of the worldwide coverage of the controversy—well illustrates. After this, though, administrations may realize that there are perils both ways. (I am eternally glad I am not an administrator.)

Let me return, though, to the substance, with one item from Friedersdorf’s article:

A full-time MBA student in the class of 2020 emailed me …, “Can you expect a student to focus or feel safe after hearing a word that sounds like a racial slur? To tell my black classmates that they shouldn’t be offended by something is objectively wrong ….”

Those who have read some of my past coverage of the controversy can likely predict my next questions:

  • I hear there are a few Mandarin speakers out there in the world, and maybe a few jobs in China, or elsewhere but around Mandarin-speaking customers, colleagues, or contractors. Do you think those employers expect their employees to focus after hearing the common word “neige”?
  • If they do, and if you want black graduates to succeed in such environments, don’t you need to teach them that they shouldn’t be offended by this word?
  • And whom exactly did USC’s condemnation of Patton ultimately help? Anyone?

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About The Author

Eugene Volokh

Founded in 1968, Reason is the magazine of free minds and free markets. We produce hard-hitting independent journalism on civil liberties, politics, technology, culture, policy, and commerce. Reason exists outside of the left/right echo chamber. Our goal is to deliver fresh, unbiased information and insights to our readers, viewers, and listeners every day. Visit https://reason.com

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