Monday, September 21, 2020
I have previously reported on the discipline of Professor Greg Patton at USC Patton, who used a common Mandarin word in class that sounded like a racist word in English. The Atlantic has a piece on how this has affected other business faculty at USC Marshall.
The Fight Against Words That Sound Like, but Are Not, Slurs. "Colleges are torn apart when faculty are punished and publicly vilified for accidentally giving offense."
"When the news began circulating on social media, many couldn’t believe it was true––that the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California would remove a longtime professor from a class because a Mandarin word he used correctly in a lesson sounded sort of like a racial slur. One skeptic warned that the “ridiculous sounding story” seemed like a “fabricated Reddit meme.” Another was suspicious that it so neatly fit a narrative of “wacky campus leftists repressing free speech.”
"Then angry faculty and alumni began confirming the story."
"The dean’s actions triggered an avalanche of criticism. A Change.org petition to reinstate Patton accumulated more than 20,000 signatures. CNN reported reactions of disbelief and ridicule in the Chinese-language media, diminishing USC’s image as a Pacific Rim university that values academic freedom. Ninety-four recent graduates of the MBA program, purporting to represent “more than a dozen nationalities and ethnicities,” wrote that “a few of us, but many of our parents, lived through mainland China’s Cultural Revolution. This current incident, and Marshall’s response so far, seem disturbingly similar to prevalent behavior in China at that time—spurious accusations against innocent people, which escalated into institutional insanity.”
"Scores of USC business faculty felt undermined by their dean––and many would only express their concern anonymously for fear of retaliation from students or administrators. “This situation has rocked the business school,” one faculty member told me. “Patton was thrown to the wolves, his reputation damaged, and his livelihood threatened. The dean’s letter … caused immeasurable damage.”
"On Instagram, a Black member of USC’s class of 2024 wrote that Patton is a “scapegoat” being used by USC administrators “as a performative way to show they’re progressive,” adding, “Every other black USC student I talked to wasn’t even offended … I’ve already seen people reference this situation and say we blow everything out of proportion when the majority of us never took issue with this situation.” On the letters page of the Los Angeles Times, various YouTube channels, and Twitter, multiple Black commentators agreed that Patton was being treated unjustly. “Use of the filler phrases is CRITICAL for fluid Chinese conversation,” Vic Marsh, a Black speaker of Mandarin, commented. “Take a deep breath, USC, and give the linguist back pay. We need everyone to stop doing silly things in the name of Black people.”
"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."
"As one professor put it, the treatment of Patton is “farcical,” but part of a larger trend: “Fundamental values––freedom of speech, intellectual freedom, equality––have largely fallen out of fashion in most elite universities, including USC. This has created a climate of terror among faculty.”
"A Chinese American USC business student emailed me, “I couldn’t help but feel angry that the language that I first spoke is almost being demonized because the language contains an extremely common phrase that sounds remotely similar to something in English.”)
"Kim wondered if the students simply made an honest mistake in attributing ill intent. “My hope is that it was just a mistake. You know, mistakes can happen. But it’s unclear,” he said, to what extent they were trying to “frame the situation” to “have maximal influence on this person’s career.”
"But that professor believes USC’s response could hurt other students as well as professors, who will wonder, he said, “‘Well, if I say something that some group doesn’t like and they write a letter to the dean, will I get kicked out of class? Will the dean write a public letter vilifying me?’”
"That same year, when an aide to the mayor of Washington, D.C., was forced to resign for calling a city budget proposal “niggardly,” upsetting a Black colleague who misinterpreted the word as a racial slur, Salon characterized the matter as an absurdity that “opinion-makers right, left and center could universally agree on.” Julian Bond, then the head of the NAACP, told the Associated Press, “You hate to think you have to censor your language to meet other people’s lack of understanding.”
"But is honest, open dialogue at USC possible? Last Monday, the faculty council at the business school discussed the results of an anonymous survey on the Patton incident that 105 faculty members answered. According to a transcript I obtained, a member of the council described “an overwhelming sense of vulnerability, worry, insecurity, fear and anxiety” among faculty who worry that they could be “cancelled” anytime due to a misunderstanding. The faculty feel “anger, disappointment, betrayal, and outrage” at Patton’s treatment. They support “efforts to bring greater diversity and inclusion into our classrooms,” but “a large proportion” of faculty members mentioned that “given the atmosphere of fear and perceived lack of support, they think it is too risky for them to continue discussing certain topics with students. This includes topics related to diversity and inclusion, but it also includes such topics as politics and international relations.”
"Teachers are already altering their lessons to guard against hypothetical affronts to the most easily offended. Business-school administrators ought to treat that chilling effect, which threatens the education of all MBA students, as a more urgent problem than the passing utterance of a Mandarin word."
Conclusion: "When universities invoke “diversity, equity, and inclusion” to justify an action, the effect should never be to suppress widely held views. When well-meaning staff are punished for dissenting from left orthodoxy, let alone for wholly imaginary slights, the whole academic project is at risk."