In a controversial decision, the University of Southern California replaced a professor of business communication with another instructor in one of his classes for saying a Chinese word that sounds like an English slur.
Late last month, Greg Patton, the professor, was teaching a lesson on “filler words” in other languages -- think “err,” “um” or “like” in English -- in his master’s-level course on communication for management.
“Taking a break between ideas can help bring the audience in,” Patton said, according to a recording of one of the Zoom course sections and a transcription that appeared next to him on screen. “In China,” for instance, he continued, “the common pause word is ‘that that that.’ So in China it might be ne ga, ne ga, ne ga.”
Patton, who has worked in China but is not a scholar of Chinese, did not warn students that 那个, or ne ga, (alternatively spelled nà ge and nèige) sounds something like the N-word -- which it does. And some or all of the Black students across three sections of the course were offended by what they’d heard. So they wrote a letter to the dean of the Marshall School of Business, Geoffrey Garrett, among others, describing Patton as insensitive and incapable of teaching the three-week intensive communications course.
“The way we heard it in class was indicative of a much more hurtful word with tremendous implications for the Black community,” wrote the students, who identified themselves as Black M.B.A. Candidates c/o 2022. “There are over 10,000 characters in the Chinese written language and to use this phrase, a clear synonym with this derogatory N-Word term, is hurtful and unacceptable to our USC Marshall community. The negligence and disregard displayed by our professor was very clear in today’s class.”
The students said some of them had voiced their concern to Patton during his lecture, but that he’d used the word in following class sections anyway. They also said they’d reached out to fellow Chinese students, who “confirmed that the pronunciation of this word is much different than what Professor Patton described in class. The word is most commonly used with a pause in between both syllables.”
Less than a week into their graduate school journey, the students added, “were made to feel less than … We are burdened to fight with our existence in society, in the workplace, and in America. We should not be made to fight for our sense of peace and mental well-being at Marshall.”
Several days later, Garrett, dean of the business school, sent students an email saying that Patton was being replaced as instructor of the course, effective immediately.
“It is simply unacceptable for faculty to use words in class that can marginalize, hurt and harm the psychological safety of our students,” Garrett wrote. Patton “repeated several times a Chinese word that sounds very similar to a vile racial slur in English. Understandably, this caused great pain and upset among students, and for that I am deeply sorry.”
While the change was presumably applauded by those students who urged action against Patton, his effective suspension from teaching the course angered many other students and alumni.
One petition for Patton’s reinstatement with thousands of signatures says, “For him to be censored simply because a Chinese word sounds like an English pejorative term is a mistake and is not appropriate, especially given the educational setting. It also dismisses the fact that Chinese is a real language and has its own pronunciations that have no relation to English.”
Ninety-four Marshall alumni, many of whom are Chinese and now live in China, wrote their own letter to the dean and other administrators, expressing support for Patton.
“All of us have gained enormous benefit from the academic leadership of Prof. Patton. His caring, wisdom and inclusiveness were a hallmark of our educational experience and growth at USC and the foundation of our continued success in the years following,” the named alumni wrote.
Moreover, they said, “We unanimously recognize Prof. Patton’s use of ‘na 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 Black students’ letter says that “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 alumni letter invoked another context: China’s Cultural Revolution, through which some signers said they lived, as well as many of their parents.
“The 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,” the 94 alumni wrote.
The school said in a statement that “We acknowledge the historical, cultural and harmful impact of racist language.” Not naming Patton by name, it said “the faculty member agreed to take a short term pause while we are reviewing to better understand the situation and to take any appropriate next steps. Another instructor is now teaching the class.”
USC is “committed to building a culture of respect and dignity where all members of our community can feel safe, supported and can thrive,” according to the statement. “We have a thorough process for responding to reports and offering supportive measures to any student, faculty or staff member who requests assistance.”
Matthew Simmons, a spokesperson for the business school, declined to answer additional questions about the case but said that Patton wasn’t “suspended from teaching. He is taking a pause while another professor teaches that one course, but he continues to teach his others.”
Even if Marshall doesn’t consider it a suspension, the American Association of University Professors maintains that removing a professor from the classroom prior to a hearing before a faculty body is a severe punishment that should be reserved for serious safety threats.
“Removal from even a single class can, of course, pose serious complications for the faculty member’s standing as a teacher,” says an AAUP report on the “use and abuse” of faculty suspensions. “Suspension usually implies an extremely negative judgment, for which the basis remains untested in the absence of a hearing, even though an administration may claim that it is saving the faculty member embarrassment. That potential embarrassment must be risked (or at least the faculty member should be permitted to risk it) if the individual is to have a chance of clearing his or her name.”
Patton did not agree to be interviewed. In a letter to the Marshall Graduate Student Association’s executive board, he offered “another deep apology for the discomfort and pain that I have caused members of our community. My intent has always been to provide a dynamic, diverse and supportive learning environment and I recently learned this has not always been the case.”
Explaining what happened from his point of view, Patton said that he’s taught the course in question for 10 years and the Chinese filler-word example he’d used “was given to me by several international students several years back.” The inclusion of other languages in the course 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.”
Patton also wrote that his example partially inspired by his own years working in Shanghai, “having not taken language courses.” Given the difference in “sounds, accent, context and language,” he added, “I did not connect this in the moment to any English words and certainly not any racial slur.”
The students' letter accuses Patton of starting and stopping the Zoom recording at suspicious times during his lecture. "In other words, he was aware of the grave and inappropriate nature of the example and purposefully chose to leave it out of his Zoom recording for the session," it says. Patton in his letter again denies that he had any ill intent. He is also in the habit of stopping his Zoom recordings on a regular basis to avoid taping transition moments and breakout discussions, for students who will watch the lectures later.
While the letter of complaint said that “several students during the lecture brought up this inappropriate use of Na-Ga,” Patton wrote that only one student reached out to him after his third class session of the day.
Patton also said that preliminary course evaluations were coincidentally happening that same day. Among the “student feedback from the three sections were three comments that reference the particular illustration,” he said. “When I read them, my heart dropped, and I have felt terrible ever since.”
Patton said he emailed the entire program to apologize and apologized again the next morning.
“I was willing to look at whatever I could do, personally and organizationally, to help the students and their classmates heal,” he said, adding that he’s since learned that past students may have had similar concerns.
Patton’s case has captured significant attention from news media and commentators, with the latter generally describing the university’s response as excessive and chilling to free expression.
David French, a political journalist and former president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and columnist for Time, wrote on Twitter, for example, that if “anyone thinks they're helping the cause of racial equality by engaging in absurd, over-the-top speech policing of innocent people, then they're sadly mistaken.”
— David French (@DavidAFrench) September 3, 2020
I'll say this ten thousand times, but if anyone thinks they're helping the cause of racial equality by engaging in absurd, over-the-top speech policing of innocent people, then they're sadly mistaken. https://t.co/K5q5PN4jSy
The case is a unique twist on the debates surrounding saying the N-word in the classroom when it appears in class texts. Some scholars believe that saying “N-word” instead of the full slur when it appears in literature or, say, a legal case, amounts of censorship. Other professors say that “N-word” gets the point across as effectively as the full word without compromising the pedagogical environment, including the trust between professor and students.