The Duke University Chinese email incident, explained

Jan 30, 2019

A leaked email from a senior Duke University faculty member has ignited debate online around the perception of immigration and foreign students in the U.S.

On Jan. 26, Megan Neely, Duke’s director of graduate studies of its biostatistics program, sent an email cautioning Chinese students to speak English on campus, and in professional settings.



In the email, Dr. Neely relayed that two of the department’s faculty members had observed a group of first-year Chinese students speaking in their native tongue “very loudly,” and that they wanted to identify and note the students’ names, in case they ever applied for internships or asked to work on master’s projects.

According to the university, two-thirds of its master’s of biostatistics program is made up of Chinese students.

Dr. Neely’s email ended with her imploring Chinese students to “PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE keep these unintended consequences in mind when you choose to speak Chinese in the building,” and that she sympathized with how hard it must be to go to a foreign country and study in a non-native language.

Read also: I wish I got that Duke University warning when I was in college

There are over 300,000 Chinese nationals studying in the U.S., making them the largest group of international students in the country, at about 30 percent of the total population.

Most international students pay the full costs of tuition, a significant financial contribution to many colleges and universities. In states such as Vermont, Wisconsin, and Oregon, Chinese students account for more than 40 percent of the total student population.

Since the email went viral, Neely stepped down from her role as director of the graduate program, and the Dean of Duke’s School of Medicine requested a thorough review of the department.

Sentiment online and from within the Chinese community has been varied. Here's a snapshot of some opinions from social media and in direct messages to us from international students, to shed more light on the incident, and offer context about what life is like for Chinese students studying abroad.



With additional reporting by Venus Wu.

Duke UniversityBlacklashDiscriminationChinese international studentsXenophobia