How One Word Led to an Uproar

Greg Patton said the word near the end of class. He was explaining how, when you make a presentation, it’s helpful to pause sometimes to let your audience absorb the information. Nervous speakers tend to fill the gaps with ums and ers when silence is preferable. It’s the kind of nuts-and-bolts advice that Patton, a professor of clinical business communication, has dispensed to M.B.A. students at the University of Southern California for a couple of decades now. He thought nothing of it at the time. Many of his students aren’t from the United States. A typical M.B.A. class at Southern Cal’s Marshall School of Business is about one-third international, though that proportion is lower this year — around 12 percent — because of the pandemic. Patton tells students who aren’t native English speakers that he’s not a stickler on word choice or pronunciation; he cares more about their ideas. He also tries to mix in culturally diverse examples. When he talks about the importance of pausing, for instance, he notes that other languages have equivalent filler words. Because he taught in the university’s Shanghai program for years, his go-to example is taken from Mandarin: nèige (那个). It literally means “that,” but it’s also widely used in the same way as um.And it sounds a bit like the n-word. The resemblance isn’t exact: The first vowel is a long “a” rather than a short “i,” and there’s no “r” sound at the end. It’s more like “nay-ga.” But it’s similar enough that, when it’s said rapidly and repeatedly, and heard out of context, an English speaker could mistake it for the racist slur. That is how several of Patton’s students apparently heard it in a class on August 20, and they complained to the administration. The complaint led to Patton’s removal from the course.

When a video of Patton saying the word was posted online, the general reaction wasn’t outrage at Patton but bafflement at how what he said could have prompted his ouster. As the story made its way into the Chinese news media, and onto the social network Weibo, it was met with disbelief and anger. A letter signed by more than 100 mostly Chinese alumni of the business school avers that the “spurious charge has the additional feature of casting insult toward the Chinese language.” Later, on the Instagram account black_at_usc — which is devoted to documenting instances of racial bias at the university — a post accused the administration of using Patton “as a scapegoat so that they don’t have to address the true issues we’ve been facing.” That post has more than 2,000 likes.The university’s response became fodder for Fox News, the Chinese Communist Party newspaper Global Times, and The Daily Show With Trevor Noah, not to mention a timeline full of Twitter pundits who already take a dim view of aggrieved college students. And the whole incident has become a strange sideshow at a moment of national reckoning on race, while also offering a case study in how the handling of a student complaint can lead to consequences far beyond the classroom. Whether Patton deserved to be removed, or was the target of overzealous students aided by an oversensitive administration, speaks to questions roiling other campuses. Was this a serious misstep, an intentional provocation, or a minor misunderstanding reframed as racist? When is an apology not enough?At the center of the saga is a veteran professor who never imagined that an example he’d used for years without incident would get him booted from a course he helped build, and perhaps prevent him from teaching again in the business’s school’s flagship M.B.A. program.Last week, I spoke with Patton about what happened. He hadn’t previously made any public comment, because, he said, he wanted to “de-escalate the situation.” As he told one administrator: “I don’t want to be the lead story on Fox News. I just want to get back to helping my students.” His area of scholarly expertise is communication and leadership, and among the topics he covers is corporate crisis management. The irony is not lost on him. But while he’s stayed mostly out of the fray, he’s frustrated at some misperceptions about what was said, how he responded, and the actions the university took.Patton first had a hint that something might be wrong when he received a message at the end of his last class that day. The message came from a student who said other students might have been offended by the Mandarin example. Patton teaches three sections of “Communication for Management,” a core course in the M.B.A. program. There are about 70 students in each section. Because of the pandemic, the class is taught on Zoom, and there’s a recording of the lecture posted on Blackboard for students who can’t watch in real time. Patton had virtual office hours that afternoon, but no one mentioned anything about the Mandarin example. In fact, even weeks later, he says, no student ever spoke with or messaged him directly about feeling offended.It happened to be the day that students filled out mid-course evaluations. That evening Patton was reading through them and found three — out of more than 200 — that expressed concern about the Mandarin example. One mentioned it in passing; another student reported feeling hurt. The next morning the professor sent a message to the entire class. “I wish to offer an apology,” he wrote. “My intent has been to always integrate and bring more and varied voices from different perspectives … and I failed with an example Thursday.” He apologized again over Zoom the next morning, making a guest appearance in an already scheduled diversity course. By that point, he had decided to drop the Mandarin word from the course and replace it with one from Portuguese.

Complaint from Black MBA students

That same morning a group of students sent an email to business-school administrators saying they were “very displeased” with the professor. They accused Patton of “negligence and disregard” and deemed the Mandarin example “grave and inappropriate.” They referenced the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. “Our mental health has been affected,” they wrote. “It is an uneasy feeling allowing him to have power over our grades. We would rather not take this course than to endure the emotional exhaustion of carrying on with an instructor that disregards cultural diversity and sensitivities and by extension creates an unwelcome environment for us Black students.” The email is signed “Black MBA Candidates c/o 2022.” (The students who made the complaint haven’t spoken publicly or identified themselves, and several students in the course didn’t respond to interview requests.)Some of the email’s factual claims are dubious. One is that Patton mispronounced the word, which appears to be untrue. The pronunciation varies depending on the region in China, but a number of videos and pronunciation guides offer the same pronunciation. Patton learned about the word and its use from conversations during time spent teaching M.B.A. students in Shanghai, where it’s often spoken in a repetitive, rapid-fire manner.Another is that Patton purposely stopped the recording so that there would be no evidence of his having said the word. He and other professors in the business school do stop recordings when students are in breakout sessions, in order to avoid showing five minutes of the professor silently taking care of back-office work. In two of the classes that day, Patton neglected to switch the recording back on after the breakout sessions, so that the last few minutes — which included him saying the word — weren’t captured. “With all the multitasking going on, it’s not unusual to miss a restart,” Patton says. But the example from one of the classes was recorded and posted on Blackboard. That clip, which was posted on the Language Log blog, has been widely shared and viewed well over a million times. Patton says he’s never stopped recording for any reason other than to eliminate the gaps during the breakout sessions.The complaint also says that students alerted Patton that the example was offensive, but that he continued using it in subsequent classes. Patton says he didn’t hear any objections until the end of the final class of the day, after he had already used it for the third time.Southern Cal administrators met with a small group of M.B.A. students to discuss their concerns the day after the class. According to an email sent by the school’s Faculty Council describing the sequence of events, an “extensive review” of Patton’s teaching was then carried out. Two days later, on a Sunday afternoon, Patton met with the business school’s dean, Geoffrey Garrett, who took over the position in July, and was told that he could teach the next day. The students who objected would be offered a number of options, including independent study for the remainder of the three-week course, having their work graded by another professor, taking an elective instead, or taking the same class taught by another professor.

Email from Dean Garrett to MBA class

But a few students rejected those options. Instead, they wanted Patton removed. That Monday afternoon, after he taught his classes, Patton was informed that he wouldn’t teach the rest of the course. In addition, Dean Garrett emailed the M.B.A. Class of 2022 to let them know that another professor would take over. It was, he wrote, “simply unacceptable for faculty to use words in class that can marginalize, hurt and harm the psychological safety of our students.” He went on to say that he was “deeply saddened by this disturbing episode that has caused such anguish and trauma,” but that “[w]hat happened cannot be undone.”Moreover, said Garrett, he and other administrators would work to “identify and redress bias, microaggressions, inequities, and all forms of systemic racism.” The dean didn’t reveal in which category he believed Patton’s use of the word belonged. There was no mention of the fact that the university had already investigated Patton and cleared him to return to the classroom. (A Southern Cal spokesman said Garrett was not available for an interview.)Patton wrote a 1,000-word email to the Marshall Graduate Student Association in which he offered a “deep apology for the discomfort and pain that I have caused members of our community.” In that letter, he said he was willing to “look at whatever I could do, personally and organizationally, to help the students and their classmates heal.” While Patton says he does genuinely feel bad that the example has caused such disruption, he has heard from Chinese students who don’t think he should have expressed remorse. “If there’s a complaint I’m getting, it’s that I apologized and should not have,” he says. He still struggles to understand how what he said could have been interpreted as laced with ill intent, as if he were sneaking in a slur. “I’m not springing it on them,” he says. “I’m talking in an international context. I’m specifically talking about China and the language most commonly spoken in the world.” Patton doesn’t believe he’ll be able to teach in the full-time M.B.A. program again anytime soon. There’s concern at the business school that the students who complained might object to his teaching the communication course next fall, or any other course, for that matter. An online petition to reinstate Patton has received more than 19,000 signatures. While he wasn’t actually placed on leave or reprimanded, Patton does feel that his reputation has yet to be restored, and that his ability to teach remains in question. “I’ve used that example for years, and no one said anything to me. I’ve been going to China for 20 years, where I heard it all the time. I never once thought the two words were connected,” he says. “It’s painful because I’ve put in a lot of heart and soul into building up that program.”

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