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  • Writer's pictureTiffany Lee

Get It Together, USC

A little after a year since the outrageous college admissions scandal at USC, it reenters the spotlight as the center of yet another international academic controversy. On August 20th, Dr. Greg Patton, who is a professor of clinical business communications at the USC Marshall School of Business, gave a lecture to his Communication for Management class as part of the core requirements for first year MBA students. He had given the lecture multiple times in the past and three times that same day. Part of his lecture included the use of a common Chinese filler word ‘nei ge’ that directly translates to ‘um’, ‘uh’, ‘this’ or ‘that’ in English to illustrate how filler words can interrupt the flow of ideas during presentations. In the widely circulated footage of the lecture, Patton specifies that “in China, the common word is that—that, that, that, that. So in China, it might be nèige—nèige, nèige, nèige. So there’s different words that you’ll hear in different countries, but they’re vocal disfluencies.” Having used the same example for years, Patton casually resumed his lecture.

However, the following day, multiple black MBA students filed a complaint to the Dean of Marshall citing that “this phrase, clearly and precisely before instruction is always identified as a phonetic homonym and a racial derogatory term, and should be carefully used, especially in the context of speaking Chinese within the social context of the United States.” They expressed how Patton had offended “all of the black members of their [our] class...the way we heard it in class was indicative of a much more hurtful word with tremendous implications for the Black community.” Apparently speaking for all the students at USC Marshall, they stated that “there are over 10,000 characters in the Chinese written language and to use this phrase ... is hurtful and unacceptable to our USC Marshall community.” “To expect that we will sit through two more weeks of this class, knowing that the professor lacks the tact, racial awareness and empathy to lead and teach an audience as diverse as ours is unacceptable,” they wrote. The students alleged that Patton had acted with malicious intent, an accusation he vigorously denied. Patton was subsequently suspended pending an investigation by the administration and voluntarily stepped away from his position teaching that course.

In an email issued by Geoffrey Garrett, the Dean of USC Marshall, agreed that “Professor Greg 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. It is simply unacceptable for faculty to use words in class that can marginalize, hurt and harm the psychological safety of our students. We must and we will do better.” Later, in an official public statement, USC Marshall stated that “we acknowledge the historical, cultural and harmful impact of racist language. 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.” Following the incident, USC’s Office for Equity, Equal Opportunity, and Title IX concluded that there was no ill intent on Patton's part and that “the use of the Mandarin term had a legitimate pedagogical purpose,” absolving him of accusations of blatant racism and negligence.

Another letter was personally issued by Patton providing both an apology and a rightful defense. He claimed that former international students had given him the example and he decided to incorporate it into his curriculum 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.” He continued by professing that he “had not realized this negativity previously or I would have replaced the example as we now have...I have strived to best prepare students with global, real-world and applied examples and illustrations to make the class content come alive and bring diverse voices, situations and experiences into the classroom.” Patton labeled it a colossal misunderstanding claiming “this is a Chinese word that has a different sound, a different accent, different pronunciation. It never once crossed my mind it would lead to this.” Finally, Patton stressed the importance of a global mindset, stating that “a third of our business students are international. We’re deeply entrenched on the Pacific Rim—our first Chinese student graduated in 1892. You would expect to have examples from Japanese, Korean, and Chinese brought into class. You wouldn’t be doing your job if you didn’t.”

While I don’t intend to invalidate or act with “malicious intent”, the actions of the MBA students as well as the USC administration seem to marginalize the Asian community rather than promote racial awareness. The complaint suggests that Professor Patton should be more conscious in the “context of the United States.” This implies that the foundation of the United States is not built on millions of immigrants, a country that has historically been labeled a melting pot of cultures. In 2018 alone, there were 44.8 million immigrants in the United States, making up 13.7% of the population while 37% of immigrants arriving in the United States came from Asia according to the PEW Research Center. That same year, 149,000 people immigrated to the United States from China, making it the top country for new immigrants. The social context of the United States is defined by its multicultural and multilingual setting. If we are solely arguing context, Professor Patton’s use of ‘nei ge’ in a purely educational setting in the context of a communications lecture on filler words would be more than appropriate. However, there is no valid reason why a language with more than 3,000 years of history should be contextualized to begin with.

The phrase ‘nei ge’ or ‘na ge’ was not created with the intent to oppress the black community, Chinese has been around for 3,500 years opposed to the 1,600 years since English was created. A simple Mandarin lesson would reveal that ‘nei ge’ is a common pronoun used in everyday dialogue in China and Chinese/Mandarin speaking countries. The students also claimed that the pronunciation of ‘nei ge’ is most commonly used with a pause in between both syllables which can be possible with various words because there are hundreds of dialects and regional differences in sentence structure and pronunciation. However, the filler word ‘nei ge’ is universal in the Chinese language and thousands of native Chinese speakers have publicly testified to Professor Patton’s completely accurate rendition of ‘nei ge’.

To censor another language based on the pronunciation of a word with no etymological ties to English and whose definition is completely arbitrary clearly insinuates the superiority of the English language at a school that boasts an international student body. Rather than focusing on tackling legitimate instances of racism on campus, the administration immediately targeted a professor's innocent use of a seemingly innocuous Chinese word, choosing political correctness and seeking the cowards way out, a classic case of performative activism. By replacing the professor, it debases substantive conversations surrounding real instances of racial prejudice on college campuses. This incident is just the latest embodiment of a much broader battle in academia where administrators struggle to balance a newfound responsibility to confront racist microaggression on campus with an emphasis on academic freedom and diversified sentiments in an educational setting. There are other ways to fight for racial justice, just not at the expense of other communities.


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