This Week in Asia

Chinese students at a US university were told to speak English. Simple racism, or something more?

The now notorious incident in which Duke University biostatistics graduate students from China were told by their programme director that they should speak English "100 per cent of the time" while on departmental premises deservedly attracted condemnation in the United States higher-education community, and among Chinese in the US and China.

As a professor of ethnic Chinese origin myself (I am Singaporean) with 35 years' experience teaching at the University of Michigan - which has scholarly links with China that go back well into the 19th century, and which for decades has had a large population of Chinese students and faculty - two things about the incident particularly surprised me.

First, international students' significant presence on US university campuses, and their proclivity to speak with compatriots in their native languages, is well established. At my business school it is the norm to hear multiple languages spoken in the hallways and common areas. Most faculty and students enjoy the cosmopolitan ambience even though we cannot (and do not need to) understand what is being said. After all, American students in study-abroad programmes speak English among themselves, unless in foreign-language-immersion courses.

While English is the language of the American classroom - even where it is not the first language of professor or student - what language any individual chooses to use in private conversation outside is not subject to institutional or societal rules. It is part of "freedom of speech", on which American universities happen to pride themselves.

So, it is surprising that Chinese students speaking in their native language outside the classroom is worthy of attention, let alone criticism. If the problem was that, as reported, they were speaking too loudly and thus disturbing others in the common room, then the remedy would be simply to tell them to lower their voices, not to change the language they were speaking.

International students' significant presence on US university campuses, and their proclivity to speak with compatriots in their native languages, is well established. Photo: Alamy

The second surprising thing is that two faculty members went to the programme director asking to identify the students in question so they could exclude them should they apply for an internship or as a research assistant. This is very strange. The students' private language use has no necessary bearing on their professional competence in English, which is easily assessed by faculty in classroom discussion or an office interview when the student applies or requests a recommendation for a position. Why the programme director did not simply counsel the faculty complainants thus is a puzzle.

The more I thought about this, the more it occurred to me that the specifics of the case must have something to do with such surprising behaviour. To put it all down to just racial discrimination and prejudice against Chinese is too simple. So, in the manner of a business school case study, based only on public information and without doing any additional investigation, here is what I hypothesise contextualises the incident.

First, the programme director couches her exhortation to students to speak only English because it will affect their ability to get a job in the US. This indicates that the masters' programme in question is valued by Chinese students in part as a conduit to US employment and the associated visa status. Visually, at least on the programme's website, nearly all the students in the programme are from China.

This is not uncommon for many specialist masters' programmes in the US. I have always been impressed by the ability of Chinese students to target particular technical specialisations for their studies, based on US job-market prospects of the moment. Because I have a Chinese name, every spring I used to receive messages from students admitted into such programmes at my university, asking if they could work as my research assistant to help pay for their education.

For Duke University, successful US job placements for graduates of its biostatistics course are essential to maintaining the programme's attractiveness and financial viability. Photo: Handout

In the early 2000s, when the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (to improve corporate financial disclosure) was being crafted, many such students were in accounting. This was followed by financial engineering, which petered out after the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. Other masters' programmes long popular with international students - in applied economics and law, for example - became steadily "more Chinese".

From the institution's perspective, such programmes are often "cash cows", requiring few additional overhead costs besides faculty and administration time, particularly if the curriculum consists largely of classes already being offered for other larger programmes, such as the MBA or PhD.

On the face of it, this is the nature of the Duke biostatistics programme. It suggests that jobs in data analytics are booming, including in health care. For the university, it means that successful US job placement for programme graduates is essential to maintaining its attractiveness and financial viability.

For this, students need to have good English, which is difficult to acquire in highly quantitative courses (where mathematics is more important than English, and there may be little verbal case discussion), and where most if not all of your classmates are fellow non-native speakers.

The more homogeneous a programme's students, the more difficult this is, since even small-group breakout work would be conducted in the group members' native language, if all are from the same country.

Sometimes, the more dominated a programme or class is by students from a particular country, the less attractive it becomes to other potential students, who want a diverse class experience - particularly for other international students, for whom improving their English, interacting with Americans and building a global network, together with the job placement opportunity, are seen as the major benefits of studying in the US.

The more dominated a programme or class is by students from a particular country, the less attractive it may becomes to other potential students, who want a diverse class experience. Photo: Felix Wong

So, the Duke programme director may have simply been trying to maintain her programme's success by maximising the students' ability to get a job in the US, honing in on their English-language skills if they had been previously identified as a weakness - including by other faculty who might be a source of first employment.

She singled out Chinese speakers because all the students in the programme are Chinese, and perhaps because past experience indicated that hard-to-place students have weaker English skills. She suggested speaking English "100 per cent of the time" because there was no other opportunity provided in the curriculum for them to improve their language skills.

The fact that the programme director was an assistant professor (a rather unusual assignment for a junior faculty member) also suggests that she might be somewhat inexperienced, and/or intimidated by the faculty complainants. They may have been more senior, or teaching in the programme on "optional overload", so she may have felt she had to act on their complaint as instructors who might otherwise withdraw from the programme, or potential employers of its graduates.

That the university acted quickly (and correctly) on the incident reflects not just responsiveness to on-campus sensitivities to racial and nationality discrimination, but also concern for the viability of this programme - particularly the need not to discourage future Chinese applicants and potential employers.

The motives of the unidentified faculty complainants are harder to gauge, but not entirely inexplicable, though unjustifiable. As instructors, they (or other students in their classes) may have been frustrated if the biostatistics masters' students showed weak language skills in the classroom, or as research assistants, wrongly extrapolating from this that the cause was their failure to speak English "100 per cent of the time".

The Duke programme director may have simply been trying to maintain her programme's success by maximising the students' ability to get a job in the US. Photo: Xinhua

Perhaps it has become more difficult to secure jobs for Chinese graduates, given the tightening of skill-based H1B and OPT visas under the Trump administration, and the accusation that Chinese steal technology from US universities and industry, making English-language facility more of a discriminator in the placement process. Perhaps they are resentful that Chinese students have "crowded out" students of other nationalities, including Americans, from the programme, thus reducing its diversity.

Or perhaps they are just irritated by rich Chinese students driving and parking badly around campus in their expensive Lamborghinis and Maseratis, common on many campuses, and overreacted to a final straw in what they saw on their own home turf as entitled foreigners throwing their weight around and acting as if they own the place - by talking loudly in their own language.

Linda Lim is Professor Emerita of Corporate Strategy and International Business at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business, University of Michigan

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP).

Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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