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Another victim in the campus culture wars

The world has enough real problems without turning every road bump into an IED

“You have something stuck in your teeth.”

“You have a stain on your shirt.”

“Your fly is open.”

How do you feel when an acquaintance whispers one of these warnings in your ear? Are you offended?

Of course not. Your good neighbor is subjecting you to a little discomfort now to spare you a lot of discomfort later. Would you really prefer to discover after the fact that a blob of mustard or an unzipped zipper had played starring role at your interview, on your date, or before your board of directors?

In a perfect world, no one would think twice about such innocent slip-ups. But as long as we have to live in reality, we should be grateful for those conscientious souls who catch us before we drift over the precipice of mortification.

Unless we live in the world of academia.


Imagine that you’re a university administrator. Several faculty members express their disdain toward particular students who, although not breaking any rules, seem indifferent to social or professional norms. Is it not your responsibility to advise those students that their conduct might imperil their academic and professional future?

And if you do, do you expect to be censured and forced to resign your administrative position?

That’s what happened to Megan Neely, an assistant professor and then-director of graduate studies in the biostatistics department at Duke University. According to the Washington Post, two faculty members had approached Professor Neely critical of students whom they observed “speaking Chinese very loudly” in the student lounge and study areas.

Professor Neely responded by sending out an inter-department email. She began by empathizing with the challenge of learning a new language, then went on to encourage foreign students to improve their proficiency by speaking only English in public. She added that students should observe the basic rules of politeness, lest they damage their own opportunities for internships and advancement.

Inevitably, the email went viral. Predictably, accusations of racism and discrimination poured down on Professor Neely from all quarters.


The first problem in this story lies with the students – not because they were speaking Chinese, but that they were speaking loud. With the rise of cellphone-centric mentality, too many of us have grown oblivious to the way we invade others’ personal space by failing to moderate the volume of our public discourse. You know how irksome it is when clueless and clamorous neighbors make it impossible to carry on your own conversation. No one else likes it, either.

The second problem lies with the way the faculty members approached the administration. Rather than responding with censure, they should have pondered how best to school the students in social decorum and, perhaps, the benefit of seeking out native English speakers to help them improve their fluency. The notion of blacklisting students for speaking their own language on their own time is perverse.

The third problem – albeit minor compared with the others – was Professor Neely’s failure to articulate that she did not endorse her colleagues’ reaction but merely wanted to alert students so they would not endanger their own future success. Nevertheless, that clearly was her intent. Indeed, as a biostatistician, she might be forgiven if her communication skills are not sufficiently nuanced to navigate the treacherous shoals of political correctness.


But the biggest problem of all was the reaction. As we have so often seen, hypersensitive college students spend way too much time looking for ways to be offended. While there was justification for calling out the faculty members for the manner of their response, every social or political blunder is not cause for outrage. The world has enough real problems without turning every road bump into an IED.

Professor Neely, like many before her, is the latest collateral damage, as well as yet another example that no good deed goes unpunished. For her effort to protect her students, she was pummeled, pilloried, and pressured to step down from her position. This is not only unjust; it ensures that whoever replaces her will choose mollycoddling over genuine educating. Better to protect students’ fragile psyches by telling them what they want to hear than teaching them what they need to know.

King Solomon says: Do not rebuke a fool, lest he hate you; admonish a wise man and you win his love.

It is the responsibility of those in authority to correct their charges and underlings. If they don’t, the blame lies with them for disseminating the illusion of competence that leads fools into folly, and for all the damage they leave in their wake.

To succeed in life, we need to learn the difference between rebuke given with love and the insidious evil of false praise. After that, there’s no limit to what we can accomplish.

Published in Jewish World Review

Photo Credit: Thomas's pics via Flickr

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