Last August, soon after the start of the University of Southern California’s fall semester, Dr. Greg Patton, a 53-year-old professor at USC’s Marshall School of Business, was on a Zoom call, delivering an afternoon lecture on public speaking to 70 students in the full-time master’s program.
Patton, a genial instructor and Pacific Rim business consultant, had taught at USC for over 20 years. He had given the same lecture dozens of times before, including three times that day. His class, Communication for Management, was meant to teach students effective skills for communicating in global markets.
Patton was explaining that filler words, like um or er, are distracting because they interrupt the flow of ideas when making presentations. To illustrate his point, he introduced a Mandarin word that literally means that, and is more commonly used to mean um. He says in a video of the class that’s been widely circulated on social media, “This is culturally specific . . . Like 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.” To Patton, who has used the same example for years, the class was utterly unremarkable.
The first hint of trouble, though, came near the end of the session, when a student sent him a private message on Zoom. Some people were uncomfortable with the Chinese example he used, she said. A second student emailed him that afternoon, suggesting he replace the Chinese example in future lectures. Coincidentally, midterm evaluations were scheduled for that same day. Alarmed, Patton went into the system and saw that the nèige example had been mentioned in three separate student evaluations. “My heart just sank,” he says. “The last thing I want to do is distract or hurt my students.”
“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.”
Patton emailed an apology to the entire class early the next morning, on August 21, right around the time that an incendiary complaint entitled “Subject: A Callous, Reckless Illustration in Management Communication” arrived in the inbox of newly installed Dean Geoffrey Garrett. In the letter, an anonymous group of Patton’s Black students accused the professor of racism and harming their mental health by using a Chinese-language word that sounded “exactly like the word NIGGA.” Their letter referenced the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and said that “social awakening across the nation” had motivated their complaint. “We are burdened to fight with our existence in society, in the workplace, and in America. We should not be made to fight for our sense of peace and mental well-being at Marshall,” they said. The students alleged that Patton had acted with malicious intent, a charge he vigorously denied.
Soon the story had made its way into the Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic, and dozens of international publications. Patton declined most interview requests. But in an interview with Los Angeles in September, he described the incident as a colossal misunderstanding. “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.” He adds, “We’re a global university. 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.”
“He’s a white American. He knows what it sounds like, right?” said Brittany, a graduate student involved in the complaint letter, in an interview with NPR. (She withheld her last name for fear of backlash.) “It was distasteful because you know what it means to people. You know what it sounds like. And you didn’t care how it came off to Black students in your class.”
The incident came just a month into the tenure of Garrett, who had been poached amid much fanfare from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School to lead the business school at USC, his fourth business-school deanship in less than ten years. The 62-year-old Australian native is married to a woman from California, and he previously taught at USC and UCLA.
Soon after receiving the student’s complaints, Garrett suspended Patton from teaching the course, pending a USC investigation. Marshall administrators offered the Black students a host of academic alternatives, including independent research, but they pushed for the professor’s dismissal. This prompted outraged letters from pro-Patton faculty members as well as Chinese students and alumni, leaving the dean beleaguered and the professor in limbo.
It took no time at all for the campus controversy to metastasize into a bitter international debate. The right-wing blog Campus Reform was the first to pick up the story, noting that Patton had “agreed to take a short-term pause.” As the story spread, the university’s response factionalized the campus and stirred negative news coverage of USC worldwide. Even the The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah joined the fray. “Here’s my question for you,” Noah said to Chinese standup Ronny Chieng. “If ‘nèige’ is, like, just a thinking word, then isn’t that confusing to you when you listen to rap music?” To which Chieng deadpanned, “Yeah, to be honest, Trevor, sometimes most rappers sound like they’re really unsure of themselves.”
For most of those caught up in it, the controversy has been no laughing matter. “A lot of the faculty are nervous,” one business professor says. “I might make a verbal miscue—do I lose my job for a mistake? Is this administration going to support me?” An internal survey of 105 professors conducted by Marshall’s faculty council was leaked to the Chronicle of Higher Education. Peppered with emotional words and phrases like “livid,” “betrayed,” “scared of students,” and “scared to teach,” the report showed a loss of confidence in Garrett as a result of the affair.
Over the weekend of August 21, following a meeting with the aggrieved students, USC initiated a deep review of Patton’s decades at the business school, scrutinizing thousands of student evaluations for signs of his racial or cultural insensitivity. None were found. Some of the claims mentioned in the grievance letter—that Patton had ignored previous complaints and had erased class recordings of the incident—also proved to be untrue. (A university probe found no evidence that the students had attempted to communicate with Patton prior to lodging their complaint.)
The trouble at USC is just the latest manifestation of a much broader battle in academia, where administrators have struggled to balance a newfound commitment to confront racist microaggressions on campus with the imperative for open dialogue and academic freedom. The incident drew hundreds of letters from alumni—many of them Black—who were infuriated by what they saw as the university’s retreat from those principles. On Instagram, a Black member of USC’s class of 2024 called Patton a “scapegoat” and warned that the university’s response would be used to “gaslight” Black students with legitimate grievances. “I’ve already seen people reference this situation and say we blow everything out of proportion, when the majority of us never took issue with this situation in the first place.”
For USC, where more than 22 percent of students are from China, the controversy has had an unexpected consequence. Days after the story broke, the Chinese media jumped on the incident, offended by what they saw as USC’s disparagement of the Chinese language. “U.S. Political Correctness Implicates a Chinese Filler Word” blared a headline in China’s Global Times. On Weibo, China’s Twitter, hashtags about the controversy were shared more than 9 million times.
Ninety-four recent graduates of the MBA program, most of them Chinese, likened the university’s response to the incident to the “spurious accusations against innocent people” that shadowed Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
USC has always been reluctant to offend Chinese sensibilities. Max Nikias, USC’s former president, reportedly scrubbed photos of a historic visit by the Dalai Lama from a contemporary history of the university so as not to anger the Tibetan leader’s opponents in Beijing. International students tend to come from wealthy families that can afford to pay full tuition, and Chinese tuition dollars are an important fiscal pillar of the university.
The investigation into the professor ended without fanfare on September 25. The university’s Office for Equity, Equal Opportunity, and Title IX concluded there was no ill intent on Patton’s part and that “the use of the Mandarin term had a legitimate pedagogical purpose.” In a follow-up email to students and faculty, the dean appeared to tiptoe between concerns of the complainants and the strong opinions of faculty and students. Garrett described the complaint letter as “genuine and serious,” apologized for appearing to prejudge Patton, and assured students and faculty that he meant to cast no aspersions “on specific Mandarin words or on Mandarin generally.”
For the moment, the controversy has lifted, and the business school has descended into an uneasy peace. It may just be a matter of time before issues like this are litigated again at USC or on other campuses. Patton believes that the findings are an important step toward restoring his reputation, but he says his future is unclear. He will transition to teaching other programs within the business school in the spring and summer but has agreed to step away from the school’s MBA program indefinitely. “I know that I’m going to have a thousand conversations about this in the next five years. Now I just want to get back to helping my students.”
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