The director of graduate studies at Duke's Biostatistics department has stepped down after her racially discriminatory emails, targeted at their international Chinese master's students, went viral on the Internet.

How can an affected Chinese student in the program proceed with their semester safely, without facing retaliation?

They have been threatened with no research opportunities and other possible impediments to their job search, for speaking Chinese loudly in the student lounge and in other areas outside of class time; namely, while I can appreciate the support for the director and distinguishing between her good intentions and unintended discrimination in her email messages to the students, the threats of retaliation by a couple of professors are problematic, e.g. these professors asked the director for photos of the Chinese students and were subsequently targeting them with no research projects.

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    Is this hypothetical, or are you one of the students affected? Are you looking for a general answer or something actionable?
    – Buffy
    Commented Feb 3, 2019 at 19:41
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    Let me give a little more insight as someone who is at Duke- 1. the graduate students were not in the lounge but in the community kitchen. 2. They were being loud during the working day. 3. Megan had to be the bearer of bad news for annoyed faculty who wanted them to respect the working space. Should Megan have made an insinuation about research? Resoundingly no. She should have just told them to clear out. I dont see why they were there. There are a TON of communal spaces in the med center where they could have been without disturbing faculty.
    – JWH2006
    Commented Feb 5, 2019 at 17:05
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    @JWH2006 I think you've completely missed the point. The issue is not that a faculty member asked students to be quiet, the point is that they asked them to not speak Chinese and insinuated that continuing to speak Chinese on their own time rather than English would come with consequences. The clear emphasis in the email was that Chinese language was the problem, not loud conversation. "To international students, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE keep these unintended consequences in mind when you choose to speak in Chinese in the building."
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Feb 5, 2019 at 17:14
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    @JWH2006 Have you read the email sent by the former head of the program? That demonstrates the (blatant) discrimination. Blatant enough that the person responsible for the email immediately resigned that position. I think overall the biostats department handled it just fine from my outsider perspective, but unless Neely misstated the positions of her colleagues there were multiple people in the department with these views.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Feb 5, 2019 at 20:52
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    @JWH2006 I can appreciate the support for Megan and you distinguishing between intentions and unintended discrimination in her message to the students. However, the threats of retaliation are problematic, e.g. the professors asking Megan for photos of the Chinese students and then targeting them with no research projects, for example.
    – user103955
    Commented Feb 5, 2019 at 22:26

2 Answers 2


I believe that for the students the situation has resolved itself. But I expect that it was collective action on the student's part that brought it to the attention of higher powers. I might be wrong in all of this, of course, but I think that people have been made sensitive to the problem and will be less willing to engage in (blatant) discrimination.

So, it may be that in the short term, things will improve.

But in general, it is collective action that is needed to bring such things to the fore. Bad things can happen in dark alleys. The light of day is a good disinfectant. But when someone powerful is acting badly, individual action might only make it worse for the individual. There is power in numbers.

If the students are still threatened, it is good to stick together.

Individuals can, of course, seek reassurance from their professors. If it isn't forthcoming, more light is needed.

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    "If the students are still threatened, it is good to stick together." This might be interpreted as "Only interact with people of your own race." which is bad advice. I think you intended "work as a group to address racism." My (limited) understanding of Chinese culture is that working as a group is customary. Commented Feb 3, 2019 at 22:22
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    @AnonymousPhysicist, actually, I think most students, whatever their race, would be appalled by such behavior of a Dean. And collective action should, in general, be as wide as possible.
    – Buffy
    Commented Feb 4, 2019 at 14:11

If these students believe that there existing/prior/future opportunities and outcomes have/will been adversely affected by racial discrimination that falls afoul of university policy or discrimination law, the best thing to do would be to put in a formal complaint to the university to this effect and seek an appropriate remedy (e.g., being granted the missed opportunities at issue).

One of the benefits of a formal complaint is that it almost always triggers non-retaliation requirements so long as the complaint is a bona fide one. If retaliation were to occur then this should be pursued with another formal complaint, and so on. Of course, there is never a guarantee that people will not retaliate in defiance of policy/law, but having put in a formal complaint puts the students in a position of strength against such action. As in all cases where a person is considering formal complaint proceedings, it is important to document relevant events, gather relevant evidence, and collate it in a clear way.

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