Another B-school controversy has erupted in Southern California. Greg Patton, a professor of clinical business communication at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business, has been removed from a course he has taught for many years after some students complained that he used a word in Mandarin that is very similar to the N-word. The “pause” in the professor’s involvement in the course was reported in the conservative National Review and subsequently became national news.
USC Marshall’s MBA fall semester began remotely August 17. On August 20, Patton was giving a virtual lecture about the use of “filler words” in speech when he used the Mandarin word, saying: “If you have a lot of ‘ums and errs,’ this is culturally specific, so based on your native language. Like in China, the common word is ‘that, that, that.’ So in China it might be ‘nèi ge, nèi ge, nèi ge.’”
Patton was accused shortly after the class of mispronouncing the Chinese expression purposely to make it sound like the N-word, and of “conveniently” stopping the Zoom recording right before saying the word to give it greater emphasis. In an email to the business school leadership obtained by Poets&Quants, a group of students wrote that the incident “shocked” the Black members of the Class of 2022, and “collectively we are in disbelief that you all would allow this to go on in this program.” The students wrote that their mental health had been affected, and called for the school to take the incident seriously and address it.
“It is an uneasy feeling allowing (Patton) to have the power over our grades,” the students wrote. “We would rather not take his course than to endure the emotional exhaustion of carrying on with an instructor that disregards cultural diversity and sensitivities and by extension creates an unwelcome environment for us Black students.”
P&Q also obtained Patton’s and Dean Geoff Garrett’s responses to the controversy. In an August 26 letter to members of the USC Marshall Graduate Student Association Executive Board, Patton denied intentionally mispronouncing the Chinese word and offered “another deep apology for the discomfort and pain that I have caused members of our Community.” He added that “While no derogatory or racial slur was or has even been used, and the example was framed as from China and in Chinese, and although my intent has been and always will be 100 positive towards every student, I recognize that I need to get better. And I will continue to learn from, partner with and grow together with my students in continually working to create a more perfect learning environment.”
In an August 24 letter to the school community, however, Dean Geoff Garrett acknowledged the “great pain and upset among students” caused by the incident, saying, “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. … I am deeply saddened by this disturbing episode that has caused such anguish and trauma. What happened cannot be undone. But please know that (Vice Dean) Sharoni (Little), (Vice Dean) Suh-Pyng (Ku), and I along with the entire Full-Time MBA Program team are here to support each of you. We welcome the opportunity to have conversations with any of you individually.” (See the next page for the entire text of the students’ email, as well as Dean Garrett’s and Greg Patton’s responses.)
Garrett said Professor Marion Philadelphia, chair of the Marshall Department of Business Communications, has replaced Patton and will teach the remainder of the course. Patton continues to teach other courses this semester.
A ROBUST DISCUSSION ON REDDIT
It’s the latest scandal at a school where emotions are still raw over the 2018 firing of popular Dean Jim Ellis. Debate over Patton’s suspension has erupted on Reddit, where a thread on the subject had 123 comments by 11 a.m. Monday. By far the majority were sympathetic to Patton and unsympathetic toward the school and the Black students.
Reddit user SneakieSneakers, an M7 student, writes: “As someone who speaks Mandarin and often holds conversations in public, I have definitely accidentally realized that I’ve used this word several times out loud after the fact. And yes, it’s pronounced more or less exactly like the n word.
“I have the cultural context to understand how that can be mistaken for malicious intent so I try not to use it, but it’s literally a filler word. It happens. I don’t think people using the language as it’s intended (especially immigrants/native speakers) should be forced to censor their culture because it could mean something else in another context, but there is the recognition that someone could take things the wrong way, like the Nazi swastika vs. Indian good luck symbol.
“That being said, this was literally an academic lecture on communication, describing a cultural practice. I’m honestly struggling to understand why Black MBA students chose this incident over the many, many other targeted injustices in their world to focus on.”
Another user, henhen616, posted: “sigh, there are probably so many words of different languages that sound like offensive American English terms, yet some subset of uncultured Americans will always play the victim/race card.
“As a Chinese person myself, this case has no basis for the uproar. some students are just way too damn soft and are always playing victim, hands down. America’s victim mentality is pure disgusting and has made me totally switch sides on the thoughts/political beliefs side.”
To which kylemullaney responded: “Absolutely agree. If this is too much then don’t get into international business. I live in Taiwan for 11 years and nearly weekly was stripped by a strange on the street who, with genuine compassion, told me I needed to lose weight for the sake of my health. Americans find this truth horribly offensive. These Taiwanese people were simply trying to be helpful.
“It is easy for us to take offense because it only requires us to look at ourselves. It is hard for us to step away from ourselves and care about others.”
FOR PATTON, A ‘SHORT-TERM PAUSE’
USC Marshall has not yet released its MBA Class of 2022 profile, but last fall’s incoming cohort was one of the most diverse among top-25 schools, with 31.3% U.S. minorities. The school reported a Black MBA population of 4.6%.
Patton, who earned his Ph.D. from USC’s Annenberg School for Communication in 2005, has taught at the Marshall School in one capacity or another since 1999. He also serves as Desk Officer for USC Global Programs and the Marshall PM Globe Program in Korea and China. According to his CV, Patton is “an expert in communication, interpersonal and leadership effectiveness” who also teaches in Marshall’s Executive MBA program. His page on the Marshall website says he “has extensive international experience, has trained, coached and mentored thousands of leaders worldwide, and created scores of successful leadership programs. He has advised on several hundred consulting engagements throughout the Pacific Rim, serves as a keynote speaker and has held more than twenty leadership positions in national and international organizations.”
Patton’s course is one he has taught for about a decade. According to a statement provided to Poets&Quants on Friday (September 4), he has agreed to take a “short-term pause” from his teaching duties.
“Recently,” the unsigned statement reads, “a USC faculty member during class used a Chinese word that sounds similar to a racial slur in English. 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. Another instructor is now teaching the class.
“We have a thorough process for responding to reports and offering supportive measures to any student, faculty, or staff member who requests assistance. USC is committed to building a culture of respect and dignity where all members of our community can feel safe, supported, and can thrive.”
But the incident has raised some alarms in the Marshall alumni community. One alum, who asked to remain anonymous, said concerns were running high. “Professors are scared that they might be next and are looking to leave the program due to the risk of having their careers ruined by something like this,” the alum tells P&Q. “It is a complete mess, and the new dean, an Australian, is just going along with the small group of students who is driving this perceived grievance.
“I love USC, and am saddened to see it going this way. There needs to be pressure on the administration to act sanely.”