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USC Marshall Finds Students Were Sincere, But Prof Did No Wrong In Racial Flap

USC photo

Note: This story has been updated to include a statement from Professor Greg Patton.

In one of the most talked-about controversies so far in the young 2020-2021 school year, a long-time professor at a top-25 business school was replaced in an MBA class he had been teaching for years after students complained that a Chinese word he demonstrated sounded too much like a racial slur in English. But a just-concluded internal investigation has absolved the professor of any wrongdoing, and the school’s dean says it’s time to move on.

Greg Patton, a professor of clinical business communication at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business, was removed from a course after Black students complained that he used a word in Mandarin that is very similar to the N-word. Patton was given a “pause” and replaced by another instructor, a move that made national news after being picked up and amplified by conservative media. Geoff Garrett, in his first year as dean after a lengthy and distinguished tenure at Wharton, got involved, writing to his new community that he 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.”

After weeks of an internal investigation by USC’s Office for Equity, Equal Opportunity and Title IX (EEO-TIX), however, Patton was found to have acted appropriately, as Garrett announced to students and the rest of the Marshall School community in a September 25 email. The EEO-TIX found that “the concerns expressed by students were sincere,” the dean wrote, “but that Professor Patton’s actions did not violate the university’s policy. They have also communicated this to the professor and he allowed me to share their conclusion with you.

‘THE INCIDENT LED FACULTY TO QUESTION WHETHER THEY WOULD BE SUPPORTED’

“To be clear, Professor Patton was never suspended nor did his status at Marshall change. He is currently teaching in Marshall’s EMBA program and he will continue his regular teaching schedule next semester.

“More generally, this incident has led many faculty to question whether they will be supported if they ‘make an honest mistake’ in the classroom. Faculty are at the heart of all great business schools and every member of my leadership team will always do everything we can to support you and to ensure you thrive in both your research and teaching missions. We fully support our students and staff as well.

“In order for our faculty and students to flourish in the classroom, it is essential that everyone feels free to express their views openly and to learn from each other from a perspective of mutual trust and respect. This can be challenging in today’s charged environment, but we must all strive to find the right balance.”

DEAN ‘FELT COMPELLED’ TO JUMP INTO THE FRAY

Greg Patton, a business communications professor at USC Marshall School of Business, was replaced in an MBA course in August after students complained about a Mandarin word he used that sounded very similar to the N-word. YouTube

USC Marshall’s MBA fall semester began remotely August 17. On August 20, Patton was giving a virtual lecture in a three-week course, GSBA 542, 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, 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.

Garrett, weeks into his term as dean, leaped into the fray, writing, “We must and we will do better.” He added that he was “deeply saddened by this disturbing episode that has caused such anguish and trauma,” and that “What happened cannot be undone.”

A month later, with the school’s internal investigation complete, Garrett appeared to be trying with his September 25 email to clear the air regarding his own statements.

“I felt compelled,” he wrote, “to immediately address the genuine and serious concerns expressed by a number of student groups and individual students, including some enrolled in GSBA 542 who said they would stop attending the remaining two weeks of class. I will always respect and support students who come forward with concerns and will take them seriously, as I did in this case.

“However, many of you have read that note as suggesting that I had prejudged the case. As I said when asked about this in the department meetings, this was not my intention. Nor was it my intent to cast aspersions on specific Mandarin words or on Mandarin generally. But I can see how reasonable people could draw a different conclusion in both cases from my email. I can only offer my sincere apologies that I left that impression, as I believed Professor Patton when he said he did not intend to do his students any harm and I have apologized to him as well.”

PATTON HAS TAUGHT AT USC FOR MORE THAN 20 YEARS

USC Marshall Dean Geoff Garrett. File photo

The controversy is not USC Marshall’s only brush with shame in recent years. Emotions are still raw there over the 2018 firing of popular Dean Jim Ellis. Nonetheless, Marshall has been a school on the rise in recent rankings, climbing to 19th from 22nd on the latest Poets&Quants list and landing 17th the last two years in the U.S. News ranking. In its MBA Class of 2021 profile, Marshall was one of the most diverse among top-25 schools, with 31.3% U.S. minorities and a Black MBA population of 4.6%. This fall the school is boasting even more diversity, with 44% students of color and 23% under-represented minorities; the chief distinction is that the latter number excludes Asian Americans. Marshall has not yet published its percentage of Black students in the full-time MBA.

Greg 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.”

In a September 27 email to Poets&Quants, Patton writes that the EEO-TIX report “resulted from a deep and detailed investigation by outside experts under the restructured USC EEO Office. The EEO investigation review included those involved, deeply reviewed the faculty member, and examined the teaching content, practices, procedures and technology as well as an inquiry into messages and communication and the lack of actual messages sent to the faculty member. … after a deep and extensive review, the investigation  concluded, ‘the use of the Mandarin term had a legitimate pedagogical purpose.’

“This is consistent with my deep commitment to bringing diverse perspectives into the classroom including global, international, cross-cultural, disadvantaged and female voices across a broad spectrum of leadership practices.

“In the EEO report, initial claims in the complaint were specifically not supported and the investigation concluded there was no ill intent on the part of the faculty.  Hopefully this report from the independent, external, university level inquiry allows this more accurate understanding of the actual facts to more fully emerge and be universally understood.

“This is consistent with the initial letter of explanation I provided to the USC Marshall MGSA Executive Board on August 26th, yet this was not disseminated to the MBA students leading some to misunderstand the core facts of the event – and inaccurate data was disseminated instead that has since been disproven.

“For over twenty years, I have maintained a deep and passionate commitment to my students and to ensure they are prepared for tremendous success at Marshall and in their careers in the global marketplace.  I would never do anything that would purposefully curtail that mission.

“Moving forward, I strongly agree with the EEO findings that: ‘This matter highlights the importance of open dialogue’ and I strongly hope this will be a prerequisite and more strongly fostered in any future misunderstanding as we all work together – students, faculty administration, staff, alumni, parents and supporters – to make Marshall even greater.”

DEAN GARRETT’S EMAIL

Click here to read our story that includes the student and administration communications from August when the incident occurred. Dean Garrett’s September 25 email is reprinted here in its entirety:

Dear Colleagues,

I have now attended department meetings at all seven of our academic units. Every meeting involved hard but important discussions, and I thank you for your willingness to freely and openly express your opinions and concerns.

A number of themes emerged that we will work on together in the months ahead. But one issue that stands in the way is the email I sent to our first-year full-time MBA students announcing that Professor Greg Patton was stepping aside from his GSBA 542 three-week course. I felt compelled to immediately address the genuine and serious concerns expressed by a number of student groups and individual students, including some enrolled in GSBA 542 who said they would stop attending the remaining two weeks of class. I will always respect and support students who come forward with concerns and will take them seriously, as I did in this case.

However, many of you have read that note as suggesting that I had prejudged the case. As I said when asked about this in the department meetings, this was not my intention. Nor was it my intent to cast aspersions on specific Mandarin words or on Mandarin generally. But I can see how reasonable people could draw a different conclusion in both cases from my email. I can only offer my sincere apologies that I left that impression, as I believed Professor Patton when he said he did not intend to do his students any harm and I have apologized to him as well.

The university’s Office for Equity, Equal Opportunity and Title IX (EEO-TIX) looked into this matter and concluded that the concerns expressed by students were sincere, but that Professor Patton’s actions did not violate the university’s policy. They have also communicated this to the professor and he allowed me to share their conclusion with you.

To be clear, Professor Patton was never suspended nor did his status at Marshall change. He is currently teaching in Marshall’s EMBA program and he will continue his regular teaching schedule next semester.

More generally, this incident has led many faculty to question whether they will be supported if they “make an honest mistake” in the classroom. Faculty are at the heart of all great business schools and every member of my leadership team will always do everything we can to support you and to ensure you thrive in both your research and teaching missions. We fully support our students and staff as well.

In order for our faculty and students to flourish in the classroom, it is essential that everyone feels free to express their views openly and to learn from each other from a perspective of mutual trust and respect. This can be challenging in today’s charged environment, but we must all strive to find the right balance.

During my very brief tenure as dean, I have seen you all rise admirably to the challenge of giving our students the best possible education in a remote environment. But working from home has made it impossible for me to get to know you, and for you to get to know me. It has created stresses that we have never before experienced. This has been a very tough episode for all of us. But I very much look forward to moving beyond it to work with you to elevate Marshall to new heights. I believe the future is very bright.

Sincerely,

Geoff Garrett

Dean 

DON’T MISS: USC MARSHALL PROF REPLACED AFTER USING A CHINESE TERM THAT SOUNDS SIMILAR TO THE N-WORD or WHARTON’S GEOFF GARRETT: USC NOT A STEP DOWN