USG cultural organizations denounce USC’s transparency on Marshall professor’s temporary suspension

A portion of a MacBook Air screen is displayed in the picture, with the screen showing an Instagram statement. The statement displays three graphics from APASA, BSA and ISA. The joint statement starts with the wording "Release: 22 September 2020.”
In their joint statement released Tuesday evening, the Asian Pacific American Student Assembly, the Black Student Assembly and International Student Assembly brought attention to three USC professors that have displayed discriminatory language and gesture in their classrooms that the University has not issued disciplinary action toward.  (Vincent Leo | Daily Trojan)

The Asian Pacific American Student Assembly, the Black Student Assembly and International Student Assembly released a joint statement Tuesday denouncing USC’s transparency on the removal of Marshall School of Business professor Greg Patton. The letter also brought attention to the “pressing issues that have been ignored by the USC administration,” including student complaints of discriminatory language and action used by three other USC professors in their classrooms. 

The statement comes after Patton was criticized for his use of a Chinese word that resembled the pronunciation of an English racial slur in an Aug. 20 lecture. His class, “Communication for Management,” covered oral presentation skills and how to maximize one’s professional value. 

In the lecture, Patton discussed the common use of filler words, such as “um” or “err” in English, and followed with an example of the Chinese word, 那个, which in Mandarin is commonly pronounced nèi ge (NAY-guh) or nà ge (NAH-guh). As Patton suggested, the term, which literally translates to “that,” is commonly used among Chinese speakers and functions as the Chinese equivalent of the English filler word, “um.”

Following the lecture, an Aug. 21 email sent  to Marshall Dean Geoffrey Garett, signed by Black MBA candidates from the class of 2022, said that Patton repeatedly used the word during class sessions and would pause the Zoom recording before saying the word and then recording again. 

“Several students during the lecture brought up this inappropriate use of Na-Ga, and in subsequent core courses he still used the same example,” the MBA candidates’ letter read. “His disregard to the impact of his use of the Mandarin example on Black students also led us to believe this was not the first instance of using this thought-less comment.”

In an email to the Daily Trojan, Patton said that it was a misunderstanding as the class was coming out of a breakout session, and he forgot to restart the recording.

In response to the criticism, Patton expressed his apologies to his students in an email Aug. 26, recognizing that students were hurt and disturbed with the phrase he used in class. In the email, he said that he has taught the course for nearly 10 years, and the example used in class was given by international students years ago. Patton said he added the example because he tries to include global and diverse perspectives in his classrooms. 

The Undergraduate Student Government programming organizations cited in their letter that, although they did not take issue with Patton’s use of the word, they believe that the professor also displayed his “ignorance and privilege” by not providing context to explain how it may be interpreted. However, the situation extends beyond Patton’s dismissal, the letter read. 

“USC’s response centered a white man’s experience in a broader conversation about race and diversity when it should have focused on voices of its affected communities,” the organizations wrote. “They spoke for Black students while not addressing other pressing concerns at a time when anti-Black actions and sentiments are prevalent.” 

The letter also addressed the alienation of international students from China — as “one of the largest yet most unheard populations on campus” —  and of Asian Pacific Islander and Desi American students via the events of Patton’s departure from the class and who have experienced heightened xenophobia amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. 

“Greg Patton’s situation is not an isolated incident,” the letter read. “USC’s actions do not ‘fix anything,’ nor do they serve the needs of its marginalized communities who have already experienced discrimination and prejudice on a variety of fronts. Greg Patton is only the tip of the iceberg for an administration that has repeatedly neglected student reports for even more flagrant offenders. Taking rapid action on Greg Patton in this situation and not previously reported incidents was both performative and hypocritical.” 

USC’s inaction with informing students and the general public on Patton’s situation has also led to confusion with various right-wing media outlets being the first to report on the events and “manipulate the narrative,” APASA, BSA and ISA wrote. 

According to the letter, students have filed complaints against Thornton School of Music professor Parmer Fuller, who was alleged to have used the n-word in his classes, former Marshall professor Greg Autry, where student complaints have stated that he used Sinophobic rhetoric in his classroom and on LinkedIn and School of Pharmacy professor Joel Hay who was alleged by student complaints to have spread “untrue and repugnant stereotypes about Vietnamese students.” The University has yet to take any disciplinary action against the named faculty members. 

In an email to the Daily Trojan, Fuller stated that his use of the n-word was based on quoting lyrics from American music of the 1800s and that his class, as one based on the history of musical theatre, is “unfortunately … ingrained in racism.” According to Fuller, he has since stopped using the word and asking exam questions on offensive lyrics in exams, per the requests of his students, and apologizes to Black students that he has offended. 

Autry refused to comment on the allegations to the Daily Trojan. Hay did not respond in time for publication.

APASA, BSA and ISA are also calling for transparency from the USC Office for Equity, Equal Opportunity and Title IX. Numerous student complaints to the office have received limited updates, according to the letter.

USC declined to comment further on the Patton situation and the letter from the programming organizations.

In an interview with the Daily Trojan, co-executive director of BSA Calvin Carmichael said he wished USC could directly apologize to both the Black and Asian populations at USC. 

“I’m going to be in support of the students who felt uncomfortable [in Patton’s class] because as a student, you shouldn’t have to go through that,” Carmichael said. “I am not going to say I necessarily feel bad for [Patton] getting suspended because it wasn’t like he had to use [the word], he isn’t a part of either of these cultures where it was OK for him to use it in the sense of him using it appropriately or in the sense of him trying to offend another culture — he’s a white man, he’s not Black or Asian. He could have used a different example.”

Shortly after news circulated of Patton’s dismissal from teaching the course, many students posted their frustration online. 

Joe Altaffer, a junior majoring in business administration, felt inclined to express their opinion on a Reddit thread, citing the University’s lack of research in understanding the difference of meanings across different languages and cultures. As a native Mandarin speaker, Altaffer said in an interview with the Daily Trojan that Patton’s pronunciation of the phrase was partially incorrect but phonetically used the word properly to represent “that.” However, the pronunciation of “nà ge” versus “nèi ge” depends on the accent regional dialect, and is used interchangeably.    

“I feel as though Dean Geoff Garrett, President Carol Folt and the USC administration [have] shown major cultural insensitivity to the Chinese community,” Altaffer said. “We are sadly shifting focus on real social justice within the Trojan community and instead punishing someone who does not truly deserve it.”

Tiger He, a first year graduate student studying computer science and artificial intelligence and who first heard about Patton’s removal through news coverage, said he believes the decision to remove Patton from the classroom was inappropriate. He also said he feared that, if a professor can be accused in this matter, other Chinese speakers would also become victims for speaking the language. 

“By pausing the professor’s teaching simply because he said a word in Chinese in this class, especially under the proper context, really hurts the feeling of the Chinese international students, and the Chinese speaking community here at USC,” He said. 

A circulating petition that surfaced Sept. 4 also demands Patton’s reinstatement. The petition has amassed more than 25,000 signatures at the time of publication from alumni, students and others who believe Patton should be reinstated. 

“The context of this discussion was clearly an academic lecture on communication and Professor Greg Patton was describing a universal mistake commonly made in communication,” the petition read. “For him to be censored simply because a Chinese word sounds like an English pejorative term is a mistake and is not appropriate, especially given the educational setting. It also dismisses the fact that Chinese is a real language and has its own pronunciations that have no relation to English.”

CC Chen, who created the petition, is not affiliated with USC and declined an interview with the Daily Trojan because he did not believe his voice should represent the views of the students. 

Katherine Owojori, one of the petition signers, said that she was frustrated with the University’s efforts to address the reason for Patton’s removal because it felt disingenuous and considered its intentions xenophobic.

“There’s been several former [USC] Black students on campus who have set lists of demands for USC to fulfill to help feel more safe and accepted on campus” said Owojori, a sophomore majoring in political science. “But, none of those have [USC] decided to address first.” 

In an email to the Daily Trojan Sept. 5, the Marshall School stated that it recognizes the historical and harmful impact of racial slurs and is offering support to students who are impacted. The school also clarified that Patton is taking a pause while another professor teaches the course, but continues to teach his other University courses.

“USC is committed to building a culture of respect and dignity where all members of our community can feel safe, supported and can thrive,” the statement read.

In an email to the Daily Trojan, Marshall academic director Peter Cardon said the Marshall Faculty Council conducted a survey sent to Marshall faculty members to collect their views on the matter. The Council is currently reviewing responses and is preparing a report to the dean and hope to keep the matter internal.

Alumni Gregory Ware, who graduated with an Executive MBA, took two of Patton’s classes when he was at USC in 2017 and 2018 and said he does not believe Patton’s use of the word had malicious intent. He said Patton used the same word in his class several years ago, but students didn’t react negatively.

“I am someone who has been called the n-word one too many times,” Ware said. “I have been unfortunately exposed to and had to deal with toxic work environments with passive aggression with a racial undercurrent. I can tell you that this particular example doesn’t come close to, what takes place and frankly, in corporate America far too often.”

At the time of publication, Patton has not been informed by Marshall on whether he will resume his teaching position in the “Communications for Management” class. Patton will continue to teach his other classes at Marshall in Spring 2021.

Shaylee Navarro and Kacie Yamamoto contributed to this report.