USC Marshall professor takes pause after using Chinese phrase that resembles racial slur

Students have spoken out against and in support of Professor Greg Patton following his Aug. 20 lecture.

On Aug. 20, USC Marshall School of Business professor Greg Patton was giving the students in his courses on communication management tips on how to present information effectively. “Taking a break between ideas can help bring the audience in” he told them. To illustrate his point, Patton cited Apple founder Steve Jobs’ use of breaks and included examples of pauses in different languages. “In China,” the professor said, according to a recording of the lecture, “the common pause word is ‘that that that.’ So in China it might be ne-ga ne-ga ne-ga.”

The next week, USC Marshall Dean Geoffrey Garrett sent an email to students announcing that Patton would no longer be teaching this semester. “It is simply unacceptable for faculty to use words in class that can marginalize, hurt and harm the psychological safety of our students,” he wrote.

According to the National Review, students who identified themselves as “Black MBA Candidates c/o 2022” told the USC administration on Aug. 21 that Patton “offended all of the Black members of our Class,” and threatened to drop the class. They said the Chinese phrase resembled the N-word and was repeated multiple times in three sections of the same course.

“The word is most commonly used with a pause in between both syllables,” they wrote, according to the National Review. “In addition, we have lived abroad in China and have taken Chinese language courses at several colleges and this phrase, clearly and precisely before instruction is always identified as a phonetic homonym and a racial derogatory term, and should be carefully used, especially in the context of speaking Chinese within the social context of the United States.”

They also 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.”

In a statement to Annenberg Media, a Marshall spokesperson wrote, “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.”

Professor Marion Philadelphia, chair of the school’s business communications department, will teach the course for the remainder of the semester, according to Garrett’s memo.

This is not the first time Marshall has seen discrimination complaints. In 2018, James Ellis, the former dean, was dismissed after sitting on “about 58” complaints that were not properly addressed. Garrett was given the position after an opaque hiring process following mass protest in support of Ellis.

In a petition sent to Garrett, 94 Marshall alumni expressed their support for Patton.

The alumni said they represent more than a dozen nationalities and ethnicities. They called Patton’s example “an accurate rendition of a common Chinese use, and an entirely appropriate and quite effective illustration of the use of pauses.”

“I haven’t had the professor yet and don’t know if I can speak to what happened,” said Kevin Park, a part-time MBA student at Marshall who is of Korean descent, in an interview with Annenberg Media, “But my initial reaction was that it was super overdramatized. I don’t think the professor meant harm.”

In a letter to students, Patton said he included the Chinese word pattern example to provide a dynamic and diverse environment for the class — explaining, “pauses in communication are culturally specific.”

“I failed to realize all the many different additional ways that a particular example may be heard across audience members based on their own lived experiences and that it is my fault,” he wrote.

Patton has been teaching at USC Marshall for more than 20 years, according to his LinkedIn profile. He is a member of USC US-China Institute, according to the Institute’s website, and his international work mainly focuses on China and Korea. He taught several courses at Jiao Tong University in Shanghai in the Marshall School’s Global Executive MBA program.

When reached by email, Patton said he did not wish to comment. Garrett did not return calls or emails from Annenberg Media, nor did Professor Philadelphia or USC-China Institute Director Clayton Dube.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated Patton’s teaching status. He is taking a pause from teaching the course mentioned in the story. A previous version of this story also misquoted Patton, which has since been corrected. Correction made Sept. 4, 2020, 6:44 p.m.