USC students, alumni and faculty react to controversy over Marshall professor’s use of a Chinese word

Some USC community members voiced support for Professor Greg Patton after he “stepped away” from his class.

A petition on created on Sept. 4 calling to reinstate Marshall Professor Greg Patton generated over 8,000 signatures in four days. The petition came days after Patton stepped aside from teaching his course after using a Chinese phrase resembling a racial slur.

“This year has showcased our administration’s inability to handle race relations in ways meaningful to the Black community,” USC communications student Cole Thrasher, who voiced concerns over the university’s handling of Patton on social media, told Annenberg Media in an email. “The situation is being used to create a facade of activism and solidarity by administration. And while it fails to address real racial issues in our community, it increases the divide between the Asian and Black communities on campus.”

In his Communication Management course, Patton attempted to illustrate the importance of breaks during communication. His example was the use of the Mandarin word “that,” which has a pronunciation that sounds like a racial slur in English.

The next day, a group of Black master’s candidates in the class of 2022 sent their complaints to Marshall School of Business Dean Geoffrey Garrett.

On Sept. 6, Garrett stated in an email addressed to Marshall alumni that “I wanted to take a moment to clarify my message to students at the Marshall School. It was absolutely not my intention to cast any aspersions on specific Mandarin words or on Mandarin generally.”

“The student complaints we received had nothing to do with the Mandarin language but focused on the use of a polarizing example Professor Patton used when trying to make a reasonable and important point about communication,” Garrett wrote. According to the email, Patton agreed to not finish his accelerated course for our MBA students that ended last week, and the school is following standard university procedures to explore the complaints students have raised.

The fallout from Patton’s lecture rendered a number of reactions and public posts from USC students and alumni.

Some students felt that Patton’s voluntary resignation from teaching the accelerated course indicated a lack of cultural recognition and understanding of Mandarin on the part of the university.

“There’s no language superior to the other,” said Chengyan Wu, Co-President of USC Chinese Student and Scholar Association. “Restating the rights of one minority group should not be at the expense of violating the other. We have the right to use our own language,” he continued, “That’s why we need to emphasize on cultural education.”

William Thalmann, USC Professor of Classics and Comparative Literature, said Patton’s removal from the class raises other concerns.

“It seems to be a worrying thing if a faculty member is taken out of a course because of what he or she said. It raises all kinds of academic freedom issues,” he said.

Emphasizing the importance of preserving relationships between students and teachers, Thalmann said he understands both perspectives.

“There’s a real chance for all of us to learn. For faculty to be more sensitive to the potential effects of their words and actions,” he said. He also suggested that students should have complete information and context about the situation before making a judgment.

Like Thalmann, many students and alumni agreed a larger learning experience can be gained.

Gregory Ware, a USC executive MBA alumnus who is Black, took classes from Patton during the 2017-2018 school year. He said Patton and the administration should use this as a learning moment.

“I don’t think there was ill-intent,” he said regarding Patton’s controversial comments. “Perhaps he should look to change his content to reflect a more diverse student body that may have a sensitivity to hearing that word, or provide some type of premise or context before sharing it.”