USC Professor Ignites a Universal Controversy Over the Use of Chinese Word “That”

By Fiona Lin | September 30, 2020

Professor Greg Patton, a specialist in business communication at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business, is currently suspended from teaching a three-week intensive Communication for Management course after using a Chinese expression that sounded like a pejorative slur in class on Aug. 20.

The initial intention of Patton’s academic lecture was to inform students about efficient presentation skills by avoiding filler words, which is a universal tendency. Professor Patton, who is white, suggested an international example of discourse markers.

“Like in China, the common word is ‘that’ - ‘that, that, that, that. So there’s different words that you’ll hear in different countries, but they’re vocal disfluencies.” In his example, Patton refers to the Chinese filler word 那个, which in Mandarin is pronounced as nèi ge (NAY-guh) or nà ge (NAH-guh).

The following day, a group of African American MBA students from the class of 2022 drafted a complaint letter to Markshall Dean Geoffrey Garrett. The PhD candidates claimed that Patton pronounced the word like the N-Word “approximately five-times,” enraging the African American community and disturbing students’ mental health. “It is an uneasy feeling allowing him to have the power over our grades,” they exclaimed.

Dean Garret has removed Patton from the course, remarking, “It is simply unacceptable for the faculty to use words in class that can marginalize, hurt, and harm the psychological safety of our students.”

On Aug. 26, Patton offered a response regarding this case. He apologized to students who felt distressed by his inadvertent use of such an offensive word. In addition, he also rationalized, “I have strived to best prepare students with global, real-world and applied examples and illustrations to make the class content come alive and bring diverse voices, situations and experiences into the classroom.” He also claimed that he has taught this course for ten years and had no issues in the past using this exact example.

A USC alumnus depicts Patton’s example as “an accurate rendition of common Chinese use, and an entirely appropriate and quite effective illustration of the use of pauses.” Countless individuals align with this standpoint and favor this elucidation; in fact, there are over 25,000 signatures on the change.org petition urging that Professor Patton be reinstated.

Many of the comments under the petition view USC’s response to this incident as a dismissal of the Chinese language, which has no correlation to English, arguing that USC is desperately using this self-protecting tactic because it fears, if it objects to this protest, that it may trigger retaliation by the Black Lives Matter movement.

Others supposed that the student complaints had nothing to do with the Mandarin language; rather, the students focused on Patton's use of the polarizing example when making a logical argument about communication. Students believed that he should have provided a better example to illustrate his point, not one that could potentially make students uncomfortable.

This incident has stimulated an immense global debate, and USC has been castigated as well as faculty members have been criticized by social media users for supporting the censorship of a widely spoken language in the United States.