Mandarin Trouble at USC

A Professor's Academic Freedom Violated Again

James E. Moore, II

On Friday, September 25, 2020, Dean Geoff Garrett sent an email to the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business faculty concerning the case of Professor Greg Patton. Students complained that Patton, a white male who is a nontenure-track faculty member, repeatedly used a Mandarin word that, when pronounced in that language, sounds like an unacceptable racial slur in English. The complaint came from members of a federally protected minority group.

Dean Garrett followed University of Southern California policy, which requires he escalate the complaint to USC’s Office for Equity, Equal Opportunity, and Title IX, where the complaint should have been identified and summarily dismissed for what it was: a contrived, strategic action by academic insurgents who wanted to manipulate their dean into interfering with a faculty member’s work.

Unfortunately, this is not what happened. Before any University assessment of the allegation, Dean Garrett publicly criticized Prof. Patton and removed him from teaching. This raised considerable concern among USC Marshall School faculty members, in part because the Marshall School, the University, and, in fact, the public very quickly had nearly complete information about the case, including the Zoom video record of Prof. Patton’s remarks.

The USC Student Conduct Code precludes students from circulating such records externally. Why and how the video was made public to begin with is a separate question worthy of attention. In any event, the leadership of the Marshall School and the University all had access to both the content and context of Prof. Patton’s lecture. Dean Garrett, Provost Charles Zukowski, and whomever examined the record on behalf of the USC Office for Equity, Equal Opportunity, and Title IX should have swiftly reached the obvious conclusion and acted to reject the complaint in support of Prof. Patton. There were never any reasonable grounds for separating Prof. Patton from his class. This action was nothing less than an ideologically motivated violation of Prof. Patton’s academic freedom.

I do not know Prof. Patton, nor for that matter Dean Garrett or Provost Zukowski. I serve this year as chair of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering Faculty Council and have a secondary appointment in the USC Price School of Public Policy, where I was originally tenured. My colleagues in the Price School discussed Prof. Patton’s situation during a faculty meeting, and the persuasive sentiment was that there needs to be institutional room at USC for faculty members to make honest mistakes.

This is certainly true, but it has little to do with the core of Prof. Patton’s circumstances or USC’s responses. Prof. Patton made no mistakes. Unlike Dean Garrett, Prof. Patton did his job thoughtfully and well. He made reasonable efforts to teach his students the tolerant habits of mind necessary to function in a pluralistic society. The video of his class shows that he was very intentionally teaching tolerance and understanding by alerting students to a verbal disfluency they might encounter among Mandarin language speakers. He acted in the best interests of his students, his School, his field, his institution, and society at large. Prof. Patton is due at least the tepid apology he received in Dean Garrett’s note. Garrett should have gone much further, because his original communication to the Marshall community was a damning assessment of Patton’s teaching. Dean Garrett’s excuses notwithstanding, it is impossible to interpret his original remarks in any other way.

The leadership of the USC Academic Senate raised the matter to Provost Zukowski while Prof. Patton’s situation was under investigation. According to the provost, the investigation was part of the rationale for removing Prof. Patton from his lectern. The provost’s grounds were that it was standard procedure to separate respondents from the complainants. Dean Garrett’s memo to the Marshall faculty indicates the University had since concluded that Prof. Patton’s actions violated no policies, but given the public facts, this was obvious from the outset.

The University has acted much more quickly in the past. Almost two years ago, USC Price School students protested my employment because I publicly supported due process in sexual misconduct allegations. Part of this response was due, I expect, to former Dean Jack Knott publicly apologizing to the students because they had been subjected to my position. What deans say about faculty members matters greatly in professional academic life. Working for Dean Knott, I became acclimated to being defamed. He crossed an important line when he publicly paraphrased my three-word sentence in a broadcast email from “Accusers sometimes lie” to “accusers lie.” Of course, if I make statements that are knowingly controversial, then I cannot afford to have a thin skin when people respond, so I let the matter pass; but the fact that I am the generous sort does not mean I think my colleagues, tenure-stream or otherwise, should necessarily sit still for defamations published by virtue-signaling administrators.

The protest demonstration against me was accompanied by a few attendant Title IX complaints from student activists I had not met, who had in creatively profane terms declined my offers to communicate about their concerns when I reached out to them. The students asserted that my public position on due process and my criticism of the procedures in the now defunct 2011 “Dear Colleague” guidance amounted to sexual harassment of them as individuals. When I published a small essay in Inside Higher Education about the protest against me, why I hold the opinions I hold, what I expect from my institution, and why it was important, the same students once again accused me of sexual harassment. We owe process its due. When our former Title IX director asked me to meet with her on these occasions, I did. It took her ten minutes to dismiss these complaints out of hand. They were obviously made-up complaints connived to harass me. This outcome is exactly what should have happened in Prof. Patton’s case. Instead, the matter was drawn out publically for a full month.

USC’s responses to the complaint against Prof. Patton raise multiple questions.

  1. Why did it take so long for the University to respond to the students’ allegations when the obvious and correct response was, “This is a nuisance complaint?”
  2. Why was Dean Garrett initially so publically critical of Prof. Patton?
  3. What were the substantive grounds for removing Prof. Patton from his class? If there were none, why was he removed?
  4. Why has no one representing the University administration offered Patton any public apologies? We can only hope there was at least a private apology.

The public silence of the USC Academic Senate Executive Board during this period is equally confounding. It would be myopic to view this controversy as a school-level matter. It drew national attention and has implications for all USC faculty members. USC’s Academic Senate meets only monthly, but the Executive Board meets frequently and as needed. There are bedrock principles at play in these circumstances, including the central question of academic freedom that the Board could and should address. If the Board believes it previously could not be of use to Prof. Patton, then the Board can still be of use to the rest of the USC faculty, and to the students.

The cognizant University and School leaders failed to perform in Prof. Patton’s case. This debacle will have short-term and long-term consequences on the faculty’s work and their expectations of the USC administration as they continue working with students. Moreover, USC did not need the additional negative public exposure these missteps delivered. The situation appears to have attracted considerable attention among current and prospective Chinese students. Provost Zukowski reports that tuition accounted for 34% of USC’s total revenues in the previous year, of which a considerable amount was paid by international students. USC enrolls the second-most (and in some years most) international students in the United States and cannot afford to alienate its Mandarin-speaking student market.

It is incumbent on the faculty and our representatives to insist on better from our senior officers.


Image: Padsquad19, Public Domain

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