In the age of President Trump, we have heard concerns and alarmist statements about erosion of American democratic and human rights traditions; for instance, in the wake of new immigration policy decisions, especially the separation of undocumented families at the border. However, American democratic and human rights traditions are still alive and well, going by recent developments on U.S. campuses. Last year, at Stanford University, a fraternity, Sigma Chi, was asked by a university official to remove the American flag from the front of its house on campus to “improve” its image. Just the mere presence of the American flag on an American campus on American soil seems enough to ruffle feathers. The approach of the university official seems a reaction to nationalistic pride: Make America Great Again.
More recently, in January, at Duke University, a professor who asked Chinese students to communicate with each other in English on campus rather than in their mother tongue, was asked to step down as the head of a master's program. She – along with the program chair – had to apologize after an outrage on campus and social media.
Students are calling for a further investigation into the emails and warnings that those speaking Chinese on campus might not be given the same opportunities as other students. The professor, Megan Neely, wrote in her emails last year and early this year that, in view of complaints from a few other professors, it would be prudent for Chinese students to stick to English when they spoke with each other. For instance, speaking Chinese loudly in the break room or cafeteria in the biostatistics department could be detrimental to their prospects of getting research opportunities.
The university’s action against the professor seems excessive. It would have been enough to counsel her. However, the action does show that American universities are still guided by strong democratic values. The professor’s emails might have been well-intentioned. Her emails say the department would like the students to practice their English whenever they are in a professional setting. Furthermore, another of her arguments is cogent: Speaking in one’s native tongue sounds rude when others who don’t understand the language are around. That the Department of Biostatistics and the School of Medicine at Duke spoke in favor of the students instead shows how liberal and democratic an institution Duke is.
The students affected, Concerned Duke Students, and their supporters have demanded further inquiry, in a petition, to determine the names of faculty members whom Prof. Neely mentioned in her email and to ensure no discrimination happens in the future. The Duke Asian Students Association and the Duke International Association have condemned Neely's emails and the actions of the unnamed faculty members in a joint statement.
It’s clear that the students are empowered on campus; they can clearly exercise their rights. It is also clear from the response of the department and Dean of the School of Medicine that they value the democratic and human rights of students.
Such institutions do make America great. They distinguish America from the very country the students most affected come from: China. China, which has global ambitions, has a poor record of human rights. China’s surveillance of civilians and repression of dissidents are well-known. Even as the controversy at Duke broke out, China sentenced prominent human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang to four and a half years in prison for state subversion. The country has doubled down on prosecution of rights lawyers over the past few years.
By contrast, the record of human rights in the United States is far better. Centers of higher learning are among the finest U.S. institutions. When they uphold the American ideals of democracy and equality, these values live on in America no matter what the naysayers say.