The dean’s actions triggered an avalanche of criticism. A Change.org petition to reinstate Patton accumulated more than 20,000 signatures. CNN reported reactions of disbelief and ridicule in the Chinese-language media, diminishing USC’s image as a Pacific Rim university that values academic freedom. Ninety-four recent graduates of the MBA program, purporting to represent “more than a dozen nationalities and ethnicities,” wrote that “a few of us, but many of our parents, lived through mainland China’s Cultural Revolution. This current incident, and Marshall’s response so far, seem disturbingly similar to prevalent behavior in China at that time—spurious accusations against innocent people, which escalated into institutional insanity.”
Scores of USC business faculty felt undermined by their dean––and many would only express their concern anonymously for fear of retaliation from students or administrators. “This situation has rocked the business school,” one faculty member told me. “Patton was thrown to the wolves, his reputation damaged, and his livelihood threatened. The dean’s letter … caused immeasurable damage.”
On Instagram, a Black member of USC’s class of 2024 wrote that Patton is a “scapegoat” being used by USC administrators “as a performative way to show they’re progressive,” adding, “Every other black USC student I talked to wasn’t even offended … I’ve already seen people reference this situation and say we blow everything out of proportion when the majority of us never took issue with this situation.” On the letters page of the Los Angeles Times, various YouTube channels, and Twitter, multiple Black commentators agreed that Patton was being treated unjustly. “Use of the filler phrases is CRITICAL for fluid Chinese conversation,” Vic Marsh, a Black speaker of Mandarin, commented. “Take a deep breath, USC, and give the linguist back pay. We need everyone to stop doing silly things in the name of Black people.”
Even The Daily Show weighed in. “As people, we’ve got to remember that there are so many things that are actually designed to offend us, they’re intended to offend us, that we’ve got to try to make sure that we don’t get offended by things that aren’t made to offend us,” the host, Trevor Noah, concluded.
“Exactly,” the comedian Ronny Chieng replied. “Because otherwise there is no limit to what can upset you!”
This controversy is most significant, however, as a bellwether of how administrators respond when young people take offense beyond reasonable limits. To mollify some of its business students, USC was willing to undermine a professor in good standing. Academics elsewhere are watching. They see the majority of faculty, alumni, and outside observers saying, “This goes too far,” and the bureaucracy holding firm. So far, USC administrators have not admitted error. They have not apologized to Patton or reinstated him to his classes. And they have left business faculty so fearful and insecure that some are self-censoring to protect their positions.