By Jack Cumming

Most Februaries I attend the University of Southern California’s Senior Living Executive Conference. I’m not alone. It’s also often attended by such industry luminaries as John Cochrane, Bob Kramer, Patricia Wills, Paul Irving, Loren Shook, and more. I love it because it’s both more intimate than most conferences – lending itself to meaningful conversations – and very inspiring – melding the academic perspective with industry pragmatism. It’s my favorite event of the year.

One of the recurring stars of the event is Professor Greg Patton who specializes in leadership. With his charismatic, energetic, interactive personality, he also exemplifies leadership in his own persona. He inspires learning. All who have the privilege to hear him speak are influenced by the experience. His interactive Q&A lecture format is a highlight of every conference.

A Dark Misunderstanding

According to Inside Higher Education, a daily journal for educators, here’s what happened. “Taking a break between ideas can help bring the audience in,” Patton said, according to a recording of one of the Zoom course sections and a transcription that appeared next to him on screen. “In China,” for instance, he continued, “the common pause word is ‘that that that.’ So in China it might be ne ga, ne ga, ne ga.”  Patton, who has worked in China but is not a scholar of Chinese, did not warn students that 那个, or ne ga, (alternatively spelled nà ge and nèige) sounds something like the N-word — which it does.


Some students in the course were offended and complained to the Dean, Geoffrey Garrett, who responded by replacing Patton as instructor of the course effective immediately. That swift, politically correct, action has now stirred controversy on campus. Universities are proper forums for controversy with debate and discussion. Petitions in support of Patton are circulating and gaining signatures.

A Different Cultural Take

One alumnus, now living and working in China wrote that Patton’s “. . . caring, wisdom, and inclusiveness were a hallmark of our educational experience and growth at USC and the foundation of our continued success in the years following.” The letter added, “We unanimously recognize Professor Patton’s use of ‘na ge’ as an accurate rendition of common Chinese use, and an entirely appropriate and quite effective illustration of the use of pauses. Professor Patton used this example and hundreds of others in our classes over the years, providing richness, relevance and real world impact.”

USC has released an official statement to the effect that USC is “committed to building a culture of respect and dignity where all members of our community can feel safe, supported and can thrive.” It can be challenging to be politically correct in a time of controversy.

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What’s Wrong? What’s Right? What’s Safe?

This might have ended with less controversy and less publicity if Greg Patton’s leadership teaching had influenced the Dean’s response. A cultural clash like this might have been treated more circumspectly in a less contentious era in which people were more deliberative and less likely to rush to judgment.

One can imagine a conference in which Professor Patton and his accusers might have been brought together around the Dean’s conference table for a teaching moment. Professor Patton could have apologized for offending and have explained the Chinese cultural roots of what he was teaching. Everyone might have benefited and the incident would have gone unnoticed.

Would that have been a better approach? Would such a conciliatory approach be more effective for the everyday disputes and misunderstandings that arise between staff and residents in senior living? Or, does the tenor of our times demand immediate and precipitate action to condemn that which offends? These are profound leadership questions of the kind that Professor Patton addresses in his teaching.

Participants in the Senior Living Executive Course over the years will remember Professor Patton and may have their own ideas about this incident. Let us know what you think, pro or con, in the discussion forum at the end of this brief report.