“People should not be embarrassed of their name and they should be proud of their name," said Phuc Bui Diem Nguyen

By Rachel DeSantis
June 22, 2020 02:03 PM
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Laney College
Laney College
| Credit: Alamy

A California community college professor has been placed on administrative leave after he asked a Vietnamese-American student to “Anglicize” her name because it sounded “like an insult in English.”

Phuc Bui Diem Nguyen has gone by the nickname May for many years, but was looking forward to using her legal name when she started classes at Laney College in Oakland, KGO reported.

On her second day of class with trigonometry professor Matthew Hubbard, however, she was asked to change her name to something more English-sounding, she said.

“I never heard [the term ‘anglicized’] before,” Nguyen told KGO. “At that moment I was surprised, so I Googled the meaning — I didn’t know what it meant so I called my best friend to ask him, ‘What does that mean?’”

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The emails sent from Hubbard to Nguyen were widely shared on social media, and were also obtained by KGO. In one, he asks her to change her name because it sounds “like an insult in English.”

After Nguyen responded by saying the request was “discriminatory” and that she would file a complaint with the Title IX Office, Hubbard replied in part, “I understand you are offended, but you need to understand your name is an offensive sound in my language. I repeat my request.”

Hubbard reportedly shared an apology to his student on a Twitter account that has since been deleted.

“I apologize for my insensitive actions which caused pain and anger to my student, and which have now caused pain and anger to an untold number of people who read my two inappropriate emails on the internet,” he wrote, according to KGO.

Meanwhile, Laney College issued a statement that did not name Hubbard directly, but acknowledged “racist and xenophobic messages” from a faculty member regarding the pronunciation of a student’s name.

“We take these allegations seriously and immediately placed the faculty member on administrative leave pending an investigation,” read the statement, which was written by Dr. Tammeil Gilkerson, the school’s president.

Gilkerson went on to call the incident “obviously disturbing,” and said that Laney College and its community is a “reflection of broader society and we must actively fight ignorance with education.”

“We do not tolerate racism, discrimination or oppression of any kind,” Gilkerson wrote.

Laney College has more than 16,000 students, and about 29 percent are Asian, according to The New York Times.

Hubbard told the paper that he’s taught at the college for 15 years, and that his online trigonometry class has two people with the last name Nguyen.

He said he sent his initial email to Nguyen in part to prevent confusion with the other student, and also because he was “uncomfortable” using her name.

“The first email was a mistake, and I made it thinking about another student willing to Anglicize,” he said. “But it’s a big different with someone doing it voluntarily and asking someone to do it. The second email is very offensive, and if I had waited eight hours, I would’ve written something very different.”

Meanwhile, Nguyen – who said her legal name means “happiness” and “blessing” —told KGO she’s since received an apology directly from the school’s vice president.

“People should not be embarrassed of their name and they should be proud of their name,” she told the outlet. “I hope they’ll feel more comfortable using their real name rather than using a whitewashed name.”