Last month, objections were raised by Sheng’s undergraduate composition class after he showed them the 1965 version of William Shakespeare’s “Othello,” starring white actor Sir Laurence Olivier in the title role and blackface makeup.
After weeks of correspondence and canceled classes, Sheng voluntarily stepped back from his class to allow for a “positive learning environment,” according to the New York Times. A different instructor replaced his classes while the matter was being sorted.
As reported by Inside Higher Ed, UM spokesperson Kim Broekhuizen stated that Sheng’s decision was made together with David Gier, Dean of UM’s School of Music, Theatre and Dance (SMTD), before the students were notified of the change. However, Sheng was able to resume teaching his private lessons.
According to previous updates from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), UM considered opening a formal investigation into the matter but dropped the case after reviewing the complaints made against Sheng. Despite this, he did not receive a formal reinstatement.
More recently, over 700 UM faculty and 60 students protested in an open letter to the dean, requesting for Sheng to resume his post. The letter itself was penned by UM’s International Youth and Students for Social Equality (IYSSE).
Requesting UM to issue a public apology on Sheng’s behalf, the letter reads:
“The very public campaign against Professor Sheng has harmed him and the students in his seminar who wish to study with him. Furthermore, it has damaged the reputation of the University of Michigan as a place for thoughtful discourse on difficult matters.
“In the race-obsessed environment of contemporary American academia, it has become a crime to have students view one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays as performed by one of the 20th century’s greatest actors,” the letter continued. “Othello’s tragedy was that he “loved not wisely, but too well.” Apparently, for the University’s race police, Olivier’s fault lay in that he performed not wisely, but too Black.
“After pressuring Sheng to leave his position as instructor, you justified your unconscionable attack on academic freedom by absurdly claiming, with consummate cynicism, that his removal would ‘allow for a positive learning environment.
“The consequences of the university’s actions are far-reaching. The campaign against Sheng is aimed at intimidating faculty members and students who oppose the use of race and other elements of identity politics to stifle academic freedom.
“Professor Bright Sheng is owed a public apology. The [IYSSE], which has been active on the campus for many years, calls on the university administration to retract the slanders against Professor Sheng and immediately invite him to return to the classroom from which the distinguished artist should never have been removed.”
Sheng, 66, joined the UM faculty in 1995 and became the faculty’s highest rank as Leonard Bernstein Distinguished University Professor. To him, the purpose of the class that day was to examine how Verdi adapted Shakespeare’s play into an opera. He chose Olivier's rendition as it was “one of the most faithful to Shakespeare,” and that he had not viewed the makeup as derisive of Black people.
Within hours of the complaints reaching SMTD administration, Sheng also responded with an apology statement — which later ignited further controversy amongst the students. “There is a great diverse environment at our department and our school,” he wrote. “I am honored to be teaching here. I hope you can accept my apology and see that I do not discriminate.”
A petition was also launched on change.org to support Sheng’s return to collective teaching. “The renowned Chinese-born American composer, pianist, and conductor Sheng, a survivor of the Cultural Revolution, is today the victim of an unjust disciplinary measure which violates every principle of academic freedom,” the description reads.
“Higher education not only should, but must, challenge students’ worldviews in order to make them critical thinkers,” the post continued. “We therefore demand that Professor Sheng be reinstated in his former position.”
UM’s recent response in a statement on their website deemed Sheng as “a highly valued member of [SMTD]...” and that he will continue “to teach composition lessons this semester and is scheduled to teach a regular course load during the upcoming winter term. No sanctions have been imposed on him.”
“I appreciate the engagement of Dean Gier and Professor Sheng in this difficult issue and also our students and faculty who have expressed their views to us,” said UM’s provost and executive vice president for academic affairs Susan M. Collins.
“The dean and faculty of SMTD are intently focused on ensuring that their courses actively engage students with discussions of race and racism. We can all learn as we work together to be a more inclusive community,” Collins concluded.