Recentering the Bright Sheng Debate

A dozen University of Michigan professors argue that the controversy over a blackface Othello is more about teaching preparation than free expression, and that better university training and protocols could have lessened the fallout for everyone involved.

November 15, 2021
Bright Sheng
(Bright Sheng )

A group of faculty members at the University of Michigan is seeking to reframe the debate over the Bright Sheng case, arguing in a new open letter to administrators that antiracism is not contrary to academic freedom but rather supports both free inquiry and pedagogical excellence.

The letter, written by 12 mostly junior professors from across the College of Literature, Science and the Arts and the School of Music, Theater and Dance, and signed by more than 150 other faculty members, also demands changes to how the university will support students and professors through future race-based incidents in the classroom.

“This is not about pointing fingers,” said Naomi André, one of the letter’s 12 authors and a professor of Afroamerican and African studies and women’s and gender studies at Michigan who has written about Black opera. “This is about, ‘Something happened. It was painful. And this is the best place, as an educational setting, to try to do some care and repair.’”

André continued, “Sadly, these things are happening. When they happen, we need to have set of protocols and offices and clarity for what to do and where students and faculty members can go outside of their home departments.” Externally, André also said, “Since Michigan has pretty much designated itself a leader in this very active diversity, equity and inclusion space, when something like this happened, it should not have gone to the papers first. But that’s what it felt like.”

Sheng, Leonard Bernstein Distinguished University Professor of Composition at Michigan, stepped down from teaching earlier this semester after he showed a class the 1965 film version of Shakespeare’s Othello, which stars white actor Laurence Olivier in blackface. Students, backed by some graduate students and faculty members, complained that Sheng had failed to prepare them for the use of blackface. They also took issue with Sheng’s initial written apology for the incident, in he which he attempted to defend his intentions by saying that he’d cast people of color in musical productions throughout his career.

That apology letter “implies that it is thanks to him that many of them have achieved success in their careers,” says a student and faculty open letter, as first reported by the Michigan Daily student newspaper.

Sheng has said little about the case publicly, but Michigan said he agreed to take a break from teaching this term. The university has since said it will not formally investigate Sheng for what happened in his class, but his case continues to concern academic freedom advocates from inside and outside the university. Some 700 faculty members and students signed their own open letter last month demanding that Sheng be reinstated to teaching and that the university apologize to him.

‘Not a Free Speech Issue’

The new letter, by André and others, says students aren’t objecting to the content of Sheng’s lecture, meaning the use of blackface in particular context, and that this is therefore “not a free speech issue.” What students did object to “is the manner in which the content was presented—lacking any context for the history and harmful nature of blackface.” And although the university “does not regulate faculty speech in the classroom, it does have a responsibility to evaluate and improve pedagogy.”

Weighing in, indirectly, on the debate surrounding trigger and content warnings, the letter continues, “In our experiences, when students ask for content warnings or pedagogical care in classrooms, they do not expect a lack of challenging material. Rather, they are asking that we respect the experiences of our students, many of whom encounter racism and sexual violence in their daily lives.” More broadly, the letter says, “presenting racist content without context does more than create a hostile learning environment. It normalizes racism, rendering it invisible and closing the door on critical engagement. By contrast, giving students tools to engage racist content can be empowering, and many faculty have taught on these issues for years without incident.”

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News coverage of what happened has framed students’ requests for safe spaces as infringing on free speech, characterizing those requests as “anti-intellectual,” the letter says. “On the contrary, the ability to contextualize racism is a prerequisite for sound pedagogy and practice in all disciplines. The role of racism in theater and opera is the subject of a rich body of academic literature; the issue has also received coverage in the press as opera and classical music continue to grapple with racist practices, including the use of blackface and yellowface.”

Similar issues exist in “all disciplines,” the letter says, and in “asking us to engage with scholarship on race and racism, we believe that Michigan students are not advocating censorship. Rather, they demand the responsible, up-to-date instruction they deserve from a premier public university.”

To this point, the letter says that faculty members at Michigan deserve the “resources to develop inclusive pedagogy. Because of the systemic nature of racism in higher education, many of us did not receive that education ourselves. We support student advocacy and engagement, but whereas some students called for individual accountability, we see this as an institutional failure with responsibility shared by both leadership and faculty at large.”

An act can be “racist without intent, and personal bias is not the issue here.”

Beyond training and resources, the letter demands “a clear protocol that allows us to de-escalate situations and work toward mutual understanding.”

Three Demands

The authors of the letter make three specific demands, which they say echo many of the recommendations made this year by the College of Literature, Science and the Arts Anti-Racism Task Force, and which they say reflect a belief in transformational justice: first, faculty and student awareness of relevant resources before an incident occurs in the classroom; second, clear protocols for department chairs for responding to student reports of a racist incident; and third, effective antiracism training that it is better integrated into regular service and professional development expectations and offerings. Significantly, the letter says it’s not “appropriate” to expect students to work things out with the faculty member themselves, given the power differential that exists in this dynamic.

“There will always be instances of genuine bias and deliberate racism. This is something faculty, students, and staff face, and it should be dealt with administratively,” the letter says. “But racism can also result from a lack of knowledge, an ignorance that has often been actively cultivated by educational institutions themselves. This is the knowledge that students seek, and we as faculty need the university’s support to rise to the challenge. All faculty should be equipped to recognize racist content and should be aware that presenting it without warning, context, and purpose represents irresponsible pedagogy.”

Tiffany Ng, an associate professor of music who co-wrote the letter, said that the Sheng case “underscores the likelihood that there are faculty on every campus, not just at [Michigan], who have remained sheltered from conversations about anti-Black racism and may unwittingly blunder into harmful classroom situations.” Campus leaders therefore “need to be prepared with measures that center community dialogue, learning, and growth.”

Ng said that the music school held two required workshops on antiracism earlier this year that were “wonderfully designed” but “presumed that all participants were already aware that practices such as blackface were racist and needed acknowledgment and contextualization when presented.”

While it’s “tempting to dismiss Professor Sheng’s classroom screening event as an exception,” she said, “it’s an important reminder that faculty antiracism training needs to be scaffolded, starting with bringing participants from various specialties and milieus up to speed. These efforts could be conversations within departments and units so that specific disciplinary histories can be addressed.”

Department chairs should also be able to rely on “clear protocols that recognize the power differential between faculty and students, and be able to offer students options such as a guided discussion with their professor in the presence of a transformative justice facilitator,” Ng said. Likewise, “deans should have a chief officer of diversity, equity and inclusion to implement schoolwide responses that promote discussion, trust, learning and community.”

Faculty members, meanwhile, should be informed of resources on campus to help them navigate their own responses to student concerns, and, when appropriate, respond to students in a way that focuses on taking responsibility for a mistake and making concrete plans to become more informed about the issue in question, Ng said.

André said she imagined some kind of rapid-response mechanism, to help students and faculty members deal with racist incidents case by case, and then help them repair and rebuild—not with “corporate language, but with language that was specifically tailored to the different dynamics.”

While such processes are happening internally, André said, the university would help itself by being as transparent as possible in public statements about incidents such as the Sheng case, with a similar sense of authenticity. Something like, “We’re going to heal these the ruptures that have happened, the breakdown in communication. We’re not a perfect place, but we know that it’s OK to talk about these things,” she said. Instead, in Sheng’s case, at least, “it felt like other people were framing this as a freedom of academic rights issue, and that Prof. Sheng had been, you know, booted out of the university,” instead of having agreed to step down from teaching this term.

Reactions to the Letter

Sheng did not respond to a request for comment about the new letter.

Kim Broekhuizen, university spokesperson, said Friday that the institution had just announced revamped protections for students and faculty and staff members who report wrongful conduct, in the form of a protection-from-retaliation policy.

Regarding responses to specific incidents, Broekhuizen said that there are multiple ways to file a report against a faculty member, depending on the nature of the complaint, and that every situation is handled independently.

Numerous resources about racial equity and antiracist pedagogy are available, as well, despite the challenges posed by COVID-19, she said, including the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching’s campuswide and unit-level programs. The music school, specifically, is committed to fostering a culture of academic and artistic excellence that is safe, equitable and inclusive for all students, faculty and staff, and provides antiracism education and professional development for all professors and staff members.

Keith E. Whittington, William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics at Princeton University, chairs the Academic Freedom Alliance’s Academic Committee and has said it’s “outrageous” that Michigan entertained the complaint against Sheng in the first place. Whittington said it’s “rather disingenuous” of the new letter to suggest that there isn’t a free speech issue here, “when the university suspended a professor from teaching and threatened a disciplinary investigation on the basis of student complaints about the substantive content of a professor’s course.” (Many of Sheng’s supporters argue that he was pressured to step down from teaching, even if he did so voluntarily in the end.)

It’s “still quite troubling that letter wants to throw around the rhetoric of assigning offensive course materials being a racist act, even if ‘racist without intent,’” Whittington also said. “Characterizing instructional activity in that fashion will always invite disciplinary action, and it further encourages a misconception of the educational and scholarly process.”

That said, Whittington said the letter is perhaps better read as indicating that the “substantive content of courses is fully protected by academic freedom and that in the future such student complaints should not be treated as matters that require disciplinary action.” In that case, Whittington said, “I would certainly agree that the administration mishandled these student complaints,” and to the extent that the letter suggests that such complaints should be handled “quite differently in the future, then that would be a mark of progress.”

If the protocols that the letter writers want would give chairs and deans clear guidance on the protections afforded by academic freedom and appropriate administrative actions, “then that would potentially be helpful in avoiding these sorts of violations of academic freedom in the future,” he also said, as it “seems quite evident that many department chairs and deans at universities across the country do not understand what is protected by academic freedom—and many violations of academic freedom could be avoided if those administrators had a better understanding of how teaching and scholarship is protected from administrative interference.”

On antiracist “training,” Whittington said it would be useful for the university to integrate this topic into professional development offerings, if it hasn’t already done so—on a voluntary basis. Otherwise, such requirements “run a serious risk of impinging on rather than enhancing the scholarly judgments that faculty are entitled to make when designing and running their courses.”

Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education at PEN America, said, “Universities must defend the academic freedom of their faculty—that is absolute. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t also do more to equip and support faculty with tools to deal with contentious issues and student concerns about inclusion when they arise.”

No one can deny that the issues raised by the Sheng case “are difficult,” he added. “But faculty engaging in serious debate about academic freedom, free speech and antiracism is a good thing on a university campus.”

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