It’s the students who should be fired, not the professor they want cancelled

It’s the students who should be fired, not the professor they want cancelled

Comment Of The Day

norman lebrecht

October 03, 2021

Following on from Friday’s exclusive report on the furore at the University of Michigan, where a mob of students want to have composer Bright Sheng sacked for showing a blackface Othello video, here’s a salient reader’s comment:

The author Sammy Sussmann, for all his protestations of being “shocked,” “horrified,” and “saddened” by the showing of the video and the admin’s response, makes clear his real agenda midway through the “article.” As is always the case with individuals who wish to use incidents like this to destroy careers, there’s some axe grinding going on that has nothing to do with the matter at hand.

After rehearsing the alleged shock and anguish caused by seeing Olivier’s version of Othello, the writer gets to the crux of his piece: Sheng is apparently rude to his colleagues and students, having the temerity to watching videos on his phone during meetings. Worst of all, he left the writer’s UM entrance interview mid-stream, an unforgivable sin. How dare he have tenure, preventing Sammy Sussman from exacting his revenge?

It is becoming more and more nauseating to witness the temper tantrums of these mini-Madame Defarges, these hypocrites who claim to have a higher purpose in mind (the purification of academia and the world achieved by driving out the alleged racists, sexists, homophobes, and transphobes), but who in reality just want to hurt those who have bruised their fragile egos, or worse, harm people who think differently than them.

I find Olivier’s performance in “Othello” to be cartoonish; it’s certainly his weakest Shakespearian performance on film. Would I show it to a class? No, because it’s a rotten rendition of a role that has been done much better by others. Does Sheng have a right to show it to his classes if he thinks it’s a good performance that demonstrates his points when discussing the Shakespeare? According to what is now apparently an antiquated notion of free inquiry in a university setting, yes, he does. If the students don’t like it, they can drop the class, or write their thoughts on Sheng’s teacher evaluations.

If Sammy Sussman doesn’t like the fact that tenure exists, then he should attend a school like Liberty University or Bob Jones University, neither of which offer faculty any protection from arbitrary firing. If he and his ilk can’t see that they are joining hands with the extremists on the other side of the political divide, then they deserve what they will eventually get: the total destruction of the university system at the hands of left and right-wing fanatics.

Composer Bright Sheng


    • Helen S. says:

      Closing down these universities is best. There’s simply no time to learn anything between all these incessant childish outbursts and peaceful protests.

      Just look up what suits you online and simply ‘identify’ as “college educated”. There’s clearly no difference when speaking to these liberal babies so we should all save our money. For those of us that actually work that is.

      • David A says:

        Somebody is bitter about their lack of education and qualification..

        • Charles Neuberg says:

          Biden and that Kamala person are clearly bitter. They can’t function on their own without someone feeding them scripts like Obama. They did too many drugs which is painfully obvious. Invoking the 25 Amendment is clearly necessary against Biden even though his druggie son is laying the evidence out with his constant accidental leaks.

          Getting a degree or achieving a Masters as I did used to symbolize something of substance in both the job market and within academia. My Masters means more than one from the 90’s going forward. They let all types of under qualified misfits in now as seen all over the streets uselessly rioting. All degrees represent today are that the bachelors kids couldn’t get a job and stayed on to pile on more high debt. Now they moved back home, stuck in very deep SLD and probably jobless unless they count “peaceful protesting” as a paid gig. Biden and Pelosi lynched their SLD relief promises off the bat so they’re even more angry.

          Helen S is right. Time to deconstruct and dismantle these overpriced indoctrination factories cranking out people who can’t think rationally who rely on being offended as an excuse to be unemployed.

          • Jules says:

            Thanks for dragging your personal, petty politics and obvious superiority into the comments. We are clearly not worthy.

    • Tamino says:

      Can someone explain to me, why blackfacing is problematic?
      I thought – until now – that in theater, actors assume roles and are dressing in constumes and wear make up to match the roles appointed to them.

      Why would trying to imitate the visuals of a person with dark skin be problematic?

      • Craig says:

        Southern Democrats who formed the KKK created, engaged and accepted it.

        Democrats are simply attempting to alter and erase THEIR OWN history in order to gain voting blocks. They always create divisions, ruining everything they touch. Look at what they did to all of the cities, businesses and people they harmed during their riots!! The left generally embodies the human dregs of society nobody wants. It’s no wonder those types remain angry about any bloody topic before them making them so simple to control emotionally.

  • Gareth says:

    We’re all dealing here with stuff we only know about secondhand but, speaking as a faculty dean, I’d take a pretty dim view of a colleague who was a boor, watched videos during faculty meetings, and left student interviews halfway – which is pretty close to a cardinal sin.
    I’m not in the business of cancelling staff, but it’s harder to defend someone who shows absolutely no respect for his students and colleagues – and it’s us deans who have to do the defending

    • Kenny says:

      It’s “we deans,” Dean.

    • Ich bin Ereignis says:

      But that’s irrelevant to the main argument, which was that he should be fired because he showed a video of Laurence Olivier in blackface playing Othello. Now, if we’re going to go the route of unearthing every single skeleton hiding in the closet of universities, I would imagine faculty rosters might get pretty slim. The real issue, in my opinion, is that this kind of character/career assassination has now become a weapon students know they can use, because they know that the university system is cowardly enough to cave in to their demands. It’s the pandering to coddled spoiled brats with very low self-awareness and who — let’s not forget — are paying customers of these institutions and just one incident away from undermining the university’s bottom line, that is the real problem. By passively giving these students the power to dictate to universities who they should and should not hire, they are actually done a great disservice by the university. When they finally realize the yawning disconnect between the insular world of the university system and the real world and come to realize, for an overwhelming majority, that completely new skills will need to be acquired in order to make it financially, they might experience a very rude and painful awakening. Part of education is the capacity to be challenged, as opposed to coddled — which is exactly the opposite message they’re being given, when universities give in to their blackmail. Their narcissistic arrogance is thus being validated, which prevents them from ever attaining adulthood and encourages them to remain eternal children incapable of addressing and coping with reality.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Excellent comment. This is how it is.

      • Anthony Sayer says:

        @ Ich bin: Superb comment.

      • Gareth says:

        I take your point but you make so many absolute generalisations about student attitude etc that it’s hard to take seriously. Most students don’t want to be ‘eternal children’ – but they often have strongly-held views and will challenge authority if it’s thrown at them arrogantly.
        As I say, there’s a lot we don’t know about what went on in that lecture hall – but it’s a fine school and I cannot believe the situation is as one-sided as you suggest

        • John Borstlap says:

          At least we know that these protesting students listened for some 90 minutes to a video rendering from half a century ago of a Shakespeare play in diligent silence. Afterwards they were shocked because of a disguise used by one of the actors, a reaction which must have been an afterthought. Then they got angry with the lecturer. One of the students wrote an elaborated report in which he also made complaints about the apparant lack of patience of the lecturer in his explication of his modulations. It is all nuts, bananas, bonkers.

      • David A says:

        It always amazes me when people talk about “the real world” and “how things are” and make the logically fallacious conclusion that that’s “how things should be”. This is simply logically incorrect, not to mention ideologically futile and pathetic. To people complaining about this, I’d use their own logic and say “well, THIS is the real world now, deal with it”

        Just because the world, or “the real world” is filled with bitter arrogant people as demonstrated in certain forums, does not mean the purpose of education is to cater to such people and stoop down to their level, quite the contrary.

        As you say, students are “paying customers” so it’s not really blackmail, is it? They have a say in how they want their institutions to be run, whereas you, who’s not a part of this institution, has no business lamenting dramatically over this situation and extrapolating alarmist generalizations.

        • John Borstlap says:

          According to a respectable school of philosophical thought, there is no ‘real world’ but only our interpretation of it.

        • Maria says:

          You won’t be able to use even the words blackmail and black listed next!

        • Frank says:

          To David A,
          I see your take on this. However there is a fatal error.

          On the whole, students are not truly “paying customers”. Indeed it is normally parents or specifically Financial Institutions who bankroll these bitchy children. Neither they nor their parents could afford to “pay their own way, bootstrap, be self-sufficient”. Not with the inflated bills starting from 2000 onward. The exorbitant tuition, room & board, endless fees are simply too high leaving the “real world” to PAY for them.

          These ungrateful, permanent children usually end up Democrat because ‘somebody else’ who they can’t ever figure out has bankrolled their endeavors. Higher Ed knows this along with the fact that their captive audience has vulnerable minds they can dump leftist propaganda into at every turn. That’s why every new graduating class is even more unstable, unreliable, arrogant, entitled and demanding to be coddled!

          They are in a CONTROLLED ENVIRONMENT, not yet in the REAL WORLD. Then they panic as jobs others could rely on years ago to pay for their student loan debt simply aren’t there. They can’t afford to move out of their parents nest or consider having a child with a TWO parent, married family. That’s all a fantasy to them as the first SLD bills start to come in.

          That’s why they remain insecure “adult children” to former generations since they are usually too broke to pay for even groceries with their low wage service or hospitality job.

          I feel for them but only up to the point where they speak of legal employment or positive dreams not the anti-USA socialist rants.

          That’s the crux of the gen y, z, etc problem. They don’t have the emotional or financial tools to help themselves or contribute to society. Now Biden and Pelosi betrayed their expectations of SLD eradication or at least substantial write-off not knowing Biden helped author the exact SLD and credit laws.

          Doesn’t look like most of these wankers are “educated” on the white privileged male they worship so here’s a bit of help.

    • Joe Markley says:

      Installing creative artists as regular members of the faculty is business as usual in higher education, and a primary source of income for most poets and for many visual artists and composers. That said, teaching and the sometimes-tedious responsibilities that come with the job will never be the first priority for someone with a true creative calling. Few of the great composers had the temperament to be reliable colleagues in a music department. There’s value putting students in contact with genius, but we shouldn’t expect the encounter will always go smoothly.

      • Gareth says:

        Which is why we do it – but one still hopes for some humanity along the way. “Personality” is wonderful but after years and years of it, people do find it wearing

        • John Borstlap says:

          Yes I know everything about that! If you have to work with ‘personality’ it is a pulverizing experience, you feel being emptied day by day & being corrected all the time.


        • John Borstlap says:

          But that is not true. Nothing is so wearing as having to work with people without personality, you have to correct them all the time and important information is continuously forgotten so you have to start all over again.

    • Alexander Graham Cracker says:

      Speaking as someone who in 36 years of teaching has never attended a faculty meeting in which anything important was accomplished or discussed, I sympathize with the video watcher.

      • John Borstlap says:

        In 2006 it was leaked that the faculty meetings at the Music Department of the University of [redacted] never really took place, all the members gathered in the nearby café and mentally and physically prepared for another wearing semester.

    • BigSir says:

      27 years as a professor; a dean who sticks up for faculty is a unicorn. Your rant berating faculty supports it.

  • sam says:

    You can’t make your own editorial the “comment of the day”, lol!

    • V. Lind says:

      It was a comment posted by a reader using the name Fritz.

      Maybe try reading more carefully instead of laughing out loud at your own idiocies.

  • anon says:

    Showing Olivier for class is forgivable, showing a 90-minute video for class is not.

    When a tenured professor does this, he’s just dialing it in at this point in his career, lol

    I’m sure U of Michigan students are glad to find out they pay $51,000 to watch youtube

    • Bone says:

      Same comment I made: 90 minute video in class is ghe epitome of laziness. He wouldn’t get away with that at most middle schools.

    • HugoPreuss says:

      The more I read about it, the more it seems to be a case of “a plague on both your houses”, to quote a writer marginally involved in this conflict.

      As a professor I find the behavior of Prof. Sheng disrespectful and unacceptable. But there are proper channels to deal with that.

      As for the student: vindictive, petty, and pretend-snowflake. None of the two protagonists wins a prize for good conduct.

  • anonyme says:

    Did the music department secure the proper rights and pay the proper fees and royalties for showing this film in its entirety to a large (tuition) paying audience?

    • Ms.Melody says:

      It was not shown it its entirety. The entire film is 2hours and 38 minutes long as I was reminded of yesterday while I watched it and enjoyed it immensely for the superb piece of theatre and acting that it is from all five principals ,including the wonderful Derek Jacobi as Kassio

    • mary says:

      Of course not, because that would implicate the department, and probably the chair, that they were fully aware that a professor was going to show a blackface video to the students, and that they failed to properly advise both professor and students before hand.

      • V. Lind says:

        I thin referring to the marvellous Olivier Othello as “a blackface video” is a little reductive. And, regrettably, in line with the infantilistic response of Mr. Sussman and his amigos.

  • marcus says:

    Think the answer is for all students, on accepting a place, to sign a waiver which would read something like this. “I (the undersigned) recognise that I am joining this university and not the other way round. In which case the faculty reserve the right to present anything they damn well like by way of lectures, lessons, tutorials etc and should I not like any of that i remain at liberty to fuck off to somewhere more congenial”

  • James says:

    It would have been sensible for Bright Sheng to have prefaced showing the film with contextualising remarks, not only about the race issue, but because a) the acting style is very much of its time and b) the translation to film clearly isn’t great, as Olivier doesn’t reign in his stage performance at all for the cameras. But it is widely considered a hugely important and influential production and interpretation, so any question of whether it should be shown at all is ridiculous. It has nothing to do with racism, except inasmuch as the play itself covers racism. If the students can’t work that out for themselves, it reflects very poorly on them. Racism is a real problem. Watching an important Shakespeare interpretation is not part of that problem (any more than is watching the film of non-Jewish Al Pacino’s Shylock or non-Italian Denzel Washington in Julius Caesar in Central Park).

  • U Mich says:

    Sussman should be expelled.
    U Mich should stand up for its faculty.

  • M McAlpine says:

    The disappointing thing about the idiotic Sussmann and his spoilt colleagues who are allegedly ‘shocked’, ‘horrified’, ‘saddened’ simply by a man wearing blackface. I suggest they go to some of the places in the world where children are dying in the gutter to be shocked, horrified and saddened. It shows an absolute lack of awareness and context in what these word actually mean. It shows an absolutely closeted approach to life and an inability to come to terms with even the minimalistic challenges.

    • Ich bin Ereignis says:

      Right on. The outrage these students claim to express is mostly an exercise in self-gratification in order to satisfy their insatiable need to feel morally superior, as well as find a sense of belonging in their collective delusion. The reality, though, is that none of them would actually take any concrete steps to right the ills they decry — not only would they be incapable of even facing them, but the last thing they would want to do is relinquish their creature comforts in order to truly be coherent with their idealized worldview. I suspect that this generation will ultimately end up replicating the very models they decry and eventually fall into a most extreme form of conformism and consumerism. As the harsh reality of the world slowly imposes itself on them, we will see all these purported ideals immediately go out the window.

  • Alviano says:

    I don’t know what kind of person or teacher Sheng is, but if you read his bio you will see he definitely has something to teach or share (I think composers share more than teach).
    I would love to sit in on a class in which a composer talks about turning a play into an opera libretto. Fascinating.

  • Scott Fruehwald says:

    A few days ago I put up a post on the SMT (Society for Music Theory) discussion board concerning Philip Ewell.

    Stephen Sonderberg posted this comment:

    “But who did we think we were?

    “My answer is that theory rests on analysis based on intellectual power, not just description. A theorist is a master analyst—certainly of tonal music, preferably also of 20th century music, and preferably of some other historical or contemporary genre. The proliferation of worthy topics like jazz, feminism, world music or cognition is welcome and adds to the value of music education in itself—but the rock of theory is analytic mastery. To the extent that the SMT as a group, or individuals who call themselves theorists, walk away from the analytic agenda, so much do they and we risk marginalizing ourselves. Diversity cannot be a cover for the SMT becoming an orphanage.

    “My advice may seem harsh, but it is given out of love for all who preceded us, for everyone here tonight, and for all who will continue to work in the name of theory.”

    —Richmond Brown, “The Deep Background of Our Society” (from an ad hoc speech at the 2003 banquet celebrating the 25th anniversary of the SMT)

    Thank you for your kind attention.

    You may now resume your annual exercise in making complete fools of yourselves.

  • Anthony Sayer says:

    My nephew studies at the Conservatoire in Glasgow. There are plenty of American students there who cannot get their heads around the fact that the city has many whites who are, basically, very poor. Occasionally, some of these transatlantic do-gooders try to lecture these locals on white privilege. This being Glasgow, you can imagine the reaction they provoke. According to reports, they don’t try it a second time.

    • V. Lind says:

      Good old Glasgow!

      When travelling through there a while ago, I was briefly hospitalised. I met a couple of patients, much sicker than I, and in exchanging details with them as I left, asked for their phone numbers. Two different married women, with working husbands and children, were not on the phone, as they said in those just pre-cell phone days. It was also clear from conversations that they were grindingly poor. They also made it clear that they were no worse off than their neighbours. They were about the bravest people I ever met.

      There are similar stories all over the UK, and America, and probably even in Canada and Australia and New Zealand. There are plenty poor white people. Many working poor.

      (Oh, and, incidentally, those ladies were getting exceptional health care thanks to the NHS, for long term, sadly terminal in the case of my friends, cancer care).

    • John Borstlap says:

      In Europe, being poor is also a white privilege.

  • Nijinsky says:

    Why shouldn’t anyone be fired? Promoting free speech by “fighting” fire with fire!? And that’s not what the commenter of the day said (again).

  • Nijinsky says:

    Sorry that was supposed to read: “Why should anyone be fired? Promoting free speech by “fighting” fire with fire!? And that’s not what the commenter said (again).” It wasn’t supposed to read “Why shouldn’t anyone be fired?”

    This gets to be so totally against any kind of harmony when the goal is to find some means of coercion and/or threat, as if that is the one way, rather than what is the major contributing fact to what you’re “criticizing” to begin with.

  • japecake says:

    Sheng’s “colleagues” in the Music Department at U of M are already well underway on their crusade to take a flamethrower to his career. Kristen Kuster, another composer on the faculty, retweeted Sussman’s Medium post and tagged the Pulitzer Prize Committee(!), the MacArthur Foundation(!!), and other major musical organizations:

    What possible purpose could this serve other than to take out Sheng for good? Don’t believe the sanctimony re: “injustice” and “deep harm” in watching a 60-year-old Academy Award–nominated film adaptation of Shakespeare. It’s nothing more or less than a vendetta by quasi-religious zealots—and yet another example treating young adult college students as both children and customers.

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    There are vile thugs in every culture; this particular variety has the additional dimension of a bully pulpit in universities and weak masters who succumb. Those institutions, in enabling thugs, have brought themselves into disrepute.

  • Anonymous says:

    Just a note that while I agree with the majority here in the opinion that this woke nonsense has gone far too far in the case of Bright Sheng, I would like to remind everyone that some serious good has come from some of Sussman’s other reporting, including that of Stephen Shipps, who was accused of statutory rape and whose reputation was well known at the University of Michigan. There are major issues there, but unfortunately going after the woke nonsense is a major distraction and undercuts some of the real problems there:

    • justin says:

      U Mich does have a long and troubled history of sexual abuse, from Dr Robert E. Anderson and his 900+ victims, to its music department and David Daniels and Stephen Shipps, to even its neighbor Michigan State with Dr Nassar and his 100+ victims (is there something in the drinking water of Lake Michigan?)

      I agree that all the attention to an innocuous video is but a tempest in a teapot, distracting from something far darker (no pun intended) and harmful and traumatizing.

  • CRogers says:


  • Leon says:

    Renowned African-American bass baritone Mark Doss in response to Mr. Sussman:

    “This “outrage” is confusing. You viewed a project on a relevant topic from another era to open discussions & that is improper? Any POC in the class?….who are equally outraged? Also your focus is “in hope the piece will get traction” not the subject?”

  • Zhenjiu says:

    Absolutely spot on. Judging what passed as OK theatrical makeup 55 years ago with the standards of today is not only bereft of logic, it qualifies as appallingly stupid. Olivier’s makeup mimicked darker African skin; Moors were specifically from North Africa, and were mostly Arabic in appearance. Apples and oranges.