University of Michigan staff come out strongly for Bright Sheng

University of Michigan staff come out strongly for Bright Sheng


norman lebrecht

November 01, 2021

Non-academics may find it astonishing that Bright Sheng has not been reinstated at the University of Michigan, despite being cleared of any offence for showing Olivier’s Othello in his class.

It seems the university is held in a state of terror by student activists and cannot move forward.

Today, almost 700 University of Michigan faculty members published an open letter to the Dean calling for Sheng’s reinstatement.
We reporoduce it in full below:

To: Dean David Gier
Cc: Provost Susan Collins, President Mark Schlissel, Professor Bright Sheng

Dear Dean Gier,

We are writing to protest the campaign that has been waged against SMTD Professor Bright Sheng and to express our concern about his being removed from his class without due process. The case has been widely discussed in the press; see, for example, recent coverage in The New York Times, Fox News, and The Chronicle of Higher Education.

In his undergraduate composition seminar, Professor Sheng showed the 1965 film “Othello” starring Laurence Olivier, to inform the process that led from Shakespeare’s famous play to Verdi’s opera libretto. In the role of Othello, Laurence Olivier wore blackface, as did many actors playing the role since Shakespearean times. Students were not prepared for this and some complained.

Recognizing the discomfort some students experienced with Olivier’s stereotypical portrayal of a Black person by a Caucasian, Professor Sheng sent an apology to his students the same day. He told them that they would not finish watching the video and that they would discuss the issue in the next class. Professor Sheng’s apology should have been sufficient. Instead, what followed was a campaign by some students and faculty in SMTD to portray the showing of Olivier’s Othello in class without content warnings as an inherently racist act that made the classroom an unsafe space and to demand administrative sanctions against Professor Sheng.

We have seen this play out on other campuses. The assertion of creating an unsafe environment is used to silence, intimidate, and to justify administrative sanctions. While claiming safe space for themselves, Professor Sheng’s detractors deprive him of it and are willing to go as far as to disrupt his livelihood and teaching process.

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. As concerned faculty, we deplore the treatment meted out to Professor Sheng and the denial of due process. We further decry the efforts to besmirch his reputation.

As a first step towards redressing this harm we ask that you reverse the sanctions imposed on Professor Sheng and that he be reinstated as the instructor for his composition seminar, if that is his wish. We believe that a public acknowledgement that the sanctions against Professor Sheng were wrong and that the University will keep its commitment to free speech will go a long way to remedy the situation. Finally, we suggest that the University use this incident as an opportunity to explore the issues of race raised in Shakespeare’s Othello, the question of representation of Black identity by non-Black actors, the concept of freedom of expression as well as its limits, and the right of faculty to teach controversial subjects in their classrooms without fear of sanctions.


  • Sir David Geffen-Hall says:

    It’s time to take me behind the Barn and shoot me. I’m getting too old for this form of idiocy.

  • Terence says:

    The faculty who signed have shown courage — unlike the pathetic coward of a dean, and the ‘woke’ staff who spoke against Prof. Sheng.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      There would be MANY good and decent students in this mix who are fed up with the noisy haters whom university administrators bow down to obsequiously.

  • Anthony Sayer says:

    Excellent letter, but what a farce to have to write it in the first place.

  • Alexander Graham Cracker says:

    “Furthermore, it has damaged the reputation of the University of Michigan as a place for thoughtful discourse on difficult matters.” This letter, if read closely, doesn’t do that reputation any favors either.

  • Alum says:

    What is the source of this letter please? It feels inappropriate to post without linking or without a list of signatories.

  • Japecake says:

    Yes! This means something. Academic freedom means something. Rationality and sanity mean something. Refocus the mission of the university toward the noble goals of fostering learning, curiosity, and intellectual debate—not daycare.

  • John Borstlap says:

    Excellent letter. A bit too polite, I think.

    The whole affair is too idiotic to waste politeness on it. But this is better than nothing.

  • Anon says:

    These Woke warrior college kids are nothing but Mao’s Red Guards living a half century later in America. They are only about venting anger against anything that their under developed intellect find foreign.

  • marcus says:

    “Unsafe space?” What the fuck is wrong with these twats? I’m amazed they ever get to leave the house if they are that flaky.

    • John Borstlap says:

      ‘Unsafe’ has many different kinds in different places! Like in the work place, once I had to climb over the fence in a burka to escape a small crowd of protesting people at the gate because of some crazy thing my boss had done or written. I never made so many typos as on that day & got scorned on top of it all. Life is full of hazards.


      • Sue Sonata Form says:

        I hope your burka was the latest fashion from the ‘House of Sard”!! A ritzy little number with plunging eye slits which leaves absolutely everything to the imagination!! (Apologies to Bill Maher.)

  • Sixtus Beckmesser says:

    It’s the students’ loss if he is no longer teaching the course. I’m sure his salary has not been reduced.

  • Musicman says:

    If Bright Sheng was white, none of these people would sign this petition!

  • Slippedisc’s introductory comment to the letter could confuse readers, “…Bright Sheng has not been reinstated at the University of Michigan…”

    He has not been fired or put on leave, he is still teaching all of his classes except the seminar where he assigned the blackface Othello film. The faculty letter is clearly about that one issue of Sheng being replaced in that one seminar.

  • Ofri says:

    Please keep us updated on the developments of this story. It is absurd..

  • Aleph says:

    This story has no more legs.

    By the way, I’ve never seen “faculty” described as “University staff”, I thought from the headline that the grounds keepers and janitors went on strike to support a professor of contemporary Asian fusion classical music composition.

    Now THAT would be a story.

    • anon says:

      All faculty are staff, but not all staff are faculty. In other words, “staff” is understood to include academics, academic support (a category that is not always clear-cut), and non-academic personnel.

  • M McAlpine says:

    An ‘unsafe space’? I have visited war zones in the world where UN officials wouldn’t go because they were considered ‘unsafe spaces’ as you were likely to be shot or bombed. A university campus which is showing a 1960’s video of an actor playing Otello is not such an ‘unsafe space’. These idiots need to get a life and get into the real world.

  • Gerry Feinsteen says:

    The way things are going there will one day be quite a reckoning for the rappers, from Eminem, Dr Dre, Jay Z, DMX, et al. An explosion of racism, racist language, sexist language, explicit messages of violence, homophobia, xenophobia, and advocacy for drugs all meet in popular hits that literally millions of people can karaoke-ize.

    Yet here we are—threatening an established composer for showing a film he didn’t even produce or act in—just presented for educational purpose.

    Some of these kids just need a boxing bag and some education on where to really aim their frustrations.

  • The letter and signatories are here:

    Interestingly, the vast majority of the signatures are from faculty in the sciences and engineering. At around number 350, a number of English department profs signed and some from the other humanities. The last 150 or so, return heavily to the sciences, engineering, and school of medicine.

    Why are professors in the humanities far less represented? In quickly scrolling through, I only spotted one prof from the school of music, and one emeritus prof. There are probably a couple I might have missed.

    In a very cursory view, the list seems to indicate that the arts, humanities, and social sciences profs are more engaged with diversity issues that the science, engineering, school of medicine faculty.

    I agree with the standpoint that the occasion should have been used for dialog rather than Sheng being replaced as the teacher for that seminar. On the other hand, I know the School of Music’s Dean, Dr. David Gier, and I am sure he made the best decision possible. He is a very warm, humane, and wise person. There’s probably a lot we don’t know that factored into the decisions made.

    • John says:

      Thanks for this link, William.

      At least five musicologists signed the letter.

    • M McAlpine says:

      Possibly the scientists have signed it because they deal with facts rather than idiocies.

    • Gerry Feinsteen says:

      “In a very cursory view, the list seems to indicate that the arts, humanities, and social sciences profs are more engaged with diversity issues that [sic] the science, engineering, school of medicine faculty.”

      science/engineering/school of medicine = you mean the ones in fields where evidence and proof are matters of life/death, gain/loss, strength/deconstruction?
      Or maybe these thinkers realize the US university system is threatened by CRT and mobs of non-degree holding activists?

      Sports at UM would be an interesting place to take the diversity debate.

      • I think professors in the humanities would tend to have a deeper understanding of how culture and societal norms shape human identity.

        • John Borstlap says:

          That may be questionable, given the wide and wild popularity of Foucault at American universities (and beyond). F politicizes every field of human endeavor and circumvents scientific thought and ‘hard’ reason by claiming that every attempt at organizing society, really everything, and every institution, is a mere attempt by the bourgeoisie class to keep power and suppress everybody else. This gives students with a dull mind who have difficulty learning the perfect excuse for attacking lecturers, since people who claim to know more than them, must somehow want to suppress the people who know less. This is called ’empowerment’.

    • Fan says:

      It’s absurd to say that people in humanities are more engaged with diversity. Go to any campus, STEMS have far more minorities than humanities which tend to be overwhelmingly white. Their “engagement” is little more than grandstanding to advance their own careers. It has precious little to do with minorities who don’t need those people to save them.

      There is also an issue of different work cultures here: STEMS require far greater degrees of collaboration, teamwork, mutual understanding and respect. Scholarship of humanities tend to build on cherry-picking trendy theories and concepts, unnecessary jargons and neologisms and humanities scholars tend to work alone, which makes them more reliant on authority and authoritative discourses. And that’s why you don’t see their signatures here because they dare not speak up.

  • Alank says:

    Having worked in some of the poorest developing countries in the world, I would relish transporting some of these infantilized snowflakes into a rural village in a place like South Sudan so the could find out what the term “discomfort” means. Let them just try to survive a week without their facebook account. These spoiled little Maoists need a real lesson in life.

  • MacroV says:

    Totally agree with the letter. But lest anyone think this is the province of left-leaning wokesters, elsewhere in American academia we have:

    – A GOP candidate for governor (dangerously close to winning today) running an ad by a “concerned mom” about the trauma supposedly inflicted upon her 17 YO son in his AP English class after being assigned to read Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.” And using the resulting political reaction as a campaign against his Democratic opponent (who rightly has said that parents shouldn’t be telling schools what to teach).

    – The University of Florida barring three professors from testifying in a lawsuit against the state over it’s voter-suppression law, evidently fearing retaliation by the governor (or more likely, the university being run by cronies of the governor).

    Equally egregious assaults on free speech and academic freedom, from the political right.

    • Anthony Sayer says:

      Alternatively, one could say that two can play at that game. It doesn’t heighten the debate but could serve to show up how puerile the initial reasoning is.

  • Nathaniel Rosen says:

    The U. of Michigan is a disgrace. The administration are cowards. One must never apologize to the totalitarian left.

  • Sheila Brehm says:

    University of Michigan faculty open letter supports witch-hunt, rejects letter signed by hundreds defending victimized professor Bright Sheng:

    “The November 4 faculty open letter defending the attack on Sheng adopts an aggressive tone. The aim is to intimidate all those who oppose the strictures of racial and identity politics and their enforcement by institutionalized thought police by branding them as “racist.” To the extent that the authors of the letter are critical of the university, it is not over its violation of academic freedom and freedom of thought, but rather its failure to enforce the dogmas of so-called “diversity, equity and inclusion” more forcefully”.