Campus Free Speech

Academic Freedom Trouble at the University of Michigan

The Academic Freedom Alliance rebukes Michigan for its handling of Bright Sheng case

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Music professor Bright Sheng showed his class at the University of Michigan the 1965 film of William Shakespeare's Othello in which Laurence Olivier plays the Moor in dark make-up. Students objected. A colleague denounced showing the film as a "racist act." A dean declared that showing the film was contrary to the school's anti-racist commitments. Sheng was removed from the classroom until he "agreed" to step away from the class entirely. Meanwhile, he remains under threat of investigation and discipline for his offenses.

The Academic Freedom Alliance has released a public letter calling on the University of Michigan to immediately allow Professor Sheng to fully return to his teaching duties, to drop all investigations of him and threats to him arising from this incident, and to reaffirm that faculty at the university have the freedom to assign pedagogically relevant materials in their classes even when those materials are controversial or might cause offense.

As I note in the AFA letter:

Unfortunately, efforts to suppress classroom materials and censor classroom instruction because they might be divisive are all too familiar. The cornerstone of recent state legislative efforts, including those in Michigan, to outlaw "divisive concepts" like critical race theory or "racist theories" from the classroom is precisely the belief that instructors should not be allowed to expose students to materials or ideas that they might find disturbing or racist. Universities are in no position to resist such efforts if they are themselves willing to punish their professors on that self-same basis. If Dean Gier imagines that exposing students to racist materials is outside the scope of academic freedom, he is quite mistaken. If such an assertion of power by a dean were accepted, it would carve a large and perilous hole in academic freedom protections that will loom over faculty at the university for years to come. Faculty, quite rightly, will worry whether they might be accused by university administrators of having engaged in a racist act that could subject them to discipline and sanction for assigning students materials ranging from Thomas Jefferson to Mark Twain to Ibram Kendi.

Read the whole thing here.

UPDATE: Professor Sheng has been informed that the University of Michigan will not pursue any further investigation arising from his class assignment. It is not enough for university's to quietly drop these cases and move on as if nothing has happened. The university needs to publicly affirm that it will respect its faculty's academic freedom and take steps to insure that such groundless investigations against faculty are not undertaken in the future.