The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
The University of Michigan opened this academic year with an academic freedom scandal. Music professor Bright Sheng showed his class the 1965 film of Othello with Laurence Olivier playing the Moor in dark makeup. Students demanded action. The university removed Sheng from the classroom and opened an investigation. The Academic Freedom Alliance condemned the university for violating Professor Sheng's academic freedom. The university eventually relented and dropped the investigation. Unfortunately, that is not quite the end of the matter.
Professor Sheng has not been returned to his class, though he continues to do some teaching and is scheduled to resume his normal teaching activities in the spring. The university has hardly recognized its error and has failed to adequately reaffirm its commitments to academic freedom. Not exactly an encouraging sign for the future.
And now some members of the faculty who were enthusiastic about the persecution of Professor Sheng in the first place are doubling down. An open letter tries to rewrite history and denies that the Sheng case ever involved a conflict over free speech or academic freedom. More troubling, it calls for the university to mandate "anti-racism training" for all the members of the faculty so that professors will know what they are allowed to teach students in the future. Everyone must think the same way at the University of Michigan. The letter demonstrates that advocates of "anti-racism practices" in universities have no tolerance for intellectual freedom and will brook no dissent.
Quite simply, the letter is proposing that the university adopt an ideological litmus test against which faculty should be measured. Academic freedom protects the ability to scholars and instructors to disagree about the subject matter over which they have disciplinary expertise. Professor Sheng is free to introduce instructionally relevant material for the purpose that he sees fit and with the context that in his scholarly judgment the material demands. It is entirely incompatible with academic freedom to suggest that the university administration should declare some scholarly and pedagogical choices beyond the pale and demand that all faculty on campus conform to the orthodoxies that some members of the faculty would prefer. Some faculty might well prefer to teach using an anti-racist lens, but no serious university should declare that all members of the faculty must do so.
It is not hard to imagine the abuses that could follow from the university going down this path. Rather than being a campus on which scholars can freely debate controversial issues and challenge prevailing wisdom, this proposal seeks to stifle debate, suppress dissent, and insist that every member of the faculty must adopt and teach the same ideas. If the university can declare the teaching of disfavored ideas to be "irresponsible" and tantamount to creating a "hostile learning environment," then there is no reason why the list of officially sanctioned dogmas cannot be expanded. State legislatures across the country are currently debating whether some "divisive concepts" should be banned from classrooms lest some students draw the wrong conclusions from being exposed to them. If the university begins to carve out exceptions to academic freedom, it can expect the exceptions to grow and expand over time.
The open letter at Michigan does have one good idea. The AFA agrees that the university administrators should be provided with clear guidelines so that they will know how to respond to such complaints in the future. Of course, I'm sure the letter writers would like those guidelines to say that dissenting professors should be quashed. The AFA would be happy to assist the university in developing guidelines that actually protect academic freedom and that would help prevent such an embarrassing violation from happening again.
We do agree with the letter writers on one point, however. We too think the university would be well-served by developing "clear protocols in the event that a student reports a racist incident." As you recently noted, the decision to remove Professor Sheng from the classroom was "made locally" by a dean who did not have the benefit of such a clear protocol. The university should take steps to ensure that such a violation of academic freedom does not happen again. It seems evident that many department chairs, deans and university administrators do not understand what is protected by academic freedom. Future violations of academic freedom can be avoided if those administrators had a better understanding of how teaching and scholarship is protected from administrative interference. The university should make clear to administrators who might receive such a complaint in the future that it should immediately be dismissed the moment it becomes evident that such a complaint is merely objecting to the educationally relevant, substantive content of a course.
This episode is indeed a learning opportunity. It is an opportunity for the university to learn that its protections for academic freedom are inadequate and that intellectual freedom at the university needs to be better secured.