Academic Freedom

Academic Freedom Not Yet Safe at the University of Michigan

Some professors at UM think Bright Sheng got what he deserved and would like to do it to others as well

|

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.

The AFA responds with another letter to the university's leadership. From the letter:

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.

Read the whole thing here.

NEXT: The Resolution of the University of Florida Situation

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Sheng was an actual victim of the original Red Guards. Took his piano.

    Ironic that the current USA Red Guards made him a victim too.

    1. More troubling, it [the "woke" faculty's open letter] 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.

      But, they'll tell you, this is completely different! Here, we're fighting racism! And that means that everyone must think like us! You aren't for racism, are you?!

  2. Complete insanity...it's damn near a theocracy (and ironically more ferocious in its zealotry than most overtly-religious schools).

    Some points of hope are that 1) UM is in the sixth circuit, which recently had a court case upholding academic freedom for public university faculty; and 2) UM is (somewhat uniquely) a constitutionally established entity in the state of Michigan, governed by a board of Regents who are elected statewide and not subject to the political branches of state government.

    Currently the Regents are dominated by Democrats, 6-2. One of the Republicans was elected in 2020, on a platform including promotion of free speech and open dialogue for suppressed voices on campus. Two of the Democrats are up for election in 2022, and if they could both be replaced, there would be a serious opportunity to force some amount of change...

    1. How dare the government tell professors what they are permitted to say in their field of expertise!

      Oh, wait. I thought this was the Florida professors testifying article.

      How dare a professor think he can say whatever he wants in his field of expertise!

      1. No employer, private or public, would knowingly allow an employee to testify as an expert witness against the employer in a case in which the employer is a defendant. Professors are permitted to say anything in their field of expertise, even as expert testimony in court against their employer; all they have to do is resign first.

  3. "it calls for the university to mandate "anti-racism training" for all the members of the faculty"

    Well, this puts a new complexion on things.

  4. The thing that gets to me was he wasn't even trying to make a point. The professor was showing a classic production of a Shakespearean play, which was shown with the main character in blackface for 400 years because of a lack of available actors. At the time, there was zero controversy because it was just considered normal.

    This isn't even about academic freedom.
    This is about deletion of film history because of changing cultural norms.

    It's essentially a book burning.

    1. Exactly. I'm wondering where Artie is? This stuff is right up his alley.

  5. No employer, private or public, would knowingly allow an employee to testify as an expert witness against the employer in a case in which the employer is a defendant. Professors are permitted to say anything in their field of expertise, even as expert testimony in court against their employer; all they have to do is resign first.

Please to post comments