Nearly 700 University of Michigan faculty members signed a open letter dated October 21, requesting that Professor Bright Sheng of the School of Music, Drama and Dance be reinstated as a teacher in his undergraduate composition seminar within a month of retiring from the course. The letter also asks the University to issue a public apology on its behalf.
The letter, sent to SMTD dean David Gier, university president Mark Schlissel and provost Susan Collins, comes after Sheng showed a 1965 version of the movie “Othello” in which the lead actor appears in blackface. . Some students said that Sheng did not properly contextualize the racism in the film before showing it.
The open letter from the faculty says the response to this incident damaged the reputation of the University and Sheng’s career, leading to extensive media blanket which portrays the University in a negative light.
“The very public campaign against Professor Sheng has hurt him and the students at his seminary who wish to study with him,” the letter read. “Additionally, it has damaged the reputation of the University of Michigan as a place for thoughtful discourse on difficult issues.”
Sheng wrote in an email to The Daily that he was aware of the letter and had not commented at the time of its publication.
In an email to Michigan Daily, the letter’s writers – including math professors Alexander Barvinok and Mark Rudelson, business professor Fred Feinberg, associate chair of the math department Kristen Moore, and engineering professors Fred Terry and Herbert Winful – wrote they were worried. the incident would discourage thoughtful speech and open debate among professors for fear of retaliation.
“The university must be a place where vigorous debate can take place on matters that are not settled by conventional wisdom, and where diverse voices can be heard without fear of reprisal,” the statement said.
The statement from the authors of the letter also said that the University should institute a formal policy to deal with situations like Sheng’s when they arise.
“At the very least, we believe that a facilitated discussion should have taken place between the students, Professor Sheng, the head of the department, and the DCI representative on the SMTD,” the statement said. “It is essential that universities have defined procedures to deal with situations of this nature.
The statement also said that the students should have been given the option of continuing the course with Sheng or another faculty member depending on their comfort level and whether they found Sheng’s apologies sufficient.
Sheng issued a formal apology to the department on September 16, writing that he had lost the trust of his students and failed to recognize the historical connotations of blackface. Sheng also included a section of the letter indicating where he had worked with people of color in the past. This section of the letter in particular sparked controversy, leading to an open letter to Gier from SMTD students and faculty calling for Shreng to be removed from the undergraduate composition course.
In the October 21 open letter in favor of Sheng, the teacher alleges that Sheng was dismissed from his teaching post without due process. The faculty says the university and Gier’s response to the incident described Sheng’s actions as “an inherently racist act” and was used to justify administrative penalties.
Although the letter acknowledges that Sheng’s actions made some students in danger and uncomfortable, she says his apology should have been sufficient and his removal from his class threatened the ability of future teachers to teach controversial subjects. without fear of academic repercussions.
“While claiming a safe space for themselves, Professor Sheng’s detractors are denying it and are willing to go so far as to disrupt his livelihood and his teaching process,” the letter read.
In an email to the Daily, University spokesman Kim Broekhuizen wrote that Sheng had decided to step down in consultation with Gier. Broekhuizen wrote that SMTD is committed to fostering conversations on diverse perspectives and pressing issues.
“SMTD plans to host facilitated conversations in its community to foster an open exchange of ideas and varied views on this and other emerging issues,” Broekhuizen wrote.
The University did not release a public statement in response to the letter on Sunday.
In addition to the letter from the faculty, some SMTD students wrote a second open letter addressed to Gier and has 59 signatures as of Sunday. The letter says the University did not act appropriately in responding to blackface’s complaints and caused reputational damage. SMTD Seniors Olivia Cho and Helen LaGrand wrote the letter.
The students wrote that Evan Chambers, the chair of the composition department, should have taken responsibility for initiating a dialogue between Sheng and the students and was responsible for the backlash that Sheng received.
“The university’s response to the incident involving Professor Sheng fostered an atmosphere of fear and animosity hostile to positive change,” the students wrote. “When the students approached the chairman (of the composition department) because they felt unable to approach Professor Sheng directly, the chairman should have taken the responsibility of starting a conversation.”
Similar to the open letter from the faculty, the open letter to students calls on the University to publicly apologize on behalf of Sheng and reinstate him as an instructor of the undergraduate composition course.
Sheng also did not comment on the student’s letter.
Cho and LaGrand told the Michigan Daily that they decided to write the letter after noticing the impact of the incident on SMTD’s culture and Sheng’s career.
Cho said that although Sheng should have provided the students with proper contextualization and warning before the screening of “Othello,” the university could have allowed the students to openly discuss the incident rather than simply asking Sheng to stand up. to withdraw.
“(His resignation) just cuts off any opportunity for healing, understanding and (the ability) for people… to move forward,” Cho said. “That is why, in the letter, we asked for his reinstatement.
LaGrand said it’s important for faculty members to have the autonomy to speak up and address issues of racism without fear of administrative repercussions.
“For there to be progress in society – for us to be a progressive institution – you actually have to talk about the things that we think are unfair or wrong in history,” LaGrand said. “And if you feel like even raising them could hurt your career or your reputation, then we’re not going to progress as a student body or a faculty.”
In a declaration In an October 2021 core faculty governance newsletter, the Senate Advisory Committee on Academic Affairs expressed support for implementing a restorative justice approach in Sheng’s case. This approach would include a professionally mediated discussion between Sheng, the composition students of the class where “Othello” was shown, and officials from the administration.
“The discussion would aim to come to an understanding of each party’s point of view, agreement on what happened and corrective action,” SACUA wrote. “Such an approach would help Professor Sheng and the university have the opportunity to learn and redeem themselves. It would also provide the students concerned with a measure of justice and give them a critical opinion on how justice is served. ”
Cho said he noticed the effect of the incident on the culture and the SMTD community, including faculty members who question whether this incident reflects how sensitive issues will be handled in the future.
“The students involved naturally spoke of a safe environment in the classroom, but we also need to consider a safe environment for everyone, including the faculty,” Cho said. “We are a community here. It’s not teachers versus students – we all want a holistic collective environment.
Journalist for the daily George Weykamp can be contacted at [email protected].