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A professor has taken over the undergraduate class previously taught by Bright Sheng, Leonard Bernstein Distinguished University Professor of Composition, David Gier, dean of the School of Music, Theatre & Dance announced Friday. The announcement comes almost a month after Sheng showed a video to an undergraduate composition seminar featuring an actor in blackface.
Regarding the recent instructor change, Gier wrote that this switch would “allow for a positive learning environment” so students could focus on their “growth as composers.”
Sheng, a highly accomplished composer, conductor and pianist, has had his music featured by prestigious groups including the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, the Chinese National Symphony Orchestra and the New York City Ballet Orchestra. Sheng also received a commission in honor of Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji visiting the White House in 1999, as well as numerous awards and fellowships.
The Michigan Daily looked deeper into what happened.
On Sept. 10, Music, Theatre & Dance freshman Olivia Cook attended her first composition seminar with Sheng. This semester, the course focused on analyzing Shakespeare’s works, and the class began with a screening of the 1965 version of “Othello.” Cook told The Daily she quickly realized something seemed strange, and upon further inspection, noticed the onscreen actor Laurence Olivier was in blackface.
“I was stunned,” Cook said. “In such a school that preaches diversity and making sure that they understand the history of POC (people of color) in America, I was shocked that (Sheng) would show something like this in something that’s supposed to be a safe space.”
The 1965 version of the film has been a topic of controversy since its initial release when The New York Times wrote a 1966 article criticizing Olivier’s use of blackface as well as his stereotypical performance.
According to Cook, the students were given no warning or contextualization prior to the viewing.
Sheng sent out an apology on Sept. 10 shortly after the class ended, noting that the casting and portrayal “was racially insensitive and outdated.” A copy of this email has been obtained by The Daily. A planned “Othello” project was then canceled by Sheng.
In an email to The Daily, Evan Chambers, professor of composition, wrote about the importance of properly preparing students for possible instances of racism in film.
“To show the film now, especially without substantial framing, content advisory and a focus on its inherent racism is in itself a racist act, regardless of the professor’s intentions,” Chambers wrote. “We need to acknowledge that as a community.”
Five days after Sheng showed the video, on Sept. 15, Gier sent a department-wide email acknowledging the incident and apologizing for what students experienced.
“Professor Sheng’s actions do not align with our School’s commitment to anti-racist action, diversity, equity and inclusion,” Gier said.
The email also stated the incident had been reported to the Office of Equity, Civil Rights, and Title IX.
Sheng’s apology causes controversy
On Sept. 16, Sheng sent out a formal apology to the department. He wrote that after doing more research into the issue, he realized the true extent to which racism impacts American culture, adding that he failed to recognize the racist connotation of blackface makeup.
“In a classroom, I am a teacher representing the university and I should have thought of this more diligently and fundamentally; I apologize that this action was offensive and has made you angry,” Sheng wrote. “It also has made me lost (sic) your trust.”
However, the apology has been another source of controversy among students. Students have taken particular issue with the section of the letter where Sheng lists multiple examples of how he has worked with people of color in the past.
“At the world premiere of my opera The Silver River in South Carolina in 2000, I casted an African American actress (for the leading role), an Asian female dancer and a white baritone for the three main characters,” Sheng wrote.
After a few more examples, Sheng concludes by writing that he has “never thought (of himself as) being discriminating against any race.”
Cook told The Daily she felt the letter was shallow. By listing out all of his contributions to people of color, he failed to understand the gravity of his actions, Cook said.
“He could have taken responsibility for his actions and realized that this was harmful to some of his students that are within his class,” Cook said. “Instead, he tried to make excuses. Instead of just apologizing for it, he tried to downplay the fact that the entire situation happened in the first place.”
The blackface incident also elicited response from the graduate students in the program. According to a graduate student, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation, many of the graduate students started reaching out to the undergraduate community after they heard about the incident.
“It was sort of a protective reaction from the grad students, like ‘what can we do to help the undergraduates? What do they need?’” the graduate student said. “Clearly they’re not going to be in a room with (Sheng) anytime soon.”
The graduate student was also a part of a team who wrote an open letter that was sent to Gier on Sept. 23 addressing Sheng’s actions. The letter — signed by 18 undergraduate composition students, 15 graduate composition students and nine SMTD staff and faculty members — directly discusses Sheng’s formal apology letter.
“Professor Sheng responded to these events by crafting an inflammatory ‘apology’ letter to the department’s students in which he chose to defend himself by listing all of the BIPOC individuals who he has helped or befriended throughout his career,” the letter reads. “The letter implies that it is thanks to him that many of them have achieved success in their careers.”
The letter also called for Sheng to be immediately removed from teaching the undergraduate composition seminar, saying he failed to create a safe environment despite the fact that SMTD faculty are required to take training courses regarding racism in academia and have access to multitudes of resources. In an email to The Daily, University spokesperson Kim Broekhuizen confirmed that 100% of full-time faculty had attended these training sessions in the previous academic year.
Sheng steps down from course
During the three weeks between the seminar incident and the announcement that Sheng had stepped down, the composition class was suspended.
In an email to The Daily, Sheng wrote that he stepped down after hearing about the open letter because both he and Gier felt it was the correct thing to do. He also said he is still teaching students in his studio, serving other departmental and school-wide duties and working on research projects.
In regards to the “Othello” incident, Sheng told The Daily he made a mistake and was “very sorry.” He wrote that the original intent was to show how the opera composer Giuseppe Verdi had adapted Shakespeare’s play into an opera. Since cross-casting was frequent in opera, he did not think Laurence Olivier’s performance was “intended to be the same as the minstrel performances which did degrade African Americans.”
“I thought (that) in most cases, the casting principle was based on the music quality of the singers,” Sheng wrote. “Of course, time (sic) has changed, and I made a mistake in showing this film. It was insensitive of me, and I am very sorry.”
In his email to The Daily, Sheng also responded to the negative reaction to his formal apology, saying he regretted some aspects of his apology.
“In my formal apology letter to the whole composition department … I simply try to say that I do not discriminate,” Sheng wrote. “In retrospect, perhaps I should have apologized for my mistake only.”
After hearing that Sheng stopped teaching the seminars, the graduate student told The Daily they thought it was “the bare minimum” and wished more was done.
“I feel like the thing that we all actually needed (was) a true and honest and genuine understanding that he did something wrong, not just (him) trying to defend himself,” the graduate student said. “I feel like there’s still a lack of trust there because none of us think he is actually sorry.”
A pattern of misconduct
Sheng is not the only SMTD faculty member to have faced sanctions from SMTD administration in recent years.
In 2018, a Michigan Daily investigation into Stephen Shipps, a former professor and chair of strings at SMTD, discovered over 40 years of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct allegations against Shipps.
In her email to The Daily, Broekhuizen wrote that SMTD is committed to creating an environment that is “safe, equitable and inclusive for all students, faculty and staff.” Broekhuizen also pointed to the school’s climate report based on a school-wide survey sent out last year as an effort by the University to increase transparency.
When asked if the blackface incident points to a larger cultural problem within SMTD, Chambers wrote that he sees this issue as reflective of the University culture as a whole and how the University needs to work harder to achieve a safer environment for students.
“It is beyond time for substantial, regular and mandatory DEIA (Diversity, Equity Inclusion and Accessibility) and trainings for all faculty,” Chambers wrote. “Participation in DEI work must be fully and meaningfully credited in hiring, faculty merit review and tenure and promotion.”
Editor’s Note: This article is not suggesting Sheng’s actions are equivalent to other allegations of misconduct in School of Music, Theatre and Dance. The other examples are provided illustrate previous sanctions against other professors in SMTD and to contextualize student reactions.
Correction: A previous version of this article said Sheng was removed from teaching a graduate seminar and that Chambers would be taking over his graduate course. Sheng was only teaching an undergraduate seminar prior to his removal, and Chambers is taking over the graduate seminar previously taught by Kristin Kuster.
Daily Staff Reporter Francesca Duong can be reached at email@example.com.