Nearly 700 University of Michigan faculty members signed an open letter dated Oct. 21 asking for School of Music, Theatre & Dance Professor Bright Sheng to be reinstated as professor of his undergraduate composition seminar less than a month after he stepped back from the course. The letter also calls for the University to issue a public apology on his 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 film “Othello” in which the lead actor appears in blackface. Some students said Sheng did not properly contextualize the racism in the film before he showed it.
“The very public campaign against Professor Sheng has harmed him and the students in his seminar who wish to study with him,” the letter reads. “Furthermore, it has damaged the reputation of the University of Michigan as a place for thoughtful discourse on difficult matters.”
Sheng wrote in an email to The Daily that he was aware of the letter and had no comment as of publication.
In an email to The Michigan Daily, the authors of the letter — including Mathematics Professors Alexander Barvinok and Mark Rudelson, Business Professor Fred Feinberg, Associate Chair of the Mathematics Department Kristen Moore, and Engineering Professors Fred Terry and Herbert Winful — wrote they were worried the incident would discourage thoughtful discourse and free debate among faculty due to fear of retaliation.
“The university needs to be a place where vigorous debate can occur on topics that are unsettled by conventional wisdom, and where various voices can be heard without fear of reprisal,” the statement reads.
The statement from the letter’s authors also said the University should institute a formal policy for dealing with situations like Sheng’s when they occur.
“At the very least, we believe a facilitated discussion should have occurred between the students, Prof. Sheng, the department chair, and the DEI representative in SMTD,” the statement reads. “It’s critical that universities have stated procedures for dealing with situations of this nature.”
The statement also said students should have been given the option to continue the course with Sheng or an alternate faculty member depending on their comfort level and whether they deemed Sheng’s apology sufficient.
Sheng issued a formal apology to the department on Sept. 16, writing that he lost the trust of his students and failed to recognize the historical connotations of blackface. Sheng also included a section of the letter noting where he had worked with people of color in the past. This section of the letter in particular drew 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 Oct. 21 open letter in support of Sheng, faculty allege Sheng was removed from his teaching position without due process. The faculty claim that the University and Gier’s response to the incident have worked to portray Sheng’s actions as “an inherently racist act” and have been used to justify administrative sanctions.
While the letter acknowledges that Sheng’s actions made some students feel unsafe and uncomfortable, it claims his apology should have been sufficient and that his removal from his class threatened future faculty’s ability to teach controversial subjects without fear of academic repercussions.
“While claiming safe space for themselves, Professor Sheng’s detractors deprive him of it and are willing to go as far as to disrupt his livelihood and teaching process,” the letter reads.
In an email to The Daily, University spokesperson Kim Broekhuizen wrote Sheng decided to step down in consultation with Gier. Broekhuizen wrote SMTD is committed to fostering conversations on diverse viewpoints and pressing issues.
“SMTD plans to host facilitated conversations in its community to foster an open exchange of varied ideas and viewpoints surrounding this and other emergent issues,” Broekhuizen wrote.
As of Sunday, the University has not issued a public statement in response to the letter.
In addition to the faculty letter, some SMTD students have written a second open letter addressed to Gier and has 59 signatures as of Sunday. The letter says the University failed to act in an appropriate manner in response to the blackface complaints and caused reputational damage. SMTD seniors Olivia Cho and Helen LaGrand drafted the letter.
The students wrote that Erik Santos, chair of the composition department, should have taken responsibility to initiate a dialogue between Sheng and the students and was responsible for the backlash Sheng received.
“The university’s response to the incident involving Professor Sheng has fostered an atmosphere of fear and animosity that is hostile to positive change,” the students wrote. “When students addressed the Chair (of the composition department) because they felt unable to directly approach Professor Sheng, the Chair should have taken responsibility to initiate a conversation.”
Similarly to the faculty open letter, the student open letter calls on the University to issue a public apology on Sheng’s behalf and reinstate him as instructor of the undergraduate composition course.
Sheng also had no comment on the student letter.
Cho and LaGrand told The Michigan Daily they decided to write the letter after noticing the impact the incident was having on the culture at SMTD and Sheng’s career.
Cho said while Sheng should have provided proper contextualization and warning for students prior to the showing of “Othello,” the University could have allowed students to openly discuss the incident rather than simply having Sheng step down.
“(His stepping down) just cuts off any opportunity for healing, understanding, and (the ability) for people … to move on,” Cho said. “That’s why in the letter we asked for his reinstatement.”
LaGrand said it is important that faculty members have the autonomy to talk about and address issues of racism without fear of administrative repercussions.
“In order 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 unjust or wrong about history,” LaGrand said. “And if you feel like even bringing them up might cause you harm to your career or to your reputation, then we’re not going to progress as a student body or as a faculty body.”
In a statement in an October 2021 Central Faculty Governance Newsletter, the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs expressed their support for implementing a restorative justice approach to Sheng’s case. This approach would include a professionally mediated discussion between Sheng, the composition students in the class where “Othello” was shown and administration representatives.
“The discussion would seek to arrive at an understanding of each party’s perspective, an agreement about what happened, and a course of corrective action,” SACUA wrote. “Such an approach would help Prof. Sheng and the university have an opportunity to learn and make amends. It would also provide the affected students a measure of justice and give them a critical say in how justice is enacted.”
Cho said she noticed the effect the incident had on SMTD culture and community, including faculty members who are concerned with whether this incident is reflective of how sensitive issues will be addressed in the future.
“The students involved were understandably talking about a safe environment in the classroom, but we also need to consider a safe environment for everyone, including the faculty,” Cho said. “We’re a community here. It’s not teachers against students — we all want a holistic collective environment.”
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly introduced Evan Chambers as the chair of the composition department. He is a professor — Erik Santos is the chair.
Daily Staff Reporter George Weykamp can be reached at email@example.com.