Bright Sheng, School of Music, Theatre & Dance professor, will continue to teach composition lessons this semester and is scheduled to teach a regular course load next semester, the University of Michigan announced in a statement on Wednesday. This comes after the situation received national scrutiny and opened up conversations on political correctness and academic freedom.
Though Sheng has not been reinstated to teach the composition class in which controversy originally arose, “no sanctions have been imposed on him,” the statement reads.
Sheng initially faced backlash from students for showing a video featuring an actor in blackface to an undergraduate seminar on Sept. 10. The use of this video in class caused students to speak out and criticize Sheng.
Sheng, after consultation with SMTD administration, stepped down from teaching the class on Oct. 2. A different professor took over the class in which the controversy arose and continues to teach the course.
On Sept. 16, Sheng released a formal apology to the department, yet this too received backlash from students, specifically the part of the apology in which Sheng listed people of color that he has worked with. Sheng has also offered to meet with students and discuss different perspectives one-on-one.
Following Sheng’s apology, students wrote an open letter to SMTD Dean David Gier calling for Sheng’s removal from the undergraduate composition seminar and an investigation into the course, citing a failure to create a safe environment. This letter was signed by 18 undergraduate composition students, 15 graduate composition students and 9 SMTD staff and faculty members.
Gier responded to the letter in a Nov. 3 email to his colleagues, emphasizing that the incident opened up conversations regarding the intersection of academic freedom, freedom of speech and the importance of fostering a diverse environment for students.
“SMTD students and faculty routinely confront complex, challenging material, and consider complicated historical legacies that require purposeful discussion, critique, and analysis,” Gier wrote. “As dean I am steadfastly committed to fostering such dialogue within our School, and protecting the rights of both students and faculty to pursue lines of inquiry and express ideas without fear of reprisal, a value that is fundamental to the university’s core missions of research and education.”
On Oct. 21, around 700 University faculty members and students signed an open letter addressed to Grier calling for Sheng’s return and for the administration to apologize. The University has not yet reinstated Sheng.
On Oct. 20, the University’s Office of Public Affairs confirmed that the Equity, Civil Rights & Title IX Office determined they will not be investigating Bright Sheng’s course.
In the Wednesday statement, the University says it supports academic freedom and free speech and plans to continue discussing these issues with the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and the National Center for Institutional Diversity. SMTD is also set to host a series of facilitated conversations to promote different perspectives on campus.
University President Mark Schlissel said in a Nov. 3 statement that the University is committed to having open conversations about diversity.
“Discourse that addresses conflicts among differing viewpoints is essential to higher education,” Schlissel said. “Honest and respectful discussions of ideas — even those that make us uncomfortable — help us learn and grow. These are issues we must address together as an academic community committed to inquiry and greater levels of understanding.”
Provost Susan Collins and Robert M. Sellers, Vice Provost for Equity & Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer, both said in the statement that work within the community to navigate these issues and their intersection will continue.
Daily Staff Reporter Kate Weiland can be reached at email@example.com.