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Michigan professor canceled for showing blackface film returns to the classroom

The University of Michigan professor who stepped down from teaching following pressure and accusations of racism in the fall 2021 semester after screening a film depicting an actor in blackface is back to teaching fulltime.

“Bright Sheng, the Leonard Bernstein Distinguished University Professor of Composition, is a highly valued member of the faculty of the School of Music, Theatre & Dance and the university community. He continues to teach composition lessons this semester in SMTD and is scheduled to teach a regular course load during the upcoming winter term,” Associate Director of Public Affairs Kim Broekhuizen told The College Fix in a Dec. 21 email.

He is under no sanctions, Broekhuizen added.

On Sept. 10, Sheng, who was teaching a seminar on composers that adapted plays of William Shakespeare into works of music, showed his class the 1965 movie adaptation of “Othello,” starring Laurence Olivier.

The actor played the title character in blackface, reminiscent of 19th century minstrel shows that used the device to depict black people as intellectually inferior. One common blackface caricature, Jim Crow, gave the name to the set of segregation laws that were common in the South before the Civil Rights Act.

More than 40 students and faculty offended by the film and a subsequent apology Sheng sent to his department drafted an open letter calling on the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Dance to remove him from teaching.

“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,” wrote Evan Chambers, professor of composition, in an email to the Michigan Daily. “We need to acknowledge that as a community.”

Sheng stepped down Oct. 2 after the outcry, believing it the correct course of action given the controversy, according to the Michigan Daily, adding that during “the three weeks between the seminar incident and the announcement that Sheng had stepped down, the composition class was suspended.”

The university considered opening a formal investigation, but administrators decided against pursuing the matter further on Oct. 19 and imposed no sanctions on Sheng, The College Fix reported.

“I really have little to report,” Sheng told The College Fix via email in December.

Sheng did not offer answers to follow-up questions from The Fix, including whether he was having trouble getting students to enroll in his spring 2022 course.

The course is listed on the school’s course guide with 10 open seats on the first day of Michigan’s winter semester. The room in which Sheng is teaching holds 30 students.

However, 10 seats in the class are reserved for undergraduates majoring in music, according to the course guide, which could explain the vacancies.

Ninety percent of students who have taken Sheng’s classes said he was respectful to them, while 76 percent said his instruction was clear, and 60 percent said he was prepared for class, according to Atlas, the university’s database of student evaluations of professors.

The evaluations for Sheng’s fall 2021 class from which he stepped down are not listed in his Atlas profile.

Sheng in 2001 received a MacArthur Fellowship, known as a “Genius Grant,” and has twice finished as a runner-up for a Pulitzer Prize in music.

His music has been performed in venues such as the Lincoln Center and the White House and for famous guests including former President Bill Clinton.

Sheng was born in 1955, and began learning to play the piano at age four. At age 15, as a part of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, he was sent to Qinghai and spent seven years as a pianist and percussionist in the provincial music and dance theater.

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About the Author
College Fix contributor Charles Hilu is a student at the University of Michigan studying political science. He serves as the editor-in-chief of the Michigan Review and chairman of his Young Americans for Freedom Chapter. He has interned at the Washington Examiner and has contributed to the National Review.