A victory (?) for academic freedom

November 5, 2021 • 12:30 pm

Remember Bright Sheng, a distinguished professor and composer at the University of Michigan? I reported on him earlier, also linking to the takes of John McWhorter and Cathy Young about the incident Sheng was involved in. At that time, Sheng was in the process of being demonized at Michigan (he probably still is). Here’s what I wrote a few weeks ago, quoting the student newspaper:

A blackface incident has occurred at the University of Michigan, involving, Bright Sheng, Leonard Bernstein Distinguished University Professor of Composition and a well known composer and pianist. But he happened to show the wrong film. As the student paper, the Michigan Daily, reports:

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 predictable outcry occurred, with claims that the film made the students feel unsafe. This resulted in Sheng’s removal as a teacher of undergraduates. He apologized to the faculty and students, but his apology was considered insufficient. Sheng says that he didn’t realize the cultural offense conveyed by blackface.  As the Dean of Sheng’s division revealed in an email, “the incident had been reported to the Office of Equity, Civil Rights, and Title IX.”  Sheng will be lucky if he’s not fired for showing that movie.

As McWhorter points out, the best explication and analysis of this incident is by Cathy Young at Arc Digital, who concludes that Sheng’s screening of the movie induced “moral panic” and a “witchhunt,” with Sheng being the witch.

Well, the good news is that the University of Michigan is not going to punish him further, though he was removed from teaching that class and the school had begun an investigation (believe me, that itself is punishment!). The not-so-good news is that the University’s statement on Sheng, below, supposedly an affirmation of the school’s support for free speech, is a Weasel Manifesto, trying to satisfy everyone at the same time, both the Offender and the Offendees, as well as us free-speech diehards. Click on the screenshot to read:

The University first affirms that Sheng is in the clear, and that Michigan is in favor of free speech, though adding that “the depiction of a white actor in blackface is deeply offensive” without being presented “in proper context. . . and with care and sensivitity.”  Of course, there’s no way Shen could have presented it at all without getting in trouble, but let’s give Sheng a break. Here’s his exculpation:

The University of Michigan strongly supports free speech and academic freedom. We also work hard to establish an inclusive and supportive learning environment for all students.

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.  No sanctions have been imposed on him.

Then it turns weaselly.  First of all, they call for ENGAGEMENT and conversations:

SMTD will host a series of facilitated conversations to help community members better understand the different perspectives involved in this particular instance and Professor Sheng has said he would welcome an opportunity to meet with students in the seminar.

“I appreciate the engagement of Dean Gier and Professor Sheng in this difficult issue and also our students and faculty who have expressed their views to us. The dean and faculty of SMTD are intently focused on ensuring that their courses actively engage students with discussions of race and racism.  We can all learn as we work together to be a more inclusive community,” said Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Susan M. Collins.

Does anyone doubt that these conversations will have only one approved viewpoint—that they won’t be free exchanges of views but propaganda with a preordained “consensus”? This will not be an exercise in free speech, and the dog whistle (sorry, GOP) is “we work together to be a more inclusive community.” For what Michigan hasn’t realized is this: Inclusivity and freedom of speech are not always compatible. 

For example, if you question affirmative action, or “affinity housing,” you will offend minorities while exercising freedom of speech on genuinely debatable issues.

Still Michigan keeps up the pretense:

Vice Provost for Equity & Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer Robert M. Sellers noted that “being a more diverse, equitable and inclusive community is not anathema to academic freedom.”

“It does mean that we must intentionally work together as a community to understand what academic freedom looks like when we include voices that have traditionally not been at the table. It will not be easy work, but it is essential work. Who better than the University of Michigan to lead this conversation?” said Sellers, the Charles D. Moody Collegiate Professor of Psychology.

Well, how about any of the several free-speech organizations like FIRE, or someone like ex-ACLU president Nadine Strossen? Yes, diversity and inclusivity are not inevitably anathema to academic freedom, but they often are. You can discern that from all the imbroglios on college campuses in the last few years. Case in point: Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying getting piled on by Evergreen State students (and their own faculty) because they refused to leave campus on the “day of absence”. Both of those professors are antiracists, but are also committed to free speech. The result: they exercised their free speech, which brought them both physical and verbal threats. Both eventually left the college.

It’s time for people to stop insisting that you can have your inclusivity and your free speech too. The First Amendment is there for reasons, one being that very little political speech is completely inoffensive. Divergent viewpoints are prima facie examples of “non-inclusivity”.

And look who’s going to be in charge of the “conversation” at Michigan that will supposedly reconcile DEI and free speech:

In further support of the need for continued discourse, the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and our National Center for Institutional Diversity will work with other university partners to convene a broader universitywide discussion around the challenges and opportunities associated with adhering to principles such as academic freedom while becoming a more diverse, equitable and inclusive community. The issues raised are not exclusive to higher education; they are fundamental to American democracy.

This is like putting a fox in charge of a conversation between chickens. There is only one possible outcome.

h/t: Larry

17 thoughts on “A victory (?) for academic freedom

  1. According to various reports, nearly 100 “diversity officers” (i.e. enforcers of “wokeness”) are employed by the University of Michigan at a cost of more than ten million per annum. One wonders how many scholarships to deserving students might be covered by that rather large expenditure.

    1. I have recently read in right-wing sources, citing a study by the Heritage Foundation, that diversity officers are becoming increasingly common in K-12 schools, and their presence, instead of reducing the white – black and white – Latino achievement gaps, tended to increase them.
      I cannot judge whether this is true, but it makes sense to me. As a blogger commented, a diversity officer is likely to tell non-white kids that they are victims of racism, instead of advising them to study harder.

    2. No need to wonder: a thousand students get $10,000 each year. Or ten thousand get $1000. Or assuming U of M has 100,000 students, all get $100.

      Etc. Better if strictly “more than ten million”

  2. So an iconic film of one of the greatest Shakespearean actors of the 20th century in one of Shakespeare’s greatest roles has been reduced to a mere “blackface incident”. People who would complain about that simply don’t deserve to be at a university.

    1. Indeed. And if showing Olivier as Othello is taboo, what about Orson Welles in the role? Welles’s film of Othello is one of the greatest Shakespearean films ever made. How many professors will dare show it without fear of grave reprecussions?

      Olivier’s Othello was “blackface” only in the most literal sense of the word. It was not a minstrel turn equivalent to old American blackface. Anyone who quotes Bosley Crowther’s New York Times review to argue otherwise is ignorant that Crowther was regarded as a laughingstock by his colleagues and replaced in 1968 after everyone got sick of his clueless reviews. (If there was one thing that united Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris, it was their contempt for Crowther!)

      Ironically, Olivier’s Othello was an attempt to present the character as more of a human being, rather than the noble savage/victim he had so often been played as, even by great black actors like Paul Robeson. Olivier meant his Othello to be earthier and more arrogant yet also magnificent in his wounded pride and rage—a true tragic hero in his flaws and greatness. To dismiss all of this as just blackface is philistine stupidity.

  3. Being not too far away, I have certainly seen updates about this from our local evening news.

    It is strange that woke activists will disparage the short series The Chair for depicting what they say are completely unrealistic reactions from students about absolutely nothing, where here and elsewhere we see exactly that.

  4. We can be assured that “engagement”, “facilitated conversations” and similar exercises will take up many, many hours by the 100 person strong Diversity nomenklatura of the Univ. of Michigan, with attendance recommended for everybody else. Indeed, we may expect that the Vice Provost for Equity & Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer will apply for more funding (on top of the present paltry 10 million clams) in order to provide for this essential “university wide discussion”.

    In the Music Department, delicate discussions will no doubt be required to apologize for Purcell’s “The Indian Queen”, Puccini’s “Turandot” and “Madame Butterfly”, and Mozart’s “Turkish” sonata. As for movies, there must be thousands of them beyond Olivier’s “Othello” that demand endless “facilitated conversations”. In addition to all the movie actors who pretended to be American Indians, there was Peter Sellars pretending to be an East Indian (in the hilarious “The Party”), John Wayne pretending to be a Mongol chieftan, and Anthony Quinn pretending to be an Eskimo, an Arab, a Greek, and god knows what else. What about the actors who pretended to be space aliens? What a fertile ground on which the nomenklatura can enlarge its activities.

  5. Since it was a composition seminar the film clip was presumably chosen by the professor for a point he wanted to make about the musical score, rather than how the role of Othello was played?

    1. Jez, I recall that it was mentioned in the original reporting of this controversy that Sheng was using the Olivier film as a lead into a study of Verdi’s opera, Otello, which title role, BTW, has been traditionally played by a pale-skinned tenor in blackface.

  6. It’s time for people to stop insisting that you can have your inclusivity and your free speech too.

    Well, one can indeed have genuine inclusivity along with free speech, so long as one accepts that everyone will encounter a range of viewpoints including some that they might — shudder at the thought — disagree with.

  7. God clearly has afflicted mankind with Covid-19 as a punishment for white people performing dramatic roles in black face.

    Further, people should recognize that even though black face was used for performances for decade upon decade without any caring, this does not mean it was not unconscious violence even if no one was aware of that violence at the time.

    Third, dressing up and pretending to be something you are not is an abomination in the eyes of God, and we clearly need to ban performing arts because we are potentially perpetuating racism and violence in unconscious ways that will not be discovered until decades from now, like in performing the Vagina Monologues.

  8. It’s just disgusting that Sheng will have to take part in those “facilitated conversations.” I hope that he leaves the university and takes his considerable talent somewhere else. Surely he is looking into the possibility, given the treatment that he has received and the further degradation that lies in the offing.

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