The University of Michigan has determined that it will not open a formal investigation into a music professor after he showed students in his composition seminar the 1965 film, “Othello,” which features actor Laurence Olivier in blackface.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education reported that Professor Bright Sheng, the Leonard Bernstein Distinguished University Professor of Composition at the University of Michigan School Of Music, Theater, and Dance, would not face a formal investigation after playing the film to highlight how opera composer Giuseppe Verdi had adapted Shakespeare’s “Othello.” Following anger from students, Sheng apologized and agreed to step away from teaching the seminar.
“While it remains discouraging that Sheng has ‘stepped away’ from teaching this semester, Michigan’s decision not to launch a formal investigation into a professor’s course content was the right one to make. Such investigations produce profound chilling effects inimical to a university’s role as a marketplace of ideas. FIRE hopes that this controversy over Sheng’s protected expression will signal to Michigan faculty and administrators that it’s time for the university to make a serious effort to protect and defend faculty members’ First Amendment rights and academic freedom,” FIRE wrote.
As The Daily Wire previously reported, on September 10, freshman Olivia Cook attended Sheng’s composition seminar. The course that year was going to analyze the works of William Shakespeare, and Sheng’s first class featured the 1965 film “Othello,” which featured actor Laurence Olivier wearing blackface. Sheng told The Michigan Daily that he showed the film to highlight how opera composer Giuseppe Verdi had adapted the play. Sheng told the outlet that cross-casting happens regularly in opera and didn’t see Olivier’s performance “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 to the paper. “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.”
Cook told the Daily that she realized something was wrong when the film began but didn’t realize she could be outraged until “further inspection,” when she noticed 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.”
Sheng was alerted to his error and sent out an apology shortly after class, saying Olivier’s casting was “racially insensitive and outdated.”
That wasn’t good enough. Five days later, David Gier, dean of the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, sent an email to the department that mentioned the incident and also apologized.
“Professor Sheng’s actions do not align with our School’s commitment to anti-racist action, diversity, equity and inclusion,” Gier said in the email, according to the Daily. Gier also said in his email that Sheng had been reported to the Office of Equity, Civil Rights, and Title IX over the incident.
On September 16, Sheng sent out another apology, a formal one to the entire department. This apology said he had done more research into racism in America.
“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, according to the Daily. “It also has made me lost [sic] your trust.”
Sheng also included multiple examples of how he cast people of color in his previous operas. This angered students further, who claimed these examples were just excuses and made it seem like he was insisting he had been responsible for the success of those he cast.
On September 23, 18 undergraduate composition students, 15 graduate composition students, and nine members of the school’s staff and faculty sent a letter to dean Grier further complaining about Sheng’s showing of the film, even though he had now apologized twice.
The letter demanded Sheng be removed from teaching the undergraduate composition seminar, even though the actions up to this point clearly got the point across.
When Sheng heard about the letter – three weeks after he had shown the movie in class – he stepped down from teaching the seminar. As the Daily noted, Sheng said he was “still teaching students in his studio, serving other departmental and school-wide duties and working on research projects.”
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