AFA Condemns Suspension of Michigan Professor Bright Sheng

Oct 19, 2021 | Press Release

AFA Condemns Suspension of Michigan Professor Bright Sheng

In a letter, the AFA criticizes suspension as “egregious violation” of academic freedom

PRINCETON, NJ – This week, the Academic Freedom Alliance sent a letter to the president and provost of the University of Michigan regarding the suspension of Professor Bright Sheng over a controversy surrounding a film he showed in his music composition class. Professor Sheng showed a 1965 staging of Othello featuring actors in dark makeup. Despite apologizing for any offense caused, Prof. Sheng was denounced by fellow faculty for “a racist act,” criticized in a statement from the dean, referred to the Title IX office, and partly suspended from teaching. 

“It was a violation of the university’s own contractual commitments to academic freedom to prevent Professor Sheng from immediately returning to the classroom and to pressure him to give up the class,” Keith E. Whittington, chair of the AFA’s academic committee, wrote in the letter. “It is outrageous that the Title IX office has entertained a complaint against the professor over this incident and has consequently threatened to subject him to disciplinary action.” 

“It is dismaying that the leadership of the university has sat silent (at best) as these assaults on academic freedom have progressed and that a dean would act at such odds with the ‘fundamental tenets’ of the university,” Whittington continued. “Every member of the faculty at the University of Michigan can only be left to conclude that the university will not live up to its contractual commitments to defend the academic freedom of its faculty but will instead buckle under pressure when a professor’s speech is said to make someone feel ‘unsafe.’”

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    The Academic Freedom Alliance is a diverse alliance of college and university faculty members who are dedicated to upholding the principles of academic freedom and professorial free speech. These principles are central to the mission of our institutions of higher education for the pursuit of truth and knowledge. The AFA is committed to defending universal principles of academic freedom and will come to the assistance of professors regardless of their individual views. The Academic Freedom Alliance itself takes no position on the merits of the substantive content of faculty speech or writing.

    Learn More About the Academic Freedom Alliance

    No one, at any academic institution, should fear suppression or retaliation for speaking out publicly in any form. We encourage you to join the movement in supporting the flourishing of intellectual life and the pursuit of knowledge and truth at institutions of higher learning.