University Statement on Academic Freedom and SMTD Undergraduate Seminar

Nov. 3, 2021

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.

The depiction of a white actor in blackface is deeply offensive. Such imagery must include proper context and be presented with care and sensitivity. While disturbing, such content from theatrical, cinematic and American history, as well as from other contexts, provides teachable moments to address complex issues and to deepen understandings.

A different instructor in Undergraduate Seminar allowed students to best continue their studies while working through the complexities of these circumstances.  This approach was developed after discussions with Professor Sheng, as well as hearing from students and faculty in the Composition Department.

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.

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.

Universities across the nation are grappling with the complex issues surrounding the intersection of academic freedom, pedagogical choices and respect for diverse communities we serve. The questions raised by members of our community in response to the incident in the undergraduate composition seminar are important and highly relevant in any academic community.

“Discourse that addresses conflicts among differing viewpoints is essential to higher education. Honest and respectful discussions of ideas ­– even those that make us uncomfortable – help us learn and grow,” said U-M President Mark Schlissel. “These are issues we must address together as an academic community committed to inquiry and greater levels of understanding.”

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.