Award-winning University of Michigan music professor Bright Sheng made headlines over the past couple of weeks following his screening of Laurence Olivier’s film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello, in which the actor appeared in blackface.
Sheng voluntarily stepped down from teaching the class in which he showed the film and twice apologized in writing.
Nevertheless, his students and colleagues denounced him further and he was placed under investigation for “discriminatory harassment” by Michigan’s Title IX office.
Outrage followed, including in this column, with many on the right denouncing Sheng’s treatment as the latest example of cancel culture unwarrantedly threatening an innocent man’s job, career and reputation. Some suggested he had a right to sue.
I personally contacted Professor Sheng to offer him a commission to produce an original piece of orchestral music on the subject of “freedom,” which he has provisionally accepted.
Mainstream liberal media outlets eventually sounded off, reporting the facts of the case with a pretense of impartiality while still criticizing Sheng for having shown the film and suggesting that his detractors were right to bring potentially career-ending consequences to bear on him.
The Academic Freedom Alliance (AFA), an invitation-only advocacy group for free speech in universities, wrote a pointed letter to Michigan’s president warning of the consequences for academic freedom, but refrained from comment about whether Sheng’s actions were, in fact, racist.
A singular leftist student group urged an apology to Sheng and demanded his full reinstatement, reasoning that to do otherwise would cede moral high ground to the right – apparently something it fears more than standing up for freedom of expression.
As the storm swelled last week, Michigan succumbed to the pressure and dropped its discriminatory harassment investigation. Sheng told me yesterday that he is “very glad” for that and that he remains “very sorry for what happened.”
Sheng’s job may be safe from the Torquemadas of Title IX, but his situation is still far from enviable.
Michigan communicated its decision to him via lawyers, with no apology or explanation for its decision.
There is no indication that Sheng will be reinstated to his classroom teaching, an outcome that may well constitute an unwarranted and legally actionable reduction of work duties.
Michigan officials and faculty members have strongly implied that Sheng is a racist, with at least one publicly stating that he had committed a “racist act.” These allegations may have caused him irreparable reputational and professional harm and could form the basis of a defamation claim.
Sheng could also argue that Michigan has or may have reacted differently to faculty members of other racial backgrounds who have done comparable or worse actions involving race, giving rise to a potential discrimination claim.
Regardless of the procedural and legal outcomes, a public letter signed by what eventually rose to 33 of Sheng’s colleagues and students made clear that they would prefer he were gone. He now has to go back to work with those unsavory people, who may well ostracize him and devote time and energy to retaliating against him in other ways.
And naturally, there is no way for Sheng to recover the last seven weeks of his life, during which he, a survivor of China’s Cultural Revolution, was tormented and publicly humiliated for doing nothing other than sharing his world renowned insights with students at one of our purportedly best universities.
The University of Michigan should unequivocally apologize to Bright Sheng, reinstate him immediately and in full, offer him generous compensation and admonish his persecutors to treat him with all due collegiality and professional respect.
If it does not, then it – and they – should feel the full majesty of the law.
Paul du Quenoy is president of the Palm Beach Freedom Institute. He holds a Ph.D. in history from Georgetown University. Read more — Here.
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