Posted on October 9, 2021

Following Blackface Incident, Professor Bright Sheng Takes Step Back From Teaching SMTD Composition Course

Francesca Duong, Michigan Daily, October 5, 2021

A professor has taken over the undergraduate class previously taught by Bright Sheng, Leonard Bernstein Distinguished University Professor of Composition, David Gier, dean of the School of Music, Theatre & Dance announced Friday. The announcement comes almost a month after Sheng showed a video to an undergraduate composition seminar featuring an actor in blackface.

Regarding the recent instructor change, Gier wrote that this switch would “allow for a positive learning environment” so students could focus on their “growth as composers.”

Sheng, a highly accomplished composer, conductor and pianist, has had his music featured by prestigious groups including the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, the Chinese National Symphony Orchestra and the New York City Ballet Orchestra. Sheng also received a commission in honor of Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji visiting the White House in 1999, as well as numerous awards and fellowships.


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.”


According to Cook, the students were given no warning or contextualization prior to the viewing.

Sheng sent out an apology on Sept. 10 shortly after the class ended, noting that the casting and portrayal “was racially insensitive and outdated.” {snip}

In an email to The Daily, Evan Chambers, professor of composition, wrote about the importance of properly preparing students for possible instances of racism in film.

“To show the film now, especially without substantial framing, content advisory and a focus on its inherent racism is in itself a racist act, regardless of the professor’s intentions,” Chambers wrote. {snip}

Five days after Sheng showed the video, on Sept. 15, Gier sent a department-wide email acknowledging the incident and apologizing for what students experienced.

“Professor Sheng’s actions do not align with our School’s commitment to anti-racist action, diversity, equity and inclusion,” Gier said.

The email also stated the incident had been reported to the Office of Equity, Civil Rights, and Title IX.


On Sept. 16, Sheng sent out a formal apology to the department. He wrote that after doing more research into the issue, he realized the true extent to which racism impacts American culture, adding that he failed to recognize the racist connotation of blackface makeup.

“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. “It also has made me lost (sic) your trust.”

However, the apology has been another source of controversy among students. Students have taken particular issue with the section of the letter where Sheng lists multiple examples of how he has worked with people of color in the past.


After a few more examples, Sheng concludes by writing that he has “never thought (of himself as) being discriminating against any race.”

Cook told The Daily she felt the letter was shallow. By listing out all of his contributions to people of color, he failed to understand the gravity of his actions, Cook said.


The blackface incident also elicited response from the graduate students in the program. {snip}


The graduate student was also a part of a team who wrote an open letter that was sent to Gier on Sept. 23 addressing Sheng’s actions. The letter — signed by 18 undergraduate composition students, 15 graduate composition students and nine SMTD staff and faculty members — directly discusses Sheng’s formal apology letter.

“Professor Sheng responded to these events by crafting an inflammatory ‘apology’ letter to the department’s students in which he chose to defend himself by listing all of the BIPOC individuals who he has helped or befriended throughout his career,” the letter reads. “The letter implies that it is thanks to him that many of them have achieved success in their careers.”

The letter also called for Sheng to be immediately removed from teaching the undergraduate composition seminar, saying he failed to create a safe environment despite the fact that SMTD faculty are required to take training courses regarding racism in academia and have access to multitudes of resources. {snip}