Tenure is not the only thing necessary to sustaining academic freedom, but it’s the most important. So the news that the regents of the University System of Georgia recently approved a new post-tenure review process that, in the words of the American Association of University Professors, will “severely compromise” tenure is the most alarming single development for the future of academic freedom in the American university since Steven Salaita’s hiring was reversed by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2014. (Our Emma Pettit reports.) Where Georgia goes, other states will probably follow.

Georgia’s is the most systematic of recent attacks on faculty autonomy. Others, smaller in scope but no less distressing for that, include the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s initial refusal, at the behest of a politicized governing board, to hire Nikole Hannah-Jones; the University of Mississippi’s firing of Garrett Felber, apparently because he had criticized the university; and the craven acquiescence of Yale’s president, Peter Salovey, to the demands of a couple of super-rich donors.

And then there’s the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where the guarantees of academic freedom are being tested by what looks to some faculty members like a blend of cowardice and incompetence. In addition to formal job protections, academic freedom depends on a package of soft norms — a commitment to professional disagreement as opposed to demonization; a tacit devotion to scholarly pluralism; a willingness to reject, however respectfully, some student demands — as well as a principled administrative class capable of understanding and of honoring the ideals of the institutions they superintend. None of those things are in evidence right now at Michigan, where the distinguished composer Bright Sheng was removed from a class he was teaching for screening a 1965 film version of Othello featuring Laurence Olivier, in blackface, in the title role.

Sheng, who grew up in China and came to the United States in the 1980s, had shown the film before, without incident. But when students complained, he seemed to recognize that the potentially shocking nature of the film — controversial since its initial release — should have been discussed beforehand. After the class, he sent an email apologizing for showing Olivier’s “racially insensitive and outdated” performance. “We will not finish watching the video,” he emailed. “We will address the issue and find an alternative for next week.”

Instead, as our Tom Bartlett reports, some of Sheng’s colleagues denounced him, and David Gier, dean of Michigan’s music school, kicked him off the course (though, Gier says, with Sheng’s “concurrence”). As Silke Marie-Weineck, a professor of comparative literature and German studies there, told me: “Professor Sheng was publicly humiliated, and the students were cheated out of an extraordinary teaching moment. I believe that the dean handled this very poorly.” (An open letter by faculty members criticizing the university’s treatment of Sheng is currently circulating.)

Sheng should never have “concurred,” and Gier should have stood up for him, not gone after him. In a perfect world, Sheng’s initial apology, which was earnest and thoughtful, would have resolved the issue. In this world, the lessons are clear, at least if you still have the formal protections Georgia is intent on demolishing: Never apologize. Don’t trust your administration. Lawyer up.

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  • “I think if I were to ask somebody in the street [in Zanzibar], ‘Who’s Freddie Mercury?’ they probably won’t know. Mind you, they probably wouldn’t know who I am either.” At The Guardian, an interview with the Nobel laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah.

Write to me at len.gutkin@chronicle.com.

Yours,
Len Gutkin