By Charles Hilu, National Review
Locals living in the southeastern part of the Lower Peninsula have nicknamed the University of Michigan the “People’s Republic of Ann Arbor.” In the fall of 2021, that moniker gained a bit of legitimacy when students attempted to cancel Bright Sheng, a professor of musical composition, who showed his class Laurence Olivier’s 1965 film adaptation of Othello, in which the actor donned blackface. Though the university fully reinstated Sheng after an investigation, his ordeal was reminiscent of those of professors during the Cultural Revolution — which Sheng lived through in Maoist China — who faced denunciation and intimidation from their students for contradicting the regime.
The saga involving Sheng is far from an isolated incident, but rather part of a larger problem of cancel culture within the university, where students attempt to make the administration punish faculty members by forming cancellation mobs. Although the university usually does not fire professors after the formation of a mob, students are being incentivized to use unprofessional methods to air their grievances, several faculty members at the school told National Review.
“We’re in the middle of a cultural revolution,” said English professor Scott Lyons. Within the University of Michigan, there is a “toxic ideology that is trying to push aside certain principles that allowed our universities to become great in the first place, like Enlightenment principles, academic freedom, free speech, collegiality.”
One of the main problems in the culture, according to Lyons, is that students are taking offense at professors’ statements or views — sometimes foolishly and sometimes legitimately — and refusing to express their grievances in a productive manner.
“I would relish that conversation if it were handled in a collegial way,” he said. “But if you start a petition against me, put it on social media, and call me names, I mean, then I gotta call my lawyer, so that’s a terrible way to do it.”
One professor who had that experience is Dr. Kristin Collier, who was slated to speak at the medical school’s July 24 White Coat Ceremony, a rite of passage that welcomes incoming medical students into their profession. Michigan students created a petition demanding that the university prohibit Collier from speaking, citing her pro-life views. Although she would not be speaking about abortion, students were doubtful that, given the selection of a speaker with such beliefs, the university would “continue to advocate for reproductive rights.”
However, Dr. Marschall Runge, the medical school’s dean, would not acquiesce to the mob’s demands and publicly stated that Collier would still speak at the ceremony.
Although Runge refused to succumb to the students’ pressure, the ceremony was not without controversy. As soon as Collier was introduced, a number of the students receiving the coats walked out of the venue.
Another member of the faculty to feel the wrath of the outrage mobs is psychology lecturer Eric Fretz. Though he indicated his support for the “equity goals” of the university, he expressed concern to NR about the methods by which the administration is pursuing them. For each of his classes, he includes a disclaimer in his syllabus that apologizes for the possibility of “soft sexism,” but even this has caused problems for him.
“Born in the 1960’s,” it reads. “The end of the era for all moms being at home, all textbooks showing only male scientists, etc. You never escape your youth. I try to do a good job being balanced with my examples and being sensitive to social justice issues. If I say something that annoys you, or use all male examples during a lecture, feel free to call me on it.”
Fretz said one student took offense at that passage and brought it up to him, and he asked for her feedback in changing it. He told the student to “tell me how I should express this concept: I’m open to being corrected.” Unfortunately, he told NR, “there was no engagement. That was apparently not a goal of hers.”
After the meeting, he said, she attempted to incite outrage in the class group chat. When other students did not see the problem with it, she took her case to the university’s Office for Institutional Equity (OIE), which handles complaints of racial and gender discrimination and sexual misconduct. The office proceeded to investigate Fretz.
Representatives from the department requested a meeting with Fretz, telling him, “There’s been a complaint,” he told NR. Although Fretz’s attendance would be completely voluntary, he felt that the process carried an “implied threat,” with the officers insinuating that refusal to participate would have negative consequences.
At the meeting, which he called “bizarre,” the representatives laid out the student’s complaint about the offending text. Fretz then shared his side of the story, including information about his conversation with the student and her efforts in the group chat. The representatives did not take official action against him, but they told him he should put a section in the syllabus encouraging students to contact OIE if there are any problems.
“I was appalled,” Fretz said. “I said, ‘Excuse me, are you telling me to put a phrase in my syllabus asking my students not to talk to me, but to report me to the university’s investigation arm that’s in charge of investigating rapists and sexual abusers?’”
Other professors across many different subject areas have been targeted in a similar fashion.
Read more at National Review.