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BE Professor Threatens Hunger Strike to Protest Tenure Denial

By Joyce Kwan

An African-American associate professor has threatened to go on hunger strike unless the provost resigns and his tenure is granted, protesting what he claims were racist motives behind the denial of his tenure. The Department of Biological Engineering decided not to advance BE Associate Professor James L. Sherley’s case for tenure on Dec. 13, 2004. Since then, Sherley has asked senior administrators to overturn his department’s decision.

Sherley has announced that his hunger strike will begin on Feb. 5 if MIT fails to take action. Based on an independent review by senior faculty members, MIT has deemed that the denial of tenure was fair, according to a statement from the MIT News Office.

In a December letter sent to MIT faculty members calling for support, Sherley argued that his case for tenure was handled carelessly and that Douglas A. Lauffenburger, director of the Biological Engineering Division, performed a racist act by asking “an African-American head who is not in my field of research” to sign off on his decision “not to advance my tenure case for review by Engineering Council in December 2004.”

According to Provost L. Rafael Reif, after Sherley filed a grievance, a committee of senior faculty members from different MIT departments was appointed to address the issues Sherley had identified. The committee “gathered information from many sources and carefully considered the facts of the case,” Reif said. “This is the same process that has been followed in other tenure cases in which a greivance has been filed,” Reif added. “The committee reported that the tenure process conducted in Professor Sherley’s case was fair.”

In his letter, Sherley argued that there were two acts that should have been sufficient justification to overturn Lauffenburger’s decision to deny him tenure. According to Sherley, he was denied laboratory space during his seven years at MIT because of his race. He also received a call from a member of the MIT Corporation regarding his “confidential outspoken criticism against Provost Robert [A.] Brown,” who was the provost before Reif arrived in 2005, Sherley said. “I now know that for a member of the Corporation to contact an untenured faculty member regarding such important Corporation business is improper,” Sherley wrote.

BE Professor John M. Essigmann PhD ’76 said that he had never heard Sherley complain about lacking adequate lab space.

“Academia is a difficult place. MIT is a difficult place,” said BE Professor C. Forbes Dewey, Jr. He mentioned that the faculty went through great deliberation, understanding that someone’s life would be in their hands, but “[we] felt in every respect the process was appropriate and complete, and the result was appropriate.” According to various BE professors, the review of tenure includes assessment of teaching ability, reputation, external and internal letters, community service, and grants received.

In a December letter sent out to MIT faculty calling for support, Sherley said, “I will either see the Provost resign and my hard-earned tenure granted at MIT, or I will die defiantly right outside his office. This is the strength of my conviction that racism in American [sic] must end. What better place to kill a small part of it than at a great institution like MIT.”

“I am saddened by Professor Sherley’s statement,” Reif said in an e-mail. “Although I respect Professor Sherley’s right to disagree, I hope that he will find other ways to express his views. He is a promising scientist who has a great deal to offer to science and society.”

Sherley considered the denial of tenure mostly a matter of racism, but he mentioned in his letter that hostility toward his research from BE Professor Linda G. Griffith also played a role. Whereas Griffith “and her supporters would tolerate and even celebrate such a challenge from a White faculty member,” conflict ensued because they would never welcome it “from one who is Black,” Sherley wrote in the letter. Griffith declined to comment for The Tech.

Known for his controversial position on stem cells, Sherley works with adult stem cells and opposes research involving human embryonic stem cells, which he believes amounts to killing human life, according to a December article in the Boston Globe.

The hunger strike “will seem rash to those who don’t know me well, but it is not,” Sherley wrote in an e-mail. “I hope that people will realize that my [letter] said ‘Help me end racism at MIT,’ and not ‘Help me get tenure at MIT.’ My motivation for this protest is not the fact that I have been denied an opportunity for tenure. It is because of the reason that I have been denied this opportunity ….What I do now is not a rash reaction to disappointment, it is a well-reasoned self-sacrifice for change.”