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Associate Professor of Biological Engineering James L. Sherley speaks to a small crowd of about twenty outside President Hockfield’s office. To protest his being denied tenure at MIT — a decision Sherley says was motivated by institutional racism — he began a hunger strike yesterday.
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An African-American associate professor began a hunger strike yesterday outside of the provost’s office, protesting what he claims were racist motives behind the denial of his tenure. Biological Engineering Associate Professor James L. Sherley first threatened the strike on Dec. 19, 2006 in a letter he titled, “A plea to end racism at MIT.” The letter prompted Provost L. Rafael Reif to announce plans to create a committee investigating minority hiring practices.

Sherley plans to station outside Provost L. Rafael Reif’s office, 3-208, on weekdays from 9 a.m. to noon — ingesting only water, electrolytes, and vitamin supplements — until his demands are met. Sherley, in a second letter sent out via e-mail to members of the MIT community, listed three specific demands: Reif must resign, Sherley’s tenure must be granted immediately, and acknowledgement from MIT that racism was a factor in his case and others. Sherley also called for MIT to commit “resources, faculty effort, and administration effort to develop new effective policies for eliminating racism at MIT.”

In an interview outside 3-208 yesterday, Sherley altered his statement, saying that “some form of censure” for Reif would be enough.

Excerpts of Sherley’s letters and statements from members of the faculty and administration can be found on pages 10 and 11.

The BE Department decided not to advance Sherley’s case for tenure on Dec. 13, 2004. Since then, Sherley has asked senior administrators to overturn his department’s decision.

A small crowd turned up at the protest, including students, faculty, and staff, some of them in support of Sherley. According to Sherley, those present in support of him included his advocate Writing Professor Kenneth R. Manning, Harvard Genetics Professor George Church, his entire research group, a few former students, and his wife.

Initially, Sherley considered legal approaches, he said, but found them inefficient in disclosing the crux of the problem. “I had to find some way to get people to stop and say there must be something really of great gravity going on here for someone to go to this step,” he said to The Tech two weeks ago.

Details of Sherley’s case

In Sherley’s Dec. 19 letter, Sherley argued that his case for tenure was handled carelessly and that Professor Douglas A. Lauffenburger, director of the department of Biological Engineering, 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.” Additionally, Sherley also outlined his main reasons for complaint, which included denial of independent lab space by then Provost Robert Brown and the conflict of interest that resulted from the spousal relationship between Lauffenburger and BE Professor Linda G. Griffith led him to believe his case for tenure was not handled fairly.

According to Reif, after Sherley filed a grievance, a committee of senior faculty members from different MIT departments was appointed to address the issues Sherley had identifed. “The committee reported that the tenure process conducted in Professor Sherley’s case was fair,” Reif said.

Sherley received Reif’s negative decision letter on Dec. 22, 2006, which, according to Sherley, denied the existence of the conflict of interest and Sherley’s status as the first hire into BE.

Other acts that affected the handling of his tenure included Lauffenburger’s spousal relationship with Griffith, said Sherley. Griffith is hostile to Sherley professionally and personally, which, said BE Professor William G. Thilly is a conflict that is “nothing private.”

His conflict with Griffith affects Lauffenburger’s ability to make a fair decision, Sherley said.

In a Tech interview, Sherley said that Lauffenburger is solely responsible for the decision not to forward his tenure case. According to Thilly, however, it is ultimately the director’s decision after the faculty votes, but there is not much leeway to steer away from the outcome of the faculty votes. Almost all tenured faculty of the BE department voted, and the outcome of the vote is confidential, Thilly said.

Administration, faculty respond

Members of the BE faculty issued a statement yesterday, stating “with certainty and a clear conscience that race did not play any role in the decision that resulted in Prof. Sherley’s tenure case not being taken forward.” It continued stating that Sherley’s accomplishments in research and teaching, letters of evaluation, and his service to MIT and the broader science and engineering community were evaluated “at the utmost level of integrity and ethics.” Lauffenburger and Griffith were not among those who signed the statement.

The MIT News Office also released a statement yesterday. “MIT’s tenure process is extremely rigorous; less than half of the Institute’s many talented junior faculty members are promoted to tenured positions,” it states.

Shortly after Sherley began his hunger strike, both Vice President for Institute Affairs Kirk D. Kolenbrander and Chancellor Phillip L. Clay sent messages to the MIT community saying that although members of the administration had encouraged Sherley to use other means to protest, his hunger strike will be respected. Also, Clay wrote that there will be discussions over the next few days on tenure procedures and “related issues.”

MIT Professors, including Noam Chomsky, are circulating a letter asking for further investigation into Sherley’s tenure situation, according to a Feb. 5 Boston Globe article.

“I’m hopeful that there are people in our administration who are going to look at this and say, you know, we’ve known all along that there was a problem that these things that have happened shouldn’t have happened at MIT,” Sherley said to The Tech two weeks ago.

Reif extended Sherley’s appointment from Jan. 31 to Jun. 30 to “allow Professor Sherley and the Institute to develop transition plans that provide for the continuity of effort and the well being of his research group and for Professor Sherley to move forward with his career,” he said in an e-mail interview. “He is a promising scientist who has a great deal to offer to science and society,” Reif added.

In a Jan. 29 letter to the MIT community, Reif said that he and Hockfield are “deeply committed to removing barriers that may exist for under-represented minority faculty members.” He said that he would work with minority faculty to establish a committee “to undertake a comprehensive, rigorous and systematic study of these issues.”

Hockfield “We owe it to our students and community to take a position of leadership on this important issue, and the progress we have made so far demonstrates that concerted institutional effort can make a difference,” Hockfield said in her letter. Hockfield also wrote about the increased racial diversity of the Class of 2010 and the minority faculty that have been brought in as Martin Luther King Jr. Visting Professors and Scholars.

Both Hockfield and Reif mentioned the Institute’s efforts to improve the gender balance among students and faculty at MIT.

Another “plea” from Sherley

Sherley e-mailed “a second plea” to members of the MIT community on Jan. 29, 2007. In the letter, he listed his protest demands, explained why he believes he merits tenure, and gives “Evidence of … Reif’s Obstruction of the Tenure Decision Complaint.”

A stem cell scientist, Sherley said he “established an internationally recognized research program focused on the investigation of adult stem cell asymmetric self-renewal.” His many awards include the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences Award and the Ellison Medical Foundation Senior Scholar Award in Aging Research, which has been awarded to only four other MIT researchers, including Robert A. Weinberg and Susan Lindquist.

“My case will not be in the lower five percent,” Sherley said. “My case will be, at a minimum, right in the middle of the pack.”

Sherley said he met with President Susan Hockfield on Friday, Feb. 2 at 2:30 p.m. to discuss his tenure and hunger strike situation. The meeting was “completely unproductive and disappointing,” he said. According to Sherley, Hockfield asked him to leave MIT without tenure while thanking him for bringing the issue of racial discrimination in academia to the public’s attention. Sherley also said that Hockfield would not overturn the provost’s decision to not take further action after an investigating committee reported that none of Sherley’s

Hockfield’s e-mail on minority faculty issues was sent to the MIT community around 3:50 p.m. that day.