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Excerpt from ‘A plea for help to end racism at MIT’ — Dec. 19, 2006

Dear Colleagues:

… I brought my initial complaint to the attention of President Susan Hockfield, Provost Robert Brown, and Dean of the School of Engineering, Thomas Magnanti, by e-mail, in January 2004. None of them responded in any manner until after an article appeared in The Boston Globe that outlined some of the elements of my complaint, chief amongst these being racist attitudes among members of the BE faculty.

In response to the Globe article, Provost Robert Brown conducted an initial inquiry into events surrounding the evaluation of my tenure case by the BE faculty. He instructed that interviews be conducted with BE faculty members. However, he ignored the issue of a clear conflict of interest that existed between Professor Lauffenburger and his spouse, BE faculty member Professor Linda Griffith, that operated against me during the BE faculty’s evaluation of my tenure case. He ignored the statement by Professor Lauffenburger to me that he had involved upper administration in the development of his decision not to advance my tenure case. He ignored Professor Lauffenburger’s statement to me that he “knew that my race would be a factor in the review of my tenure case.” He ignored the fact that I had heated exchanges involving both Professor Lauffenburger and Professor Griffith together over their delinquency in transferring designated funds to my Child accounts on joint projects for which they were the P.I.’s. He ignored the fact that Professor Lauffenburger never assembled a group of BE faculty to administer the development of my tenure case, despite his conflict of interest due to Professor Griffith’s hostility towards me and my research program. Thus, Professor Lauffenburger, acting alone in this environment of conflict of interest, assembled my tenure case, presented it to the BE faculty, and made the decision not to advance it. Provost Brown’s inquiry did confirm that the BE faculty spent less than 1 hour discussing my case for tenure in a hearing led by Professor Lauffenburger.

Based on his evaluation, Provost Brown concluded that there were no grounds for him to initiate a formal grievance proceeding for my complaint. When asked specifically about his decision to exclude conflict of interest and the involvement of upper administration in a tenure decision made by a department head, Provost Brown stated that he did so because including them would have required that he initiate a grievance proceeding. The specific upper administrators that Professor Lauffenburger named were Dean Thomas Magnanti and Provost Brown himself. Dean Magnanti admitted his involvement, but Provost Brown denied his involvement as his opening statement when he first met with me. Provost Brown moved onto Boston University leaving my unresolved complaint for incoming Provost Rafael Reif to address.

Upon hearing my complaint, Provost Reif ruled that a full grievance proceeding, according to MIT Policies and Procedures, was in order. He assembled an investigating committee of three senior MIT faculty members. They met with me only once, and then months later in January 2006, I received a letter from Provost Reif indicating that he had decided that there were no grounds for reconsidering my case for tenure at MIT.

… President Hockfield agreed to consider my appeal, but asked me to allow that my appeal still fell within the province of the Provost. They both met with my advocate, Professor Kenneth Manning, and me in February 2006 to hear information that the investigating committee had not. I shared the following crucial information with them:

1. There were several damaging acts, motivated by my race, that I either encountered or learned of as a member of the BE faculty.…

2. At the time that Professor Lauffenburger was deciding my tenure case, I was contacted by a member of the MIT Corporation. This particular member of the Corporation served on the BE visiting committee and was also on the Presidential Search Committee that eventually recommended Susan Hockfield as the next MIT President. I now know that for a member of the Corporation to contact an untenured faculty member regarding such important Corporation business is improper. Moreover, the nature of the member’s contact was relevant to my race and Professor Lauffenburger’s decision. The call was an inquiry about my confidential outspoken criticism against Provost Robert Brown, also a MIT presidential candidate. I was critical of his publicly displayed lack of cultural competency and racial insensitivity in an MIT forum.…

These two acts alone are sufficient cause for overturn of Professor Lauffenburger’s decision. However, there were also many other acts of discrimination related to my race that I related to President Hockfield and Provost Reif that revealed a troubling image of how my race has led to a difference in treatment, support, and regard by Professor Lauffenburger, Professor Griffith, and several other members of the BE faculty.

Based on the information that I shared with them, President Hockfield charged Provost Reif with re-doing the investigation of my complaint. Provost Reif charged the same investigation committee to investigate further, but he instructed them that the conflict of interest constituted by Professor Lauffenburger and Professor Griffith, the action by Provost Brown to withhold lab space from me because of my race, and the improper contact by a member of the MIT Corporation about Provost Brown’s racial attitudes at the time of Professor Lauffenburger’s decision regarding whether to advance my tenure case were all to be excluded from their investigation!…

I am calling on you, my colleagues at MIT, to seek Provost Reif’s immediate resignation for the manner in which he has handled my complaint.…

I will go on hunger strike outside the MIT Provost’s office. I hope that you will support me in this effort by joining me in my protest starting on February 5, 2007. Of course, I am not asking you to join me in my hunger strike, just to support me with your presence when you are able.

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 must end. What better place to kill a small part of it than at a great institution like MIT. It is time for leaders at MIT to stop sitting around in monthly faculty meetings wringing their hands about difficulty retaining minority faculty.…

Yours sincerely,

James L. Sherley, M.D., Ph.D.

Professor of Biological Engineering