An African American alumnus and former MIT Corporation trustee withdrew from activities supporting MIT on July 2 in protest of the Institute’s handling of the tenure case of James L. Sherley. Sherley, an African American and former associate professor in the Biological Engineering Department, left MIT on June 30 after an unsuccessful hunger strike to have his tenure case re-examined.
Bernard Loyd ’83 said, “[I] felt that I could not support MIT when its actions in [the] Sherley situation didn’t measure up to standard.” Loyd, who resides in Chicago, has actively recruited African American students in the Chicago area to MIT. Loyd said he could not in good conscience tell young African Americans that MIT was the place for them following what he described as MIT’s bungling of the Sherley case.
MIT was not acting in good faith, Loyd said, and its actions were “not consistent with effort to maintain meritocracy at highest level.” In Loyd’s interpretation, Sherley and his supporters were reasonable in expecting MIT to review problems that Sherley claimed to have arose during his tenure process. MIT, however, interpreted its role as a mediator for Sherley’s exit, Loyd said.
The MIT experience “for African Americans [is] particularly challenging,” Loyd said. According to Loyd, those challenges include prejudices ingrained into society, fewer material assets, and a different K–12 experience. Loyd said the opportunity to attend an elite college is considered a unique opportunity for African Americans, and they are expected to give back to their community.
Although Loyd has withdrawn his direct MIT recruiting, he said he will help with efforts to address race issues. “I believe in MIT,” Loyd said. For now, he considers his role to be a supporter of African American students who have already been recruited.
Meeting with MIT
Loyd said that a meeting took place in mid-July between the Chicago chapter of Black Alumni/ae of MIT and members of the MIT upper administration. Generally acknowledged as one of MIT’s most active alumni groups in recruiting minority students, BAMIT Chicago expressed concerns regarding the environment of campus for African Americans. According to Loyd, MIT initiated the need for the meeting.
Chancellor Phillip L. Clay PhD ’75 said that there was a definite need for the meeting to address alumni concerns. Clay attributed the concerns to poor communication between MIT and alumni. The meeting was not a part of a series of regularly scheduled meetings but rather an impromptu attempt to improve dialogue, Clay said.
About 15 people were present at the meeting, including Loyd, other members from BAMIT Chicago, BAMIT, President Susan Hockfield, Clay, Vice President for Institute Affairs Kirk D. Kolenbrander, and Elizabeth A. Garvin, chief executive officer of the Alumni Association.
According to Dana M. Cole MBA ’02, chair of BAMIT, members of BAMIT were concerned about: the environment of MIT and its hostility toward African Americans, the lack of support for African Americans at MIT, and a stagnant ratio of African American students (the percentage has remained roughly steady since the mid ’70s, according to Cole).
BAMIT’s concerns were usual alumni concerns, Clay said. At the September meeting, MIT will outline specific actions it will take to improve its atmosphere for diversity, he said. MIT will certainly increase recruiting and outreach efforts, and provide more support for African Americans, he told The Tech. According to Cole, MIT agreed to address BAMIT’s concerns by supporting the race initiative.
The race initiative released a preliminary report in late July, and Paula T. Hammond ’84, chemical engineering professor and a member of the team developing the initiative, enthusiastically expressed in an e-mail that the team looks “forward to moving the initiative forward with the start of the academic year.”
Additional meetings will take place, including one in late September, to encourage communication, Cole said.
Still addressing Sherley concerns
In December 2004, MIT denied Sherley tenure in the BE Department. Sherley was vocal in arguing that racism played a part in the denial and went on a hunger strike in early February 2007.
Sherley filed a grievance, according to Provost L. Rafael Reif, and a committee of senior faculty members from different MIT departments was appointed to address the issues Sherley had identified. “The committee reported that the tenure process conducted in Professor Sherley’s case was fair,” Reif said.
Sherley, however, claims that MIT denied him adequate laboratory space and that Douglas A. Lauffenburger, head of BE, asked “an African-American head who is not in my field of research” to sign Lauffenburger’s decision to deny Sherley tenure.
Sherley’s hunger strike lasted 12 days, after which MIT agreed to reassess his tenure case through an external panel, according to Sherley. MIT said that it made no such agreement.
In early June, Frank L. Douglas, then MIT professor and head of the MIT Center for Biomedical Innovation, resigned from his posts due to an issue of “process and environment,” according to Douglas in a statement to The Tech. “I leave because I would neither be able to advise young Blacks about their prospects of flourishing in the current environment,” Douglas wrote in the e-mail announcing his resignation.
Claude R. Canizares, associate provost and vice president for research, commented that he “was sorry about [Douglas’] need to resign.” MIT has yet to fill Douglas’ position; Canizares said a search for a replacement will begin in September but could take some time.