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Viewpoints on Sherley’s Hunger Strike, Racism at MIT

The Tech’s opinion section received numerous letters and columns about James L. Sherley’s hunger strike and the larger issues it raised. Presented here are a few excerpts.

Sylvia Sanders

Quite apart from arguments of fairness, process, conflict of interest, and so forth, the significant obstacles confronted by members of the MIT community who are minorities are being overlooked. Those obstacles and their effects need not manifest themselves in the open to influence outcomes. … And yet, they are frequent, cumulative, and insidious. Without a thorough examination and discussion of the real situation of your minority colleagues, it is not possible to deem the process fair, and it is not realistic to expect that MIT will fulfill its stated mission of increasing minority representation.

I was the sole African American member of MIT’s Biology Department from 1997–2001, when I resigned. Some of my experiences during that time undercut my status and represent the kind of racism that Professor Sherley is opposing and that his Bioengineering & Environmental Health colleagues claim does not exist.

Sanders was an assistant professor of biology at MIT from 1997–2001.

Ben Barres ’76

… I am troubled that to my knowledge nearly all African-American faculty members that have come to MIT in science and engineering as assistant professors have failed to thrive, have not been tenured (or had to appeal a tenure denial), or have left science altogether. These faculty include Luther Williams, Cardinal Ward, Sylvia Sanders, Philip Phillips, and now James Sherley. All feel strongly that they were not treated fairly by MIT. Perhaps there are more I am unaware of. Sylvia Sanders’ experiences were so bad that even though she was an HHMI investigator, she left MIT and dropped out of science altogether, and now teaches third grade down the street from where I live. …

Sherley’s hunger strike should prompt each of us to ask ourselves if we could be contributors, even if unconsciously, to this problem. How many of us can be truly certain that we have not been deeply insensitive to pervasive racial barriers that we have not personally experienced?

Barres is a professor of neurobiology at Stanford University School of Medicine.

Chi-Sang Poon

In the case of bias against female faculty, Vest made a historic move in 1999 conceding gender discrimination …

As Professor Nancy Hopkins put it in 2003, “It took great courage and conscience [for Vest] to say this at that time. Even today, it is not universally accepted or understood. But this comment changed the lives of women scientists nationally and even internationally by greatly increasing awareness of this issue.” …

Will President Susan Hockfield rise to the same challenge on the racial discrimination issue?

Poon is a principal research scientist in the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology

Barun Singh ECS ’06

By equating the response of the administration to his hunger strike with the beating and lynching of civil rights activists in the ’60s, Sherley is guilty of using racial hyperbole to manipulate the emotions of his audience and further his own objectives, whether they be as personal as getting tenure or as noble as fighting racism everywhere.

Ironically, individuals who practice race-baiting often cause themselves more harm than good. Such techniques may successfully quell dissenting viewpoints, but they also create resentment among those who have been strong-armed into silence. This resentment, with time, contributes to unnecessarily negative views of the minority community at large. Minorities fighting racism cannot afford to squander the good will of those sympathetic to their cause, thus winning the battle by losing the war.

Singh is a former Graduate Student Council president and was an opinion editor for The Tech in 2007.