Prof. Continues Hunger Strike

15 Faculty Call For Fairness in Tenure Denial Review Process

Fifteen MIT faculty members from different departments called for measures to ensure fairness in the grievance review of tenure denials after an African American associate professor began his hunger strike last week to protest what he believes are racist motives behind the denial of his tenure.

James L. Sherley of the Department of Biological Engineering has been on the hunger strike for eight days. The Undergraduate Association Senate discussed Sherley’s case at their meeting last night to determine how they should address the issue. They passed a resolution declaring “neutrality” on the issue. The Senate also plans to provide a discussion arena for undergraduate and graduate students.

The faculty members in support of fairer review explained in a letter that the example of Sherley’s case has left them “doubtful as to whether the grievance review committee exercised due diligence,” and proposed certain measures to be implemented. (The full text of the faculty letter is available at

The letter offers up “a sample of evidence” to show that Sherley may not have treated fairly in this case, bringing up possible conflict of interest in the case, unfair treatment of Sherley with respect to space allocation, and the failure of the department to acknowledge Sherley’s achievements.

Stating that “all aspects of the grievance process should be reviewed by a committee composed of members from inside and outside of MIT to determine the adequacy and fairness of the process,” the faculty letter also called for proper redress for Sherley were the committee to find any flaws or inadequacies in the grievance process.

Provost L. Rafael Reif, whom Sherley believes deserves censure for his handling of Sherley’s tenure grievance process, has stated multiple times that review committees determined Sherley’s tenure case to be “adequate and fair.”

(To see Sherley’s previous letters to the faculty and administrator’s responses, see

Writing Associate Professor Helen E. Lee, one of the faculty members who signed the letter, said in an e-mail that she chose to sign because “it is important to speak out in favor of fairness.” “I have been troubled by recent characterizations of this letter’s free expression of differing and minority opinions as inflammatory and disruptive of collegiality and trust.”

“The issues addressed by the letter have been long-standing problems at MIT and other academic institutions,” Lee said in the e-mail. “Professor Sherley’s case brought them to the fore and made attention to these issues a matter of urgency.”

Institute Professor Noam Chomsky also signed the letter.

In an e-mail interview, Chomsky said that he knew very little about the case until he was presented with the background information accompanying the letter. “It seemed to me to indicate that an independent inquiry would be appropriate, and if I understand correctly, steps to that effect are being initiated,” Chomsky said.

In a letter from the provost dated Jan. 29, 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 plans to establish a committee that will study these tenure issues.

Chomsky added that practices at MIT “have not been above criticism sometimes, but in general MIT ranks very high in standards on these matters, to my knowledge.”

Chancellor Phillip L. Clay PhD ’75 said that he respected the views and effort of the signers to bring closure and offer a solution to the issue, but said that he does not believe that the signers have a complete appreciation for the issue.

Sherley’s example does not show that MIT’s system of tenure and grievance proceedings are broken, although there is always room for improvement, Clay said. Multiple investigations addressed Sherley’s questions, and the findings did not show that the process was abused, he continued. “The process has served us well for the last ten years,” Clay said.

In an interview last week, Sherley said that MIT had given significant responsibility about this case to Clay because Clay is African American. Sherley added that Clay is not responsible for faculty affairs and does not have expertise in Sherley’s field.

Clay said that his role is “not unusual or inappropriate.” His involvement is as a member of the Academic Council which reviews all cases of promotion and tenure, he said.

Another open letter from Sherley

Sherley sent another e-mail to members of the MIT community on Feb. 10. In the letter, Sherley restated his professional merits, the injustices inflicted upon him, and his demands, altering his original demand that Reif should resign. Instead, he said that Reif should receive some form of censure. He also said that he had lost 14 pounds since he began the hunger strike Monday, Feb. 5.

Sherley plans to continue his hunger strike, appearing daily outside Reif’s office, 3-208, from 9 a.m. to noon.

He began ingesting vitamin supplements last Thursday. Previously, he only drank water, Sherley said.

The Department of Biological Engineering 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.

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 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.”

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.