Sherley's Racism Claims Lack Evidence

James Sherley wants us to believe that MIT is racist, and that it is because of this institutional racism that he was denied tenure. Unfortunately, his numerous lengthy public statements have supplied no evidence to support his claims. Mr. Sherley's supporters (including at least two whose letters appeared in Tuesday's Tech) support his claims of racism, but to date, none of them have come forward with any corroborating evidence either.

Sherley's numerous public statements have provided detailed descriptions of improprieties in others' conduct towards him and his tenure review — from the Institute, the Biological Engineering department, and particular members of the faculty and administration. If his allegations of conflicts of interest, personal vendettas, and misleading public statements are indeed true, they would certainly constitute a breakdown in the tenure process, and would warrant some form of action to safeguard against future problems. However, even if one were to accept every single one of Mr. Sherley's allegations at face value, there would still be no evidence of racism.

Earning tenure at a top research university is an exceptionally difficult process. Nearly every faculty member can point to at least one example of a colleague with stellar research credentials who they believe should have been granted tenure but was not. It is well known that junior faculty who build strong cordial relationships with senior faculty members are more likely to have their tenure cases viewed positively than are those faculty who do not have friendly interactions with their colleagues. There may be an infinite number of reasons why a professor responsible for helping to decide a tenure case may not want to have the junior faculty being considered as a future colleague. Many of these may have nothing to do with the research qualifications of the junior faculty member. Indeed, racist attitudes is one of these potential reasons — but it is one among a great many. In lieu of any substantive evidence, why would Mr. Sherley, and why should we, automatically assume that racism is the most likely cause for the denial of his tenure?

It may well be the case that an offense has been committed against Mr. Sherley in the denial of his tenure. But an offense committed against an individual who happens to be a minority race is different from an offense committed against an individual because they happen to be in a minority race — both may be unethical, but the latter is racism while the former is not.

The closest Mr. Sherley has come to providing us with any type of evidence of racist motivations is a single sentence in his December 19, 2006 letter "A plea for help to end racism at MIT":

He [then-Provost Robert Brown] ignored Professor Lauffenburger's statement to me that he "knew that my race would be a factor in the review of my tenure case."

Without any further information, this hardly provides any decisive evidence of racism on the part of Prof. Lauffenburger. MIT has made an open commitment to seek to increase the diversity of its faculty. At least part of the strategy for doing so mimics the Institute's attitude towards increasing diversity in its undergraduate population: given two candidates with equally strong qualifications, one a minority and one not, the minority student is more likely to be preferred. This means that race is a factor in a tenure decision, just as it is in student admissions — Prof. Lauffenburger's statement is simply one of fact.

We do not wish to discount Mr. Sherley's claims without consideration. We do not claim that racism is nonexistent at MIT or anywhere, and if racist attitudes do affect tenure decisions at MIT we must actively strive to fix the problem. But if there is any evidence that racism did result in the denial of Mr. Sherley's tenure, why has nobody been able to produce any evidence? Racism can be subtle and insidious, and evidence of it may be hard to find. But such evidence should exist somewhere. In our society, individuals are innocent until proven guilty — the burden of proof is on the accusers to provide at least something tangible to support their claims. To assert that the actions against Mr. Sherley constitute racism based solely on his stating so is profoundly misguided. It does little to address problems of true racism at the Institute and in society in general.

MIT is, at its heart, a school built on the principles of science and engineering. We search for evidence, use the tools of logic, and are not in the habit of accepting rumors and allegations as truth. If Mr. Sherley wishes for us to accept his premise of racism as a driving reason for the denial of his tenure, he must supply us with some concrete evidence of it. For its part, MIT owes Mr. Sherley a true and open response to all of his allegations, and must actively engage the faculty as a whole with regards to how to correct those broken components of its tenure process. Equally important, if Mr. Sherley or his supporters fail to provide any concrete evidence of racism, the Institute owes it to our entire community not to follow the path of appeasement. Doing so would cast doubt on the legitimacy of future minority faculty tenure decisions, and would show that MIT is willing to compromise its meritocratic principles in order to follow the path of least resistance.