Letters to the Editor

Journalists Should Find Evidence

I read your editorial concerning the apparent lack of evidence for Prof. Sherley’s claims of racism. While your argument seems logical and deliberate, your conclusions are obvious and you have added no value to the debate. Despite my own inquiry into the case, I remain ignorant of the deep facts. As my colleague remarked, “When are they going to tell us what really happened?” Of course there is a lack of evidence, and of course the burden of proof falls upon the accuser. These two points are not in question, as you have clarified in print.

You are also apt to note that racism is subtle and insidious. However, the problem at the Institute is not out-and-out racism, nor even silent, invisible discrimination. The problem is apathy, complacency, and a lack of advocacy. MIT has taught me that excellence means never being fully satisfied with your work. So, my challenge to you is this: Stop being armchair journalists. If there is a lack of evidence for Sherley’s case, go look for evidence. Seek transparency. Prove him right, or prove him wrong. Stating the obvious proves nothing. Whatever you choose to do, whatever you find, and whatever you conclude, I hope you will discern your mission as journalists.

Where Is the Evidence?

In the Feb. 16 issue of The Tech, The Tech’s editorial board argued that Prof. James Sherley’s claims of racism lack evidence. Thirty years ago, when I was an MIT undergraduate, I might well have held a similar opinion. Young people at top universities, who have mostly not yet faced discrimination themselves, generally believe that this world is a meritocracy and that prejudice based on race, religion, and gender have long ago disappeared. Instead the reality is that most well meaning people still harbor abundant prejudices. Anyone who doubts this should spend a few minutes at the web site of Harvard Professor Mahzarin Banaji http://implicit.harvard.edu. So where is the evidence of racism in regards to Prof. Sherley’s claims? Here is some of the evidence that is troubling to me:

First, 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.

Second, I am troubled, as summarized so eloquently in Prof. Chomsky’s letter (http://www-tech.mit.edu/V127/N1/1facultyopn.html), that Sherley has been treated so unfairly both before tenure and during the tenure process. For instance, I have never heard of any tenure-track white faculty member at MIT or elsewhere who was given only 340 sq. ft. of independent lab space. How could anyone meet the high bar for tenure under such a disadvantage?

Third, I am troubled that Prof. Sherley failed to be tenured yet has won all the most prestigious science awards, is a highly lauded teacher, a truely innovative scientist, and a spectacular role model. Yet Sherley is not on a hunger strike just to obtain tenure for himself; he has job offers from other schools. He is on a hunger strike because he feels so strongly about the degree of racism that he and the others have experienced at MIT that he has decided to take this drastic actions, even though these actions seriously threaten his reputation and his very life.

Fourth, I am troubled that in all of MIT’s official statements in response to Sherley, they have been remarkably deceptive in the facts they have released, referring to numbers of total minority faculty, as opposed to African-American faculty, who have been tenured. MIT has not been honest about the fact that over the past 30 years so few of their African-American faculty members in science and engineering have failed to thrive. The Tech editors have argued that it is Sherley’s responsibility to bring forth the evidence, but it seems to me that it is the MIT administration’s responsibility to examine their record and honestly reveal the facts. For instance, how many other African-American faculty have failed to thrive at MIT in science and engineering? How many other African-American faculty were given so little independent lab space?

African-Americans presently constitute about 10% of the American population. Yet, despite a large and increasing number of African-American students over the past 30 years, the number of African-American faculty in science and engineering at MIT and other American universities is vanishingly small, being under 1% of total faculty in science and engineering http://www.jstor.org/view/10773711/di020318/02p0247x/0. 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?

I call upon the MIT community to support Prof. Sherley and to ask the MIT administration to take decisive, rapid, and public actions to make MIT a far more supportive environment for African-American faculty.

Professor of Neurobiology

Stanford University School of Medicine

Discrimination in Academia: Yes It Really Exists

MIT Professor James Sherley’s hunger strike to end discrimination against minority faculty has left many wondering whether such protest was warranted. His reportedly difficult personality, his opposition to embryonic stem cell research, and MIT’s competitive tenure process were sufficient explanations for his not receiving tenure, right? After all, this is MIT—we are among the most educated people in the world. How can discrimination possibly exist here?

“When it comes to bias, it seems that the desire to believe in a meritocracy is so powerful that until a person has experienced sufficient career-harming bias themselves they simply do not believe it exists, “ wrote Ben Barres, a prominent Stanford researcher (Nature, 2006). Discrimination today is hard to believe because it is subtle. Women faculty at MIT experienced this type of pervasive, institutionalized discrimination just over ten years ago. Although they directed their own labs, they bore demeaning questions such as “So whose lab are you in?” They were paid less and given less lab space. But most did not complain — many of them did not even realize they were being discriminated against. Nancy Hopkins realized a problem existed and pushed for “A Study on the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT” (1999). Then-President Charles Vest admitted that he had “always believed that contemporary gender discrimination within universities is part reality and part perception.” Only after he saw the numbers was he convinced that “reality is by far the greater part of the balance” (MIT News Office, March 31, 1999).

The problems that Professor Sherley (among other minority faculty) has had here mirror the discrimination that plagued our women faculty over ten years ago. Prof. Sherley has had little respect from his department. Although he was the first member hired into the BE department, they fail to acknowledge it. At his “introductory” faculty talk, which did not happen until after several years of being at MIT, the faculty member who was supposed to introduce him failed to show up. As a UROP in his lab, I could feel the awkwardness of having to work in borrowed lab space. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, the department did not make him feel welcome in their community.

MIT is supposed to be a free-thinking, leading-edge institution. President Hockfield, in her first year here, affirmed that MIT should take a “leadership position among our peer institutions in the recruitment and in the academic success of underrepresented minority faculty” (MIT News Office, Feb. 7, 2005). A year later, Provost Reif established two committees — the Minority Faculty Recruitment Committee, and the Committee on the Retention of Minority Faculty (MIT News Office, Feb. 21, 2006). This second committee was responsible for studying “the experience of minority faculty at the Institute” (MIT News Office, Feb. 14, 2006). In response to Prof. Sherley’s strike, they established yet another “committee of leaders” (Message to MIT Faculty, Jan. 29, 2007). These “leaders” were charged again with examining minority faculty status, rather than finding ways to improve minority faculty experiences. Instead of seeking out solutions, MIT chose instead to bury the issue. Ironically, MIT recognized Prof. Sherley as a 2005 Martin Luther King, Jr Leader, but when he spoke up about problems of racism at MIT, they ignored him.

James Sherley chose to undergo a hunger strike because he believes his protest will lead to a better MIT. He had many options when he was denied tenure. He filed a grievance to Provost Brown, and then another to Provost Reif. He appealed his case to President Hockfield. Each denial condoned the racism that he encountered. If he was embittered by these denials, he could have filed a lawsuit. Instead, he chose to take an action that will benefit more than just him. He challenges us to look at the institution from the viewpoint of a minority. Last Friday, after two years of protest and two weeks of a hunger strike, MIT finally admitted “responsibility for ensuring an environment in which all members of our diverse community feel welcome and respected” (MIT News Office, Feb. 16, 2007). I hope that MIT will take concrete actions that protect minorities against institutional bias. We, as members of the MIT community, should also take individual responsibility for ensuring that minorities feel welcome in the MIT community. It is each person’s duty to ensure that we are not discriminating against our minority peers through ignorance of our actions or inaction. Only then, through the joined efforts of the entire community, can we remove discrimination from MIT.

Stop Supporting Genocide Through MIT’s 401k Plan

We have all read the news reports on the ongoing genocide in the Darfur region, which has claimed the lives of an estimated 400,000 men, women, and children and led to the displacement of 2.5 million others. The government of Sudan continues to pursue genocide in Darfur, frustrating long years of diplomatic efforts to bring peace and protection to civilians there.

What can we do? It is well established that Sudan’s oil revenue is providing funding for arms and genocide, and not economic development for the poor people of Sudan.

MIT holds a significant investment portfolio; many of us signed a recent petition urging that MIT adopt a policy of “targeted divestment” from companies supporting the government of Sudan, and have written to President Hockfield and the ACSR, the group considering this matter, urging them toward a quick, positive decision on divestment. More than 30 other colleges and universities, including Harvard, Stanford, Yale, and Cornell, have already taken a moral stand against harmful investments in Sudan — MIT should be standing with them.

What other actions can we take? Recently we were shocked to learn of our own and MIT’s connection to this genocide through our 401(k) provider, Fidelity Investments. Through its Contrafund and other mutual funds, Fidelity is one of the largest U.S. investors in two of the biggest companies in Sudan’s oil industry: PetroChina and Sinopec. Glaringly, Fidelity has actually been increasing its investments in these companies in spite of the ongoing genocide. Since Fidelity’s investments are so large, divestment will put real pressure on the oil companies operating in Sudan, and thereby on the government of Sudan to mend its behavior.

Fidelity has stated, in an Oct. 5, 2006 letter to the Massachusetts Coalition to Save Darfur, that their fund managers don’t take into consideration the morality of their investments. They said “… Fidelity portfolio managers make their investment decisions based on business and financial considerations, and take into account other issues only if they materially impact those considerations or conflict with applicable legal standards.”

As MIT employees, we specifically object to the inclusion of mutual fund choices within our program that support genocide. Even if those fund choices were removed, as long as Fidelity Investments continues its holdings in companies that enable genocide, we object to MIT’s use of Fidelity Investments as the administrator of our pension and retirement funds. During World War II, we saw companies behave amorally, maximizing profit independent of the cost in human lives. We were shocked by that behavior then and are shocked to see it repeated now. If Fidelity Investments chooses to behave amorally, then we’d like MIT to find a moral money manager for our pension and retirement plans. We ask all MIT staff members to join us in expressing our concerns to the MIT administration by writing to President Hockfield and to our plan administrator, Patricia Fay, tfay@mit.edu.

Please join us in urging quick action on divestment by MIT, and full engagement by MIT with Fidelity on this issue. If you would like to learn more about these issues, or about additional specific actions you can take, please contact any one of us by e-mail, or visit the Web site, www.fidelityoutofsudan.com.

Anne Wasserman

Bill McAvinney

Carolyn Fuller

David M. Rosenberg

Elda Prudden

Franklin M. Fisher

Gillian C. Emmons

Mark Prudden

Michael B. Berger

Riley Hart

Roshan Kumar

Sheila A. Fay

Stefan Helmreich

Stephen J. Pepper

Steven E. Ostrow

Sharron Sawyer

Marcia D. Ross