Hunger Strike Ignites Discussions of Racism at MIT

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James L. Sherley tacks up sheets of stickers on the first floor of the Student Center proclaiming “Say No To June 30,” which refers to his last official date of employment at MIT after being denied tenure.
David M. Templeton—The Tech

In 2007, MIT garnered attention in an unexpected light — through allegations of racism in its tenure process. An African American associate professor in the Biological Engineering Department charged that racism influenced his tenure denial, prompting his hunger strike, the resignation of an executive director, the withdrawal of an alumnus, and the initiation of an Institute-wide study on underrepresented minority issues.

James L. Sherley alleged that racism tarnished his tenure case and ultimately influenced his tenure denial. Denied tenure in December 2004, Sherley urged administrators to reexamine his case on the basis that BE’s decision was affected by racism and conflicts of interest. After two grievance reviews ruled his case fair, Provost L. Rafael Reif concluded that he would not overturn the denial.

In December 2006, after the grievance reviews and Reif’s decision, Sherley sent an e-mail to MIT faculty members calling for support. The letter, titled “A plea for help to end racism at MIT,” detailed Sherley’s version of the events leading to his situation at the time.

In the letter, Sherley claimed to have received inadequate laboratory space because Robert A. Brown, School of Engineering dean at the time, said “he was not going to give lab space to a Black man.” Yet after the BE department gained significant laboratory space Douglas A. Lauffenburger, head of BE, did “nothing to rectify the situation,” giving “it all to White faculty members” despite his requests, Sherley said.

Also, while BE considered his case, a member of the MIT Corporation contacted Sherley about his race and his criticism of Brown, an improper act, Sherley said in the letter. Such an occurrence, along with Lauffenburger’s disregard for his requests for laboratory space, should be sufficient to overturn Lauffenburger’s denial, Sherley argued.

Yet more problems arose throughout Sherley’s case. One of Sherley’s internal letters of recommendation came from Lauffenburger’s wife, BE Professor Linda G. Griffith, with whom Sherley had openly hostile relations. Griffith, Sherley said, failed to appreciate his controversial research concerning adult stem cells. “They might tolerate and even celebrate such a challenge from a White faculty member, but never from one who is Black.”

Sherley said that Lauffenberger solely arbitrated his tenure case, and that conflict of interest issues seeped into his case because Griffith supplied one of Sherley’s recommendation letters.

At the conclusion of his letter, Sherley demanded that tenure be granted to him and that Reif resign. Otherwise, “If their wrongful deeds are not corrected by February 5, 2007, I will go on hunger strike outside the MIT Provost’s office … I will either see the Provost resign and my hard-earned tenure granted at MIT, or I will die defiantly right outside his office.”

Sherley’s hunger strike begins

Sherley began his hunger strike, which ultimately lasted 12 days, outside Reif’s office on Feb. 5, 2007. Surrounded by media, supporters, and those simply curious about the issue, Sherley appeared at peace, even optimistic, enthusiastically speaking to reporters about his plight.

“My motivation for this protest is not the fact that I have been denied an opportunity for tenure. It is because of the reason that I have been denied this opportunity … What I do now is not a rash reaction to disappointment, it is a well-reasoned self-sacrifice for change,” Sherley told The Tech several weeks before his strike.

Legal approaches would not suffice in attracting attention to the source of the problem, Sherley said. “I had to find some way to get people to stop and say there must be something really of great gravity going on here for someone to go to this step.”

Sherley stationed outside the provost’s office from 9 a.m. to noon every weekday to publicly protest. He had altered his stance, demanding that Reif receive “some form of censure” — Reif’s resignation was no longer necessary — while maintaining that tenure be granted to him and that MIT acknowledge racism as the determining factor in his case and those before him.

Shortly after Sherley’s hunger strike began, a letter signed by MIT faculty, including Institute Professor Noam Chomsky, circulated around campus urging the reexamination of Sherley’s case by a committee consisting of members from both inside and outside of MIT.

Conflict of interest and racial discrimination charges clash against the core of MIT values, therefore, “it is imperative that they be thoroughly pursued,” the letter said. It continued, detailing the provost’s letters to Sherley, arguing that the provost’s reasons for denying him tenure were not sufficient. “Racial attitudes, as is well known, are usually complicated and deeply nuanced.”

After 12 days, Sherley terminated his hunger strike for which he ingested only water, electrolytes, and vitamin supplements. None of his demands were met when he ended his strike, but Sherley said he terminated the strike believing that MIT would reassess his case with the aid of an external panel. MIT, however, said it made no such agreement.

MIT’s side of the story

In a January 2007 letter sent to the faculty, Reif delineated the two grievance reviews Sherley received. Sherley approved the initial lineup of committee members and was given the opportunity to review and modify the charges sent to the committee both times, Reif said in the letter.

The committee ruled Sherley’s tenure process adequate and fair, persuading him to not overturn Sherley’s tenure denial, a final decision, Reif said. He concluded the letter with the announcement that a committee would be organized “to undertake a comprehensive, rigorous and systematic study” of minority issues at MIT.

On the first day of Sherley’s strike, the BE senior faculty released a statement to the MIT community stating their assurance “that race did not play any role” in denying Sherley tenure.

Later, in March, the BE senior faculty circulated a more detailed e-mail explaining their decision. They refuted Sherley’s allegation that the decision to grant him tenure rested solely on the BE department head, explaining that Lauffenburger did not vote on the case and acted only as a moderator of discussion. The “decision not to carry Prof. Sherley’s case forward reflected the vote of the faculty,” they said in the e-mail.

Also, Sherley’s performance did not meet standards, they said. During his years at MIT, Sherley published only six peer-reviewed publications describing original research, two of which were based on work he had conducted in his previous position at the Fox Chase Cancer Center. “[T]he faculty assess … in particular, the impacts of peer-reviewed articles,” but his publication record did not meet BE standards, the BE senior faculty said.

The letter continued to explain that about two-thirds of Sherley’s $1.5 million pre-tenure fund was obtained through several grants for projects whose principal investigator was Griffith. Also, Sherley’s name was not listed in the original competing grant application.

CBI Head resigns, Sherley locked out

Just as awareness of Sherley’s charges began to fade, Frank L. Douglas, head of the MIT Center for Biomedical Innovation, announced his resignation in early June, attributing it to the “process and environment” surrounding Sherley’s case. Douglas, an African American, said MIT breached an agreement to continue discussions with Sherley about his charges after Sherley ended his hunger strike.

In the e-mail announcing his resignation, Douglas said, “I leave because I would neither be able to advise young Blacks about their prospects of flourishing in the current environment, nor about avenues available to affect [sic] change when agreements or promises are transgressed.” The issue for him, Douglas said, is not a matter of the accuracy of Sherley’s allegations.

Sherley’s deadline was approaching, yet no one’s stance had changed. Despite his determination to continue working, on June 30, the day of his deadline, Sherley was barred from his office with locked doors.

Shortly after Sherley left, news spread that an active MIT alumnus had announced his decision to withdraw from activities supporting MIT. Bernard Loyd ’83, an African American active in recruiting minorities to the Institute and a former MIT Corporation trustee, said MIT’s 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 his charges. MIT, however, interpreted its role as a mediator for Sherley’s exit, Loyd said.

Race Initiative will investigate minority recruitment

“We are working hard to accelerate our progress in recruiting and retaining underrepresented minority faculty,” MIT said in a statement released in response to Loyd’s withdrawal.

Early in the year, Reif had announced to the faculty, and later Hockfield to the entire MIT community, the launching of a study on minorities in academia, particularly the MIT environment. The study, called the Race Initiative, would be spearheaded by a committee of seven members, four of whom are underrepresented minorities, selected by the provost from each of the five schools.

A preliminary report released in late July stated that both quantitative and qualitative data would be gathered for a study on the underrepresented minority experience at MIT. Quantitative data would consist of “salary and salary merit increase data, rates of promotion, involvement in labs and centers,” and “interview and hiring processes by department and School.” Qualitative data would consist of mostly in-depth interviews with minority faculty.

The initiative may last one to two years, according to the report, because the committee was encouraged “to generate a deep and penetrating review of the issues at MIT.”

In January 2008, Chemical Engineering Professor Paula T. Hammond ’84, a member of the Race Initiative committee, said in an e-mail that the committee has collaborated with the Office of the Provost in addressing the “implementation of the short term recommendations from the report, many of which have now been implemented in some form.”

The committee has begun gathering data for the quantitative aspect of the study and a “research team has been assembled to execute the one-on-one interviews that will be a part of the qualitative study as described in our preliminary report,” Hammond said.

She said the past term has also included several meetings with “the minority faculty, the general faculty, faculty officers, the newly appointed Associate Provosts for Faculty Equity and other members of the MIT community to address aspects” such as long- and short-term approaches to increase underrepresented minority faculty recruitment.

Besides Hammond, the initative’s current members are Emery N. Brown of the School of Science; Leslie K. Norford of the School of Architecture and Planning; Christine Ortiz of the School of Engineering; Marcus A. Thompson of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences; and Lotte Bailyn of the Sloan School.

In September 2007, Professors Wesley L. Harris and Barbara H. Liskov were appointed to the position of associate provost for faculty equity. The position was created in September 2006, before Sherley’s protest.