February 22, 2007 — Vol. 42, No. 28
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Sherley ends hunger strike, but no offer of tenure

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is reviewing its faculty hiring and promotion practices after a black professor protested he was denied tenure because of his race.

James L. Sherley, a professor of biological engineering who conducts research on human stem cells, went as far as launching a hunger strike to call public attention to what he has described as racial considerations and procedural irregularities in the 2005 decision to deny him tenure.

But MIT faculty reviewed the decision three times and concluded he was treated fairly.

Sherley’s protest leveled a charge of racism not only at MIT, but at historically white colleges in general.

“People say to me, ‘Well, why don’t you just go to another university?’” he said. “And I say, ‘Which one? Which one will I go to where I won’t encounter this problem?’”

Sherley, 49, last week ended his hunger strike on its 12th day, he said, “in celebration of the attention that has been brought to bear on issues of equity, diversity and justice at MIT and in higher education.” He had lost 20 pounds taking only water and vitamins during the fast.

His statement, and one issued by MIT, indicated unspecified talks are underway between the two parties. Sherley, whose appointment ends in June, referred to them as “negotiations,” while an MIT official called them “discussions.”

Provost L. Rafael Reif last month announced a broad review of MIT’s personnel policies.

Reif told the MIT faculty that he and President Susan Hockfield are “deeply committed to removing barriers that may exist for underrepresented minority faculty members.”

Chancellor Phillip Clay, an African American who is MIT’s third-ranking administrator, said the decision to conduct that review in no way corroborated Sherley’s charges of racism.

“We’ve had an ongoing effort to recruit minority faculty. The focus is not on Professor Sherley, but our overall efforts to promote diversity,” Clay said. “At the end of the day, we’re not perfect. We’re trying to make improvements.”

As at elite colleges across the country, that recruitment has proceeded slowly.

MIT has 54 professors of all ranks who are African American, Latino or Native American, representing 5.4 percent of the faculty. There are 27 underrepresented minorities out of 740 professors with tenure, or 3.6 percent. In the early 1980s, 1.8 percent of all MIT professors were African American.

Sherley, an associate professor who has a medical degree and a doctorate in molecular biology from Johns Hopkins University, said that after four decades of affirmative action on college campuses, enough minorities have received graduate training at elite schools that there should be more on their faculties.

“It’s not a problem with preparation, training [or] ability,” he said. “I’m not saying the entire phenomenon is explained by racism. What I am saying is if you take the racism out of the equation, you’ll see the numbers go up.”

Sherley said he was hired in 1998 into a teaching slot targeted for a minority, a slot that, unlike others, did not come with dedicated lab space — an important resource for scientists whose research plays a significant role in their chances of winning tenure. Despite having to share most of his lab space with a senior faculty member, Sherley maintains he and his assistants have done research on adult stem cells that merited his promotion to a tenured professor.

Last year, he was one of 13 professors in the country to receive a Pioneer Award from the National Institutes of Health, given in the name of the NIH’s director to scientists who are taking “highly innovative approaches that have the potential for producing an unusually high impact.”

Clay said the NIH award did not contradict the adverse decision on tenure.

“Tenure is based on having achieved impact, not having the potential to have an impact,” he said.

NIH’s citation did recognize Sherley’s laboratory for advances that scientists have used “to address major research problems limiting the development of adult stem cells for biomedicine.”

Stem cells made from human embryos, not the adult cells that Sherley uses in his research, have been the subject of political and moral controversy. The professor has been outspoken in describing embryonic stem cells as “living human beings” and opposing their destruction in research designed to find treatments for chronic diseases such as diabetes and multiple sclerosis.

At least one other African American studies adult stem cells — Treena Livingston Arinzeh, a tenured professor of biomedical engineering at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Unlike Sherley, she supports research on embryonic stem cells.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Prof. James Sherley has ended the hunger strike he began to protest the university’s decision to deny him tenure. The award-winning scientist stopped his fast in its 12th day “in celebration of the attention brought to bear on issues of equity, diversity and justice.” (AP photo/Chitose Suzuki)

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