Professor's Hunger Strike Ultimatum

December 27, 2006

A professor who was denied tenure at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has vowed to start a hunger strike on February 5 outside the 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," James L. Sherley, who teaches biological engineering, wrote in a letter to colleagues that he provided to Inside Higher Ed. While not commenting directly on Sherley's claims, MIT issued a statement that he has been treated fairly.

Sherley, who is black, says that he is a victim of racial discrimination. He has been a controversial figure at MIT, however, not over issues of race, but of the science of stem cells. Sherley does work on adult stem cells, but is very critical of studies with embryonic stem cells.

In the last two years -- while his tenure appeals were going through various reviews -- Sherley won a number of awards. In September, the National Institutes of Health gave him a Pioneer Award, a $2.5 million grant for "highly innovative research." He was among 13 scientists nationally, and 2 at MIT, to win the honor. That same month, he was named a 2006 Trailblazer -- an award from Science Spectrum magazine for top minority scientists. Last year, MIT named him one of three winners of Martin Luther King Leadership Awards. An MIT announcement said that Sherley "was nominated by students and colleagues who cited his enthusiastic commitment to education and science and his exemplary work as a scientist, teacher and laboratory head who has fostered an inclusive and supportive environment."

Last week, Sherley was informed by L. Rafael Reif that there would be no further reconsideration of his case, and that he would have to leave MIT early next year. It was in response to that communication that Sherley started sending a four-page letter to professors in which he vowed to start his hunger strike.

In the letter, he makes numerous charges, some of which have been denied by those accused and others of which aren't easily verified. For example, he says that he "learned" that Robert A. Brown was responsible for his lack of lab space while he was on the tenure track. Brown, now the president of Boston University, was engineering dean and provost at MIT for much of the time Sherley was seeking tenure. According to Sherley's letter, he heard that Brown said he did not want space going to a black man. (Through a spokesman, Brown told The Boston Globe that the allegation was untrue.)

Another example Sherley gave was that a black faculty member in a research area unrelated to his was asked to sign off on his tenure denial. "Calling on someone to condone a wrongful act because they are of the same race as the injured party is a racist act," Sherley wrote to his colleagues.

Some of the issues raised in the letter relate to both research ideas and race. Sherley wrote that he was opposed for tenure by professors for whom his research "poses an intellectually disruptive threat," adding that these researchers "might tolerate and even celebrate such a challenge from a white faculty member, but never from one who is black."

While he does not elaborate, Sherley is in the distinct minority among scientists who work with stem cells in opposing work with embryonic stem cells. Many MIT scientists have been among those pushing for more stem cell research, saying that these studies hold great promise for breakthroughs in fighting many diseases and conditions.

In an interview with a Web site critical of embryonic stem cell research, Sherley said that the embryos from which stem cells have come should be considered living human beings and that scientists have overpromised what stem cell research can do. He also linked stem cell research to human cloning.

"In the current unsettled moral and ethical climate around human embryo research, in the minds of many scientists, being first to clone human embryos guarantees a Nobel Prize and bronze statues in their likeness," he said. "When such motivation for fame and fortune is combined with the fragmentary, variable, and overall uncertain regulatory environment surrounding human embryo research, the risk for ethical misconduct is high and pervasive."

While Sherley has not framed his tenure dispute as being about abortion, anti-abortion groups are monitoring the case with sympathetic coverage of his work and claims against MIT.

As for MIT, its statement says: "MIT has a well-established procedure for reviewing and granting tenure to faculty. This process is thorough and extensive, and we are confident it was followed with integrity in this case."

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