Hunger Strike Could Return to MIT

Professor says he will resume protest -- to death if need be -- if he doesn't receive tenure, but some faculty defend denial.
April 30, 2007

Last year, James Sherley vowed that he would go on a hunger strike -- to death if need be -- if the Massachusetts Institute of Technology didn't award him tenure. MIT didn't cave and Sherley went on a hunger strike in February, with his 12-day fast attracting widespread attention, much of it critical of MIT.

In the end Sherley agreed to end his hunger strike -- with the professor and MIT jointly issuing conciliatory statements. On Friday, however, Sherley announced that he considers that MIT has not lived up to its commitments, and he announced plans (but no timetable) to resume his hunger strike and to either win tenure or die trying. While MIT officials could not be reached for comment, Sherley's move comes following a period, in the wake of the first hunger strike, in which more faculty members have spoken out in defense of the tenure denial.

Sherley's case is hard to classify. He is black and works in a field -- biomedical engineering -- in which there are relatively few black scholars. Sherley has cited racial discrimination as one reason he was rejected for tenure, and race has clearly become an issue with his dispute. Many of his defenders (including such prominent MIT figures as Noam Chomsky) have cited race as key to understanding the dispute. MIT announced during his first hunger strike that it plans to review the treatment of minority faculty members.

But Sherley's views have also been controversial. He is outspoken in criticizing stem cell research -- a stance that continues to earn him praise from anti-abortion groups and skepticism from many scientists.

In his statement and in letters to MIT officials released Friday, Sherley said that at the time he ended the hunger strike, MIT pledged to either grant him tenure or to appoint an independent panel to review his claims about his tenure case. According to Sherley, he agreed to leave MIT without protest if that independent review found his claims to be without merit. Now, according to Sherley, MIT will not talk about any process that might lead to his receiving tenure and is trying to schedule discussions on how he would leave the institute.

If necessary, he said in a statement, he said he will return to "sacrificing his own life by hunger strike if that is what it will take to improve the future for minority scientists in the U.S. academy."

MIT's public statements about its talks with Sherley prior to his ending his first hunger strike are vague and do not contain the explicit promise Sherley referenced Friday. The MIT statement said: "Professor Sherley's protest has focused attention on the effects that race may play in the hiring, advancement and experience of under-represented minority faculty, and on ensuring that our grievance processes are comprehensive, fair and timely. MIT is fully committed to addressing these issues and will continue to work toward resolution of our differences with Professor Sherley."

Via e-mail, Sherley said that he and his advocates received verbal pledges on the review of his tenure case. "Could any rational person really believe that I would end my hunger strike without a possibility for justice, which in this case means tenure?" he said.

Sherley is also trying to link his case to that of Marilee Jones, the MIT dean of admissions who resigned last week after the university confirmed that she had claimed academic degrees she never earned. "MIT's leadership could have forgiven her for an error made long ago in her youth. An administration of greater quality and integrity would have accepted her apology and fostered similar forgiveness from the MIT community, which is ready to re-embrace Dean Jones in light of the many gifts she has given to MIT and the nation over 28 years of dedicated, brilliant service to college applicants and students," wrote Sherley. "But no, this administration chose instead to hold her up in infamy, to oust her, while exploiting her moment of shame to proclaim, in an act of perfidy, their self-professed integrity."

While MIT has not commented on the specifics of the Sherley case -- except to say that he was evaluated fairly and without regard to his race -- the last month has seen a more public defense of the tenure denial.

A group of senior faculty members in biological engineering released a joint letter to respond to "public misstatements" about the case. The letter says that conflicts of interest and examples of bias cited by Sherley are not true, and goes on to question his research productivity. The letter charges that only half of his papers submitted for tenure review were for work on which he was the lead author, that outside letters of review were not enthusiastic about his work, and that figures Sherley has cited to show his ability to win research grants included funds for projects on which he played a supporting role and others were the principal investigators.

The letter, which is unusually detailed for faculty members to release on a tenure case, closes by saying that Sherley's tenure case was handled "with the utmost fairness in a process with the greatest integrity, as free as humanly possible from bias and racism."


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