EEOC Rejects Racial Bias Claim Against MIT

Agency cites procedural reasons in dismissing arguments of researcher who went on hunger strike to protest tenure denial, but says he would have lost on merits as well.
March 21, 2008

James L. Sherley attracted nationwide attention last year with a hunger strike to protest his tenure denial by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Sherley, who is black, accused MIT of racial discrimination -- a charge the institute denied. While Sherley ended his hunger strike after 12 days, he continued to maintain that he was the victim of bias and filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Now the EEOC has ruled that Sherley does not have a valid claim, and while the ruling is procedural, the EEOC went on to say that he would have been unlikely to have had a case on the merits, either.

Sherley gave the various EEOC rulings, and his responses to them, to The Tech, MIT's student newspaper, which posted the documents on its Web site. Sherley and MIT both declined to comment.

The basic reason cited by the EEOC for rejecting Sherley's claims is that he filed them too late. The EEOC noted that federal laws require complaints with the agency to be made within 300 days of the act that someone says caused illegal harm. Sherley maintains that the relevant date to start counting the clock was June 30, 2007, when MIT formally told Sherley he was no longer an employee and locked him out of what had been his office. But the EEOC, citing a 1980 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, said that in a tenure denial case, the alleged wrong takes place on the date that the rejected professor is told of the denial -- in this case June 13, 2005.

The EEOC rejects many claims on procedural grounds, but the agency also took the unusual step in this case of stating that MIT had presented justifications for its treatment of Sherley that would have been strong even without the procedural issue. Without going into detail, the EEOC letter to Sherley on the case said: "Assuming the issues you raised in your charge were timely filed with the EEOC, it is worth noting that respondent articulated bona-fide, legitimate and non-discriminatory reasons for its actions that may have been unfair to you but they were not causally connected or directly related to your partition and opposition in a legally protected activity that is enforced by the EEOC."

Sherley has responded to the EEOC by asking various state and federal officials to investigate it. In a letter, he blasted the statute of limitations finding as unfair and said that the agency shouldn't have accepted MIT's arguments on his tenure bid. Wrote Sherley: "Actions like yours erode the integrity of the EEOC."


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