Hungry for Answers

Corn Chex and a bagel might be an odd choice for a final meal, but that's the last thing MIT professor James Sherley intends to eat before embarking on a hunger strike today outside the offices of MIT President Susan Hockfield and Provost Rafael Reif.

"It's not a hunger strike for tenure," Sherley said. "It's about the reasons I didn't get tenure and the reason is…is that people are practicing racism. My physician says I can probably last about three weeks, so I'm going to keep going as long as I'm able."

Sherley, an associate professor of biological engineering, has been at MIT since 1998. He went to Harvard for his undergraduate degree and received both his Ph.D. and M.D. from Johns Hopkins. During his years at MIT, he has won a host of accolades, including a $2.5 million grant from the National Institute of Health.

Nevertheless, Sherley learned in 2005 that he would not be granted tenure and he has been fighting the decision ever since. Rather than file a lawsuit, Sherley has opted to starve himself. "People who are just unhappy and disgruntled don't do this. This is about principle."

Sherley points to a host of troubling issues in his case. He claims lab space was withheld from him; colleagues were advised not to collaborate with him; and that his tenure review and grievance process have been riddled with conflicts of interest.

In Sherley's view, this second-class treatment would never have been directed at a white colleague.

And then there's his position on embryonic stem cell research. Sherley works with adult stem cells, but he has been quite vocal about his opposition to embryonic stem cell research, a method he considers both immoral and scientifically unsound. It's a position that Sherley said is "unpopular" at MIT.

Over 200 people have signed a petition on Sherley's behalf, including Laura Jacox, one of his students. "His case was handled unfairly regardless of the reason," Jacox said. "A lot of the evidence has not been exposed."

Most recently, a group of sympathetic faculty, including MIT luminary Noam Chomsky, released a six-page letter asking MIT officials to review the "grievance process" in Sherley's case.

One longtime faculty member -- who asked for anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the subject -- said that race is definitely an issue at MIT.

"People don't call you 'n--ger,' it's not overt, but if you look at the patterns of hiring and retention it's pretty clear racism is a factor here."

As for Sherley's case in particular, this professor said, "one thing is clear, issues of race were involved from his hiring, to the space, to how he was mentored."

But not everyone at MIT sees things as being quite so black and white. Professor Bill Thilly has been at MIT since 1963. He had a hand in recruiting Sherley to MIT and describes himself as a friend. "In my now 40-some years at MIT, I have not lacked for observing blatant, racist remarks of students, alumni and in some cases faculty. But I have not observed any such behavior in regards to his (Sherley's) case."

MIT officials are convinced that Sherley got a fair hearing not only in the original tenure review, but in "three subsequent reviews of the process."

Still, no one at the university is looking forward to the prospect of a faculty member starving himself on the president's doorstep. MIT Chancellor Phil Clay said, "professor Sherley is entitled to protest the denial of tenure, but the method is of great concern to us. He intends to do harm to himself. I'm very unhappy about it."

MIT officials are quick to point out that even among the best and the brightest, 60 percent of associate professors at MIT do not get tenure. Clay said, "I think the process is fair to minority candidates. I do not dismiss that race is a complicating factor, but I do believe that we have sufficient safeguards in reviewing the process."

Officials would not provide figures that compare the number of minority candidates who do get tenure versus the number of nonminority candidates.

Perhaps not so coincidentally, last Friday Hockfield announced plans to "undertake a comprehensive, rigorous and systematic study of the impact of race on the hiring, advancement and experience of minority faculty at the Institute."

Chancellor Clay, however, insisted that trying to attract and nourish minority faculty is nothing new at MIT. "Going back to the late '70s, we have been trying to improve our process. President Hockfield understands that we need to do outreach and encourage talent from all sources…and do all we can to ensure faculty members from minority groups that MIT will give them not only a fair process but a favorable environment for growth."

James Sherley admits that it has been hard explaining all of this to his two young daughters. "The hunger strike was upsetting to them. I told them how important it is that we speak the truth. And that we stand up when something wrong happens to us or other people -- we need to do something. I told them this doesn't mean I don't love them. This means I love them immensely."