Associate Professor James Sherley is the only African-American faculty member ever appointed in the Biological Engineering Department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Much of his research focuses on adult stem cells. Last year he received a $2.5 million Pioneer Award from the National Institutes of Health for his work on the production of adult stem cells. More controversially, he opposes research on embryonic stem cells insofar as this requires the destruction of human emryos.
In 2005, MIT denied Sherley's application for tenure. Sherley appealed the result without success, and is now embarking on a hunger strike to protest the decision. His primary claim is not that the decision was political, but that it was racially biased and tainted by a conflict of interest among those involved in the tenure process.
A conservative activist group has rallied to Sherley's defense. At the same time, a number of MIT professors from other departments, including the anything-but-conservative Noam Chomsky, have signed a letters detailing alleged irregularities and other problems with the review of Sherley's tenure application. If the allegations are true, some of the irregularities and conflicts of interest are quite troubling. The allegations also suggest that MIT's efforts to recruit African-American faculty have been unserious and tokenistic. I should stress, however, that I do not know whether the allegations are true and whether there is more to the story. Those involved in the tenure review issued this statement claiming Sherley was treated fairly and denying race played any role in the decision. From the news accoutns I've seen, it seems that MIT is standing firm.