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Tenure Denial at MIT Leads to Hunger Strike:

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.

DavidBernstein (mail):
Interesting, from the letter signed by Chomsky:

In July 1998, Prof. Sherley was hired into a faculty slot reserved for under-represented minorities as established by a special Provost’s initiative to promote minority recruitment. Such a slot came with certain restrictions on laboratory space: any minority recruited in such a line would have to be given space that is already available from the hiring unit---not additional space by the Provost. As he was being recruited, Prof. Sherley was never told that he would be hired into a special-initiative minority-faculty slot or that such a slot came with restrictions on how space would be allocated to him. This was confirmed in exchanges both with Prof. Sherley and with senior BE faculty involved in his recruitment and hiring. These space restrictions have continued to plague Prof. Sherley throughout his career at MIT. We believe that these facts concerning Prof. Sherley’s recruitment and lab space raise a variety of questions, including questions about Prof. Sherley’s fair treatment as a new recruit and a junior faculty member, and questions about the reliability of the grievance committee’s findings vis-à-vis the size of Prof. Sherley’s independent laboratory space and how much control he could actually exert over this space.
2.8.2007 9:22am
Foe of Legal Inequality:
Wow! I am truly shocked that an African-American would be denied tenure in this day and age of affirmative discrimination! Maybe the enemies of racial privileges and preferences are succeeding. Perhaps, one day, there will be equality under the law and it will be illegal for an institution that receives taxpayer funding to take into account a person's race.
2.8.2007 9:30am
postroad (mail) (www):
Since there is as yet no full disclosure as to reasons for denying tenure, why this stuff? It ought also to be noted that with the chaning times, now how much money a prof brings to his instituion is also an important consideration for granting tenure--por humanities people!
2.8.2007 9:51am
Zoe1 (mail):
Well, if Noam Chomsky signed the letter, then it *must* be true.
2.8.2007 9:54am
Jon Rowe (mail) (www):
One thing I learned from the Dan Drezer denial at Chicago about tenure at the Ivy League is just how normal or ordinary it is for a good professor to be denied tenure. Where I work (a community college) and at most non-Ivy colleges, it's presumed that if you do what they hired you to do, you will get tenure. At the Ivys (except for the law schools), it's presumed that you won't get tenure, that you have to show that you are really special. A tenure denial thus says nothing negative about an Ivy professor who doesn't get it; rather he/she is expected to find their place among the non-Ivy schools like Drezner at Tufts, still an excellent college.
2.8.2007 10:03am
Angus:
His award was in 2006, more than a year after he was denied tenure. I don't see how it figures into the equation. Tenure decisions have to be based on what the person has achieved at the time, not on unknown future accomplishments. If someone gets denied tenure in 2007, but publishes an award-winning book in 2040, should the school be forced to hire the person back with tenure?

Anyways, tenure denial at elite institutions is routine. MIT likes to compare itself to the Ivies. In Ivy League humanities departments, I'd estimate that only 1 in 50 junior professors will receive tenure, and only if they are one of top 5 or so in their field.
2.8.2007 10:11am
Shangui (mail):
One thing I learned from the Dan Drezer denial at Chicago about tenure at the Ivy League is just how normal or ordinary it is for a good professor to be denied tenure.

Chicago is great school. It is not, however, an Ivy League school. And Tufts is a university.

But the overall point, that being denied tenure at Ivy League schools (and Chicago, Stanford, MIT, etc.) is very much the norm and not necessarily a damning comment on one's work, is certainly correct.
2.8.2007 10:13am
Roger:
Note that the statement you linked in support of the tenure denial was signed by his colleagues in the Biological Engineering Division, not by "[t]hose involved in the tenure review". Note also that the Biological Engineering Division is brand new, so the fact that he's the first African-American professor there isn't that bizarre.
2.8.2007 10:51am
AppSocRes (mail):
It's interesting that the MSM accounts of this story that I read all left out the detail of Prof. Sherley's opposition to embryonic stem cell research. Given the desperation of first-rank academic institutions like MIT to be perceived as supporting racial diversity of faculty and Professor Sherley's obviously stellar academic credentials ( a far less promising feminist termagant in a closely-related MIT department recently got tenure by playing the sex card) it would not surprise me if the politics of stem cell research trumped the politics of affirmative action in this particular instance. I was actually puzzled when I read the MSM accounts of this situation as to why Sherley was denied tenure. His position on stem cell research makes things a lot clearer.
2.8.2007 10:54am
John (mail):
I was stunned by the hunger strike. Is that for real? Is this guy a grownup?
2.8.2007 10:59am
Steve:
it would not surprise me if the politics of stem cell research trumped the politics of affirmative action in this particular instance.

I'm not in academia, so the intricacies of tenure applications are a black box to me. But it strikes me as a common fallacy that people assume the basis for the decision must have been one of the two or three data points we're actually aware of. It fits a convenient narrative, but to me it seems equally likely that one of his published works was inadequately footnoted, or whatever crap a tenure committee typically considers.
2.8.2007 11:09am
Shangui (mail):
I was stunned by the hunger strike. Is that for real? Is this guy a grownup?

At at 5' 8" and over 250, it's going to be a long strike.

AppSocRes, the article I read last week (which was definitely on some MSM site), did indeed mention his opposition to the use of embryonic stem cells. Also, if this were so obviously the real reason, and Sherley does indeed feel strongly about this issue, don't you think he would actual claim it's a reason? It seems that would get a lot more cred. with the pro-life groups with whom he agrees on this issue than the race claim would.
2.8.2007 11:10am
JB:
David Bernstein's comment is very interesting. So MIT has (a) an affirmative-action professor hiring system, that (b) comes with restrictions that regular hires don't suffer from, (c) that seem to be imposed out of some desire to not give these hires "special treatment."

That's one screwed-up program.
2.8.2007 11:20am
Barry P. (mail):
Sherley's response to the denial of tenure leads me to believe that the tenure committee may have made the correct decision.
2.8.2007 11:21am
Bored Lawyer:

David Bernstein's comment is very interesting. So MIT has (a) an affirmative-action professor hiring system, that (b) comes with restrictions that regular hires don't suffer from, (c) that seem to be imposed out of some desire to not give these hires "special treatment."

That's one screwed-up program.


Indeed. Manages to discriminate against whites and blacks at the same time. Guess it takes Ivy League level thought to come up with that.
2.8.2007 11:45am
xxx:
hunger strike? This guy is looney toons. grounds for dismissal right there. fire his crazy ass.
2.8.2007 12:13pm
Splunge (mail):
When I interviewed at MIT they said they tenured about 50% of their hires, if I recall correctly.

Bernstein's comment is ignorant, and Chomsky's (or the letter writers') is disingenuous. Space is at an extraordinary premium at most research universities, and particularly at MIT, which in its urban setting (and with the Stalinist Cambridge City Council on its back) has a very hard time expanding.

If the provost is going to get a chance to inflict someone on a particular department for the good of the whole university (i.e. for AA/diversity reasons), it's totally reasonable for the department to demand that the provost not also be able to impose additional demands for space on the poor buggers, i.e. the guy hired for the slot has to fit into the space already available. The fact that this doesn't apply to regular hires just says that if you want to take advantage of the huge boost of essentially a non-competitive hire (your black competition being nearly nonexistent), then, gee, you may not get some of the other boosts a department uses to help young folks out.

And poor Professor Sherley wasn't told that other young professors got slightly different deals? Oh cry me a river. The things you aren't told when you're hired onto a faculty that really matter -- that you have to figure out by yourself -- would fill a thick book.

And as for the stem-cell thing...I doubt it, very much. The #1, #2, #3 et cetera goal of the MIT faculty is fame and fortune in the scientific world. That means being published in Nature, Nobel Prizes, giant grants year after year, yadda yadda. Do they give a hoot about your personal politics? Oh maybe. It's probably on the list of goals, maybe around #166 or so. Granted, if you've got obnoxious (center to right) politics it's one more reason to boot you out, if you haven't performed, but they would tenure Ann Coulter and Michael Moore if either brought in the research bux and put out the publications. Nothing trumps avocational politics like handsome piles of cash and glittery awards.
2.8.2007 12:17pm
JohnAnnArbor (www):
Tenure is such a silly process. I remember when a UMich professor in a mid-sized department was denied tenure. The students loved him, and well over half of the department's undergrad majors signed a letter in protest and asking for an explanation. The chair of the department was mystified; his opinion was, where did the dirtbag STUDENTS get the idea that they have an opinion that should count for anything?
2.8.2007 12:27pm
Kevin Lynch (mail):
Splunge said:
Do they give a hoot about your personal politics? Oh maybe. It's probably on the list of goals, maybe around #166 or so.

I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss the power of petty politics in academia ... I've met faculty who harbor vicious grudges and work to undermine colleagues to the detriment of their departments over things much more petty than embryonic stem cell research. The politics inside the ivory tower can make middle school politics look sane by comparison...
2.8.2007 12:27pm
JB:
Splunge: No doubt (2) is reasonable to impose, given (1). But it makes (1) kind of a booby prize, which raises the question of why have any kind of affirmative action hire in the first place?

If I were pro-affirmative action, I'd be upset with MIT for having its affirmative action hire being so neutered. If I were anti-affirmative action, I'd be upset with them for creating such a neutered position for any race.
2.8.2007 12:28pm
Bored Lawyer:

If the provost is going to get a chance to inflict someone on a particular department for the good of the whole university (i.e. for AA/diversity reasons), it's totally reasonable for the department to demand that the provost not also be able to impose additional demands for space on the poor buggers, i.e. the guy hired for the slot has to fit into the space already available. The fact that this doesn't apply to regular hires just says that if you want to take advantage of the huge boost of essentially a non-competitive hire (your black competition being nearly nonexistent), then, gee, you may not get some of the other boosts a department uses to help young folks out.


Splunge may not have meant it, but it seems to me that a more searing indictment of affirmative action would be hard to think up.

So now we have special faculty slots reserved only for minorities -- whites need not apply.

But then, because persons hired under these special slots are considered to have been "inflicted" upon the department by the University Provost, the only get inferior space accomodations and resources for their research.

This racial spoils system seems designed to create resentment all around.
2.8.2007 12:34pm
Fub:
Roger wrote:
Note also that the Biological Engineering Division is brand new, so the fact that he's the first African-American professor there isn't that bizarre.
Some specifics gleaned from musty tomes and the intarweb: It appears that new Course XX, and the Biological Engineering department which offers it, was formally inaugurated in 1998, the same year Prof. Sherley was hired. The BE department was apparently formed to supersede the old Food Technology and Biochemical Engineering department and the old Course XX associated with it, which were originally formed in 1946 and had become dormant for a period after 1963.

So, not only was Prof. Sherley "the only African-American faculty member ever appointed in the Biological Engineering Department", he was also among the earliest junior faculty members hired into that department from outside after it was formed.

None of this bears directly on any allegation of prejudicial treatment. It just provides some particulars of the larger organizational context in which the events occurred. MIT is probably more active in forming new departments, or rebadging and reorganizing older departments for a new mission, than many universities are.
2.8.2007 12:43pm
Shake-N-Bake:
rebadging and reorganizing older departments for a new mission

Can't wait for the Chemical Engineering department to be rebranded the "Happy Fun Superterrific Liquids Engineering Department"
2.8.2007 12:57pm
Bill Poser (mail) (www):
I think there's some confusion here of the Department's obligations and the Institute's. It is not unreasonable for the Department to insist that the addition of a faculty member for the greater good not impinge on the space allocations of the existing faculty. That does not, however, reduce the obligations of the Institute to that faculty member. If the administration agrees not to cut into the department's space, it ought to come up with whatever is appropriate for the new faculty member from other resources. It's true that there are lots of things that junior faculty are not told, but cheating them of the basic resources needed to do their jobs is both a false economy and grossly unfair to them. The consequences can be very serious (I know - when I took my first faculty position I was lied to about laboratory space and funding), and this is not the sort of general professional lore they can be expected to pick up from their teachers, gossip at conferences, and so forth.
2.8.2007 1:18pm
DavidBernstein (mail):
Note, I didn't make a comment, I just posted directly from the Chomsky letter.
2.8.2007 1:44pm
elChato (mail):
I have no idea on the merits of his complaint, though I am skeptical that friends of the Klan are running MIT tenure review. I do think though that a guy who's put 250lbs on a 5'8 frame, yet is counting on his ability to do without food for an extended period to prove his point, has picked the wrong battleground.
2.8.2007 2:10pm
NRWO:
His pub record on PubMed can be found here:

PubMed (click on Sherley JL)

When I review files for promotion to Associate Prof. with tenure (neuroscience and brain imaging at a medically oriented research university), I typically look at the following items, roughly ranked in order of importance (beginning with most important):

Outside reviewers’ letters
Pub quality (Nature, Science, PNAS, a plus)
Grants (amount, quality, type; NIH R01 a plus)
Impact ratings for individual pubs
Impact ratings for journals published in
Pub counts

I also consider the candidates’ contribution to pubs on multiple authorship articles.

It’s really hard to make a judgment about the professor without having the committee report, the outside reviewers’ letters, and more detailed information. Having said that, the candidate’s pub record seems very good, but not off the charts. The candidate’s articles are mostly published in specialty journals, with a couple of exceptions (see Nature piece), which, based on their length, could be commentaries rather than original research.

The guy’s pub record suggests he’s a garden variety researcher at a research university: solid and productive, not world class. Incidentally, he’s not on Web of Science’s Highly Cited list.
2.8.2007 2:46pm
Cornellian (mail):
The hunger strike just proved the faculty made the right decision in denying him tenure.
2.8.2007 3:32pm
dearieme:
What exactly is the point of a scheme where you appoint someone who isn't strong enough to get a faculty position in open competition and then find, unastonishingly, that he's not strong enough to be tenured? It's so loopy that I have some sympathy for the guy. He's bound to assume that if he does a decent - even if non-stellar - job, he'll be tenured. Especially if he carried a handicap on bench space. Bonkers - the whole thing is bonkers.
2.8.2007 4:54pm
Shannon Love (mail) (www):

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.


It would be more interesting if Sherly was undermine by fellow scientist in order to protect their own research. Nothing says you've arrived like terrified rivals stabbing you in the back.

If MIT did hire him without telling him he was only occupying a token position for PR purposes, I would say at the least he has grounds for a major lawsuit. If MIT knew from the outset that he would not get equivalent resources and that he had a slim likelihood of getting tenure, then they lured him into wasting years of his life that he could have spent doing better supported research elsewhere and having a much better chance of getting tenure. In short, they defrauded him.
2.8.2007 5:19pm
No one:
I would be very skeptical of the "facts" presented in the Chomsky letter. They are presented with a clear agenda in mind and without knowing how MIT allocates it's rescources (lab space, faculty salaries, etc.), I wouldn't take them at face value.

Bill Poser touches on the resource issue above (i.e., the difference between getting lab space and getting the professor's salary paid). The Chomsky letter confuses the two to makes it sound like a sinister plot to set a minority up to fail. In reality, it' likely just a budgetary issue. The two main resources at issue are (1) the Prof's salary and (2)the lab space. The deparment wants a new professor, but doesn't have he budget. The Provost says,"Well, I have money set aside to promote minority hires, so I can pay the salary if the department comes up with the lab space." In other words, it's a win-win for the department -- it doesn't have to fund the new position (which it might not have in its budget) and the Provost doesn't have to worry about finding the lab space. My understanding is that these are negotiable terms regardless of how the professor comes through the door.

Further, my understanding of the facts is that Prof. Sherley in fact did not lack lab space. In other words, there might have been this "restriction" that the department agreed to in order to bring him on, but I have seen nothing credible to suggest that he wasn't actually given adequate lab space.

Another issue with the Chomsky letter is the motivation of the authors. Most of us can guess Chomsky's main motivation (get publicity for himself), howeve, I've heard that the true author of the letter is the second professor listed -- Michel DeGraff -- who initially received a negative tenure decision from MIT, but gained tenure through similar political manuevering. Maybe he has an ax to grind? One major difference between his case and Sherley's, however, is that Prof. DeGraff is in linguistics dept. whereas Prof. Sherley is in Engineering, where I believe the peer-reviewed publication standards and research level requirements for tenure are a bit higher.
2.8.2007 6:47pm
vic:
before we go durther down this priomrose path- will some explain to my why we are still stuck with this archaic institution of tenure. Noone benefits from it but the beneficiaries - the tenured faculty. It is the antithesis of accountability and productivity. Reminds me of the priviledges of the feudal aristocravy- and why should it not - most university departments run like feudal fiefdoms anyway.
2.8.2007 7:55pm
advisory opinion:
The ostensible reason is that tenure protects from the buffeting winds of politics and academic fashion, not that it doesn't also entrench it.
2.8.2007 8:00pm
Cornellian (mail):
before we go durther down this priomrose path- will some explain to my why we are still stuck with this archaic institution of tenure.

Because, in the case of private universities, those organizations are free to do as they wish and because no one is forced to attend an institution that employs a tenure system.
2.8.2007 8:39pm
wb (mail):
In the mailings to the MIT faculty from Prof. Sherley and from the University I've seen no compelling arguments put forth by either party. The Prof. claims the reasons were racial, but offers no clear evidence. He claims conflict of interest on the basis of a matter than many would not feel bound to recuse themselves. For the University's part, it claims the process was fair and consistent with policies. It further claims confidentiality of the process- i.e., trust us. Given that denial of tenure is not unusual even for excellent junior faculty, I do not see that outsiders have sufficient evidence to come to any rationally based conclusion in either direction. Prof. Sherley would do well to stop talking about "principle" and accept another job offer.
2.8.2007 9:59pm
eeyn524:
before we go durther down this priomrose path- will some explain to my why we are still stuck with this archaic institution of tenure.

What Cornellian said, plus:

(1) State universities need it to be competitive with private universities;

(2) In fields like medicine, business, law, etc where people can get good jobs outside academics, if you didn't have tenure you'd have to pay the market rate. As it is now, faculty generally take a pay cut with respect to outside, and tenure is one of the compensating factors;

(3) Tenure doesn't mean you can't be fired. What it does is change your contract from at-will to for-cause.
2.8.2007 11:24pm
Pinko Punko (mail) (www):
Hi guys, this is a really tough situation. The only thing I can say is that the publication is marginal for what you would expect for MIT, where tenure is quite tough. Leaving aside any other aspects where there is no way to speculate towards any good, Dr. Sherley's arguments in public forums, such as a Boston Glope Op-Ed from last year, regarding adult and embryonic stem cells put forth somewhat disingenuous arguments about the therapeutic potential of the two. Dr. Sherley's work regards adult stem cells and he believes working on embryonic stem cells to be the destruction of human beings based on his religious principles. This puts him in a difficult field and also possibly biases his ability to be critical about adult stem cells, and their drawbacks.
2.8.2007 11:35pm
dick thompson (mail):
I would suggest he follow the lead of the female scientist who got the vapors over a comment by the president of Harvard leading to his dismissal. If it worked for her, it should work for him as well. Otherwise it would be gender discrimination.
2.10.2007 12:29am