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Monday, January 29, 2007

Dueling emails in MIT stem cell scientist's tenure case

MIT provost L. Rafael Reif sent a campus-wide e-mail today defending the school's treatment of James L. Sherley, the African-American stem cell scientist who has vowed to go on a hunger strike Feb. 5 unless the university says he was denied tenure because of racism.

Confidential tenure discussions cannot be disclosed, Reif wrote, but he itemized three faculty reviews of the 2005 decision not to consider Sherley for tenure. Based on those reviews, Reif wrote, "I decided not to overturn the decision in the tenure case. This action is final."

Sherley has been controversial because he opposes using embryonic stem cells in research, believing it takes human life; he works with adult stem cells only. He circulated his own e-mail yesterday, responding to the provost's.

"Racism is enabled and fostered by secret procedures; and tenure evaluation is one of the most cloaked processes in the
Institute," he wrote, vowing to proceed with his hunger strike outside the offices of Reif and President Susan Hockfield.

Reif said he has extended Sherley's appointment through June 30 to give him time to "move forward with his career," and he described plans to create a "committee of leaders" to explore how race affects minority faculty members at MIT. Sherley was one of 28 black professors at MIT at the time of the tenure decision.

Read the e-mails below:

From: "L. Rafael Reif"
Date: January 29, 2007 8:00:27 AM EST
To: "MIT Faculty"
Subject: Message to the MIT Faculty

Dear Faculty Colleagues,

Many of you have asked me about the published reports that our
colleague, James L. Sherley, has expressed strong opposition to the decisions and processes regarding his tenure case. He believes that race was a factor in the decision not to grant him tenure. We consider charges of this nature with the utmost seriousness. Issues of fairness and the integrity of our academic processes are matters
of fundamental concern to the Institute.

The policies and procedures for MIT's faculty mandate that the substance of tenure evaluations and deliberations be kept confidential to assure the integrity of the process and to respect individual privacy. As a result, I may not disclose or discuss the substance of the deliberations of Professor Sherley's tenure case. However, I will note that three important faculty reviews occurred between January 2005, when Professor Sherley was notified of the decision not to advance his tenure case, and December 2006, when I notified Professor Sherley that I am not going to overturn the tenure decision:

1. At the request of former Provost Robert Brown, a senior member of the faculty carried out a fact-finding review to answer questions raised by Professor Sherley relating to his tenure case. Professor Sherley agreed with the selection of the faculty member to act as fact finder and provided the specific questions to be addressed. Subsequent to the report of the faculty fact-finder, Professor Sherley filed a formal internal grievance.

2. Early in my service as provost, I asked an ad hoc committee of senior faculty members to address issues Professor Sherley raised in his grievance, including allegations of racial discrimination and conflict of interest. Professor Sherley agreed with the initial selection of the Committee members and was provided the opportunity to review and modify the charge to the Committee. Based on the Committee's detailed report of its investigation and its findings
regarding the adequacy and fairness of the tenure process in
Professor Sherley's case, I advised Professor Sherley that the original tenure decision would stand. Subsequently, Professor Sherley appealed this decision to President Hockfield and advanced additional information that he had not previously brought forward.

3. Because of the seriousness of this matter, the decision was made
to go back to the Committee and to ask them to review Professor
Sherley's additional information. Professor Sherley was given the
opportunity to review and comment on what was sent to the Committee.
The Committee produced a detailed addendum to its original report.
Again, the Committee found that the process in Professor Sherley's
tenure case was adequate and fair. Based on this addendum and the
original report, I decided not to overturn the decision in the tenure
case. This action is final.

I have recently extended the appointment of Professor Sherley through
June 30, 2007. I expect that this time will allow Professor Sherley
and the Institute to develop transition plans that provide for the
continuity of effort and the well being of his research group and for
Professor Sherley to move forward with his career.

Since becoming Provost, and more intensely in the past several months, I have had conversations with many members of MIT's faculty to talk about how race affects the recruitment, retention, and experiences of under-represented minority faculty members at MIT. President Hockfield and I are deeply committed to removing barriers that may exist for under-represented minority faculty members and to examining and assessing effects that race may play in the hiring, advancementand experience of under-represented minority faculty. As a first step, and using the study of the status of women in science as a
guide, we will work with the minority faculty and others to establish
a committee of leaders, and provide them with the necessary resources,
to undertake a comprehensive, rigorous and systematic study of these
issues. President Hockfield and I look forward to reaching out to, and working with, the entire MIT community in these efforts.


L. Rafael Reif

Sherley's response:

Subject: Open Letter From James L. Sherley: A second plea for help to end racism at MIT

Dear faculty, staff, students and friends at MIT and abroad:

This open letter has a number of purposes. First, I wish to thank those of you who have offered, so graciously, your support, your counsel, your encouragement, your activism, and in some cases your genuine reservations for the protest path that I started on December 19, 2007. Your concerned engagement has lifted my spirit and my hope that change can come, that the grip of racism on American life can one day not only be loosened, but also eventually eliminated completely.

A second purpose is to share with all that, thus far, MIT's upper administration has not addressed my protest demands. Therefore, I continue with the plan for the next phase of my protest. Unless MIT's upper administration addresses these demands, I will begin a hunger strike at 9 AM on the morning of Monday February 5, 2007 outside of the offices of President Susan Hockfield and Provost Rafael Reif, Room 208 in Building 3 on MIT's campus. I will protest in person every morning in this location for as long my health allows it. Thereafter, I will continue my hunger strike even if I am unable to stand in person at the door of 3-208. I am hopeful that I will not have to stand alone and, when I am no longer able, that some among you will rise to stand in my stead. Racism must end at MIT.

Some of you may be aware that mine is not the first voice to call attention to entrenched racism at MIT. In September 1986, hardly a generation ago, then Dean of Student Affairs, Shirley M. McBay, chaired the Minority Student Issues Group that issued a report on "The Racial Climate on the MIT Campus." This report received
national recognition, but cold resistance from MIT's upper
administration. In the preface of the report, Dean McBay wrote,
"MIT must think anew about its policies and procedures for dealing
with racism and racist behavior on its campus. It must reaffirm its
intent to provide a supportive and non-hostile environment for all
who study, live, and work here."

Dean McBay's clarion words still apply today, twenty years later.
The question must be asked whether changes in the degree of racial discrimination at MIT over the past twenty years reflect anything more than national trends. Has MIT led in redressing racism, or has it only reluctantly followed the limited pluralist changes in the greater American society? It is noteworthy that the McBay report did not consider racist practices in tenure promotion at MIT. MIT has not evaluated the role that racism plays in its abysmal record for tenured minority faculty. Instead, MIT takes the racist approach of throwing up the hands and shrugging the shoulders with the convenient excuse that there is a pipeline problem, when the actual barrier is racism that obstructs the end of the pipeline, a pipeline that is full of invisible tragic stories of racial discrimination. Racism is enabled and fostered by secret procedures; and tenure evaluation is one of the most cloaked processes in the Institute.

I discovered racism in my own tenure promotion case at MIT; but I am determined to shine a big bright searchlight on the racially-motivated human tragedy of career destruction and death in MIT's minority faculty pipeline. I protest not only for myself, but also for the many who were persecuted before and the many who might otherwise bear the injury of racism in the future. In ten years, when my daughters are attending universities like MIT, I want to see change. I want to see talented, hardworking minority faculty filling
the ranks of tenured faculty based on their brilliance and industry,
not still absent because of the capricious whims of faculty and high-level administrators who are motivated by racist ideologies.

Statement of Protest Demands

On January 24, 2007, Provost Reif changed his plan to terminate my appointment on January 31, 2007. He extended it to June
30, 2007. However, he stated in his letter, "This extension provides ample time to develop and implement a transition from MIT that allows you to continue to advance your professional career and provides an appropriate transition for those who currently work in your lab."

Thus, he continues to obstruct my right to a fair and just hearing of
my complaint that my tenure case was unfairly decided because of racial discrimination, conflict of interest, and improper actions on
the part of members of the MIT faculty and the MIT Corporation.

The explanation for Provost Reif's persistent preemptory attitude that I should leave MIT before receiving a fair investigation will expose a rotten spot of racism in MIT's internal institutional policies regarding the hire and tenure evaluation of minority faculty. I hope that the honest and just among you will seek an explanation. The complaint itself delineates the racist practices of members of the BE faculty, in particular its head Professor Douglas Lauffenburger.

At my request, I met with Associate Provost Claude Canizares and my MIT advocate, Prof. Kenneth Manning, on the afternoon of January 24, 2007 to share my protest demands and their basis. These demands are:

1. Professor Sherley must receive an immediate grant of tenure as an
admission that his tenure case was unfairly reviewed and decided and
that his formal complaint against the negative decision was unfairly

2. MIT must acknowledge the racism discovered in Professor Sherley's
treatment as a faculty member in Biological Engineering (BE) on the
part of Provost Robert Brown, Professor Douglas Lauffenburger the head of BE, and other identifiable faculty members (e.g., Professor
Steven Tannenbaum). MIT must acknowledge that Professor Sherley's
experience is not an isolated one. MIT must announce an immediate
commitment of resources, faculty effort, and administration effort to
develop new effective policies for eliminating racism at MIT, with
special attention to institutional and individual racist practices
that constitute unfair barriers to recruitment and tenure of minority

3. MIT must obtain the resignation of Provost Rafael Reif because of
his demonstrated obstruction of the formal grievance proceeding that
addressed Professor Sherley's complaint.

Statement of Merit for Tenure

A third purpose of this open letter is to address a question
that some are asking.

"Exactly what has Professor Sherley done to merit tenure at MIT?"

I have established an internationally recognized research program focused on the investigation of adult stem cell asymmetric self-renewal. Asymmetric self-renewal is the signature property of adult stem cells. At the time of Prof. Douglas Lauffenburger's decision to withhold my tenure case from review by Engineering Council, I had 8 invitations for international university seminars and professional meeting plenary presentations. Since that time, the number of international invitations has increased to 14, including a research presentation at the Vatican in Rome. In addition, I have contributed original chapters to two books with international editors and authors.

I have led groups of talented undergraduates, graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, and research scientists in a research program that discovered the first known molecular and biochemical pathways that control adult stem cell asymmetric self-renewal. Our work identified the quintessential cancer gene, p53, as a key regulator of adult stem cell function. At MIT, this foundation of new knowledge was used to address the most challenging problems in stem cell biology. These problems are expanding adult stem cells in culture, discovering markers for their exclusive detection, and investigating their molecular function. In 2003, my group published the first-ever rational method for routine expansion of adult stem cells in culture. In addition, in 2002, we published the first-ever direct demonstration of the validity of a profound adult stem cell hypothesis that had not yielded to other laboratories for more than 25 years. The report of our accomplishment and method induced a flourish of new scientific studies on this topic.

At the time of Prof. Douglas Lauffenburger's negative decision, my MIT faculty personnel record (FPR) listed 45 major publications, 36 as a principal investigator, and 26 at MIT. (I spent the first 6 years of my principal investigator career at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia.) There were 95 invited seminars and conference plenary talks, 93 as a principal investigator, 61 at MIT, 5 for industry, and 8 international. There were 12 patent applications and technology disclosures, 11 at MIT, and 1 licensed. Twenty news articles had appeared in scientific journals, university newspapers, and general newspapers noting the impact of my group's research. My program was funded with $747,000 per year in direct costs.

Despite the distractions and personnel contraction of the past two years spent pursuing a fair investigation of my complaint, my group has continued to be productive. My current FPR lists 62 major publications, 53 as a principal investigator, 43 at MIT. There are 119 total seminars and conference plenary talks, 117 as a principal investigator, 85 at MIT. There are now 18 patents and technology disclosures, 17 at MIT, 1 licensed. Our program is funded with $1.2 million per year in direct costs.

These achievements put my research program in a unique position to identify exclusive markers for adult stem cells, enable applications for new cellular therapies, and continue our research to elucidate unique properties of adult stem cells. They have also lead to significant scientific and service awards. To my knowledge, I am one of only 4 professors at MIT who have received the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences Award. The other scholars are Professors James Dicarlo, Paul Matsudaira, and Earl K. Miller. I am the only MIT professor who has been inducted into the Pew Science and
Society Institute as a member of the first entering class. I am one
of 5 professors at MIT who are recipients of the Ellison Medical
Foundation Senior Scholar Award in Aging Research. The other scholars are Professors Robert Weinberg, Leonard Guarente, Susan
Linquist, and Robert Horvitz. I am one of two recipients at MIT of
the NIH Director's Pioneer Award, a $2.5 million award for innovative
research. I am also one of two MIT recipients of the Spectrum Trailblazer Award; and I am a 2005 recipient of MIT's Martin Luther King, Jr. Leadership Award.

Evidence of Provost Rafael Reif's Obstruction of the Tenure Decision

In my previous two open letters, I have spoken to Provost Reif's action to obstruct my complaint of an unfair negative decision by Prof. Douglas Lauffenburger based on racism, conflict of interest, and the impact of the improper action of Susan Whitehead, a lifetime
member of the MIT Corporation and the chair of the BE Visiting Committee. In addition, the failure of Provost Robert Brown to disclose his close personal relationship with Professor Lauffenburger
and his spouse Professor Linda Griffith completely invalidated the
investigation of my complaint before Provost Reif took over. However, Provost Reif's adjudication is also devoid of integrity. Provost Reif's own words written in his final decision letter sent to me on December 22, 2006 clearly demonstrate his obstruction of my complaint.

What shall we say about a Provost who responded in the following manner to the charge that the BE faculty provided an advisory tenure vote to the head of BE, Prof. Douglas Lauffenburger, when they were not themselves familiar with the tenure case?

"4. The Committee found that neither BE nor any other departments with which the Committee was familiar had or enforced a policy that
required senior faculty to read all materials in a tenure case before
the meeting to consider that case, so that if your materials were not
read by all senior faculty in BE before the meeting on your case, you
were not treated differently in any material sense from others
considered for tenure."

What shall we say about a Provost who responded in the following manner to the charge that Prof. Douglas Lauffenburger repeatedly hid the fact that I was the first appointment in the new Division of Bioengineering and Environmental Health (BEH), which later changed its name to BE? My appointment letter signed by Provost Robert Brown on July 1, 1998 states "Division of Bioengineering and Environmental Health," but Provost Reif wrote, "3. While you feel that you should have been acknowledged as the first faculty member hired in BE, the Committee found that you were in fact hired in the Toxicology division, prior to the formation of BE."

What shall we say about a Provost who responded in the following manner to a charge that a conflict of interest existed that prevented me from obtaining a fair evaluation of my case for tenure? "1. The additional findings of the Committee did not change their earlier conclusion that the evidence does not support your allegations that conflicts of interest adversely affected the consideration of your tenure case.

2. The Committee found that it was appropriate for Professor
Lauffenburger to solicit an internal reference letter from Professor
Griffith, given the overlap in your research areas and the fact that
you had not asked that she be excluded from the list of referees."

Such juxtaposition of ideas is incomprehensible, except as a frank
obstruction of the complaint. To their credit, it appears that the
investigation committee considered the conflict of interest complaint, despite the Provost's earlier instruction that they should

Another inconsistent juxtaposition occurs between Provost Reif's first negative decision letter, sent to me on January 23, 2006, and the currently discussed one from December 22, 2006. On January 23, 2006 he wrote:

"The Committee pursued the question and learned that, after Professor
Lauffenburger reached his decision not to bring your case to Engineering Council, he asked both the Dean and another department head in the School to review your case to advise him whether or not
they agreed with his decision, and they both said they did. The Committee reported that obtaining such confirmatory opinions has been
done in other cases in the past, as well."

The chair of the investigation committee, Professor Steven Lerman,
told my MIT advocate, Professor Kenneth Manning, that the "another
department head" was Professor Wesley Harris, who is African American
and chair of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
Professor Harris had acted as my confidential tenure advisor for
several years, and I continued to consult with him for a short time
after Professor Lauffenburger's negative decision. To others, he has
denied playing this role in Prof. Lauffenburger's negative decision.
It is also important to note that Prof. Lauffenburger did not use
this decision process for the tenure cases of two white faculty
members who he evaluated for tenure at the same time.

In Provost Reif's December 22 final notice, he writes:

"11. The Committee confirmed that Professor Harris did not see the
tenure case for you that was presented to the BE faculty."

However, he does not say that Professor Lauffenburger did not consult
with Professor Harris for a confirmatory opinion. Surely, this
glaring contradiction in the Provost's own words indicates a lack of
integrity in the grievance investigation. An explanation for this
contradiction must be demanded. In addition, the chair of the
investigation committee, Prof. Steven Lerman, now refuses to discuss
this important matter.

What shall we say about a Provost who continues to pervert my
complaint of inadequate independent lab space to one of lesser lab
space that other junior faculty? The fact that I have been allotted
only 355 sq. ft. of independent lab space, despite repeated requests
for adequate independent lab space to Prof. Lauffenburger, is prima
facie evidence of racist MIT policies for the hire of minority
faculty and racist practices by individuals who administer resources
to minority faculty. Every laboratory scientist knows the crucial
importance of independent laboratory space. Yet, for my entire 8
years at MIT, I have been abandoned to face alone the many
prohibitions on my research program because of sharing space with
senior faculty who were forced to provide their own space by the
racist actions of Provost Robert Brown. Provost Reif wrote only one
obtuse statement regarding my complaint about the quality of the
research space I was provided by Professor Lauffenburger.

"10. While the Committee's first review had determined you were not
provided less funding or space than nonminority junior faculty, they
considered the additional information you presented concerning BPEC
grants, support for the Dupont Alliance, and space, and found no
basis to change their earlier conclusion."

Finally, what shall we in the MIT community and abroad say about a Provost who wrote the following response to the charge of racism in MIT's tenure promotion process, but decided to ignore the importance of the report that provoked it?

"12. Although one personal opinion differed, the Committee found
strong evidence that racial prejudice did not affect the evaluations
of your tenure case among the BE faculty, and found no evidence (as
opposed to that opinion) to the contrary."

Thus, the Provost chooses to ignore the significance of an
independent report that racism played a role in my tenure review in
BE at MIT. In the McBay report of 1986, MIT learned that the voices
who were willing to accept the risks of speaking out against racism
would be few and suppressed. This important lesson has been
forgotten. I am one who has decided to take up Shirley McBay's
clarion call to end racism at MIT. I hope that you will join me in
the struggle.

Yours sincerely,

James Sherley

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 05:06 PM
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