Monday, February 12, 2007
MIT professor says he's lost 14 pounds during hunger strike
MIT stem-cell scientist James L. Sherley says he has lost 14 pounds as he enters the second week of a hunger strike to protest the university's decision not to offer him tenure.
In an e-mail to the MIT faculty over the weekend, he demanded that MIT grant him tenure immediately, redress racism in treatment and promotion of minority faculty, and censure Provost Rafael Reif for his role in the tenure decision and its review.
"I plan to continue my hunger strike until MIT's upper administration admits that racism is a major factor in the negative tenure decision and that a corrupt investigation process ensued," wrote Sherley, who is African-American.
Reif has said that the tenure decision is final. In an e-mail message, he welcomed a suggestion by Ceasar L. McDowell, an urban studies professor who said he was speaking for "a significant number of the minority faculty," that Sherley and MIT administrators sit down with a mediator.
"The idea of having a professional mediator help Professor Sherley and the MIT administration engage in a constructive conversation is excellent," Reif wrote in an email.
Sherley called the idea "rubbish."
Here are the e-mails. Sherley's letter to the faculty comes first, followed by his comments to a colleague about McDowell's suggestion about a mediator; then Reif's e-mail and McDowell's:
Sherley's e-mail to faculty
Dear Colleagues and MIT Faculty at Large:
Many of you are aware that I am currently engaged in a hunger
strike to end racism in minority tenure promotions at MIT. The
strike started on Monday, February 5, 2007. Based on my home scale,
I have lost about 14 lbs in the past week. I wish to express my
sincere thanks to those of you who have joined me in my effort to
make MIT a better place and to move MIT to lead in redressing racism
in the academy.
I plan to continue my hunger strike until MIT's upper
administration admits that racism is a major factor in the negative
tenure decision and that a corrupt investigation process ensued. I
demand three specific concessions when this fact is acknowledged.
1. That tenure is granted immediately.
2. That MIT actually start a verifiable process to detect and redress
racism in treatment and tenure promotion of minority faculty. The
recent announcement from President Susan Hockfield (e-mailed February
2, 2007) does not even contain the word "racism."
3. That Provost Rafael Reif is censured because of his actions to
obstruct me from obtaining a fair and diligent investigation of my
complaint that because of racist institutional policies, the racism
and improper handling of my case by the chair of Biological
Engineering (BE), Douglas Lauffenburger, and improper actions by a
member of the MIT Corporation, Susan Whitehead, I received a negative
I recognize that many faculty are uneasy with the demand for
immediate tenure even if my charges are shown to be true. But there
is nothing less to be done when my charges are shown to be true.
There are precedents at MIT for overturning negative tenure decisions
when the process is found to be corrupt. Even if my case were the
weakest ever, the Institute must safeguard against the erosion of
institutional integrity that comes from corrupt process. We all
recognize that even strong cases often do not receive the grant of
tenure at MIT; but this cannot be permitted to occur for reasons of
discrimination that are outlawed in the greater society. I am not
outraged that my tenure case was not advanced just because I think it
was strong enough for tenure. I am outraged because of the racial
discrimination and corrupt process that operated during its decision
and the subsequent investigation of the process that led to that
If a process shows that I am correct in my charges that led
to my current hunger strike, then MIT must tenure me to provide a
clear and lasting admission that racism and corrupt process were
responsible, and they will not be tolerated at MIT. Only with repair
of the provoking damage can there be a sound foundation for beginning
effective change to end racism at MIT in minority tenure treatment
and promotion. The cynical among you may advance that I have a
personal motivation for this demand. But I ask you, who but the
injured will bring forth a complaint of racism? And who among you
would subject herself or himself to a hunger strike over something
like tenure? This strike is about redressing a problem that is much
bigger, racism. Racism in America harms us all. It prevents us from
a society based on the ideals of freedom, opportunity, and justice
for all; and it makes us destroy and waste valuable human resources.
Where better but in the academy for a new movement to begin to
continue the efforts that were begun during the civil rights era to
end racism in America.
It occurred to me that it might bring comfort to some of you
that, if you embrace this view of overturn of negative tenure
decisions, you would not open MIT up to accepting a poor tenure case.
Doing this succinctly is a bit of challenge, but I will give you some
examples of external evidence that my tenure case, with the features
that resulted from improper process removed, is of sufficient quality
for tenure at MIT.
1. At the time of my tenure case review, I had national recognition
in the form of an Ellison Medical Foundation Senior Scholar Award in
Aging Research. I am one of 5 professors at MIT who are recipients
of this award. The other scholars are Professors Robert Weinberg,
Leonard Guarente, Susan Linquist, and Robert Horvitz, all tenured
2. Since the negative decision, I received the NIH Director's
Pioneer Award. I am one of two recipients at MIT of this $2.5
million award for innovative research. The other recipient,
Professor Arup Chakraborty, is a tenured professor, as are many, if
in fact not all, of the other recipients.
3. At the time of the negative decision, my research program had and
continues to have a growing international presence. This is
indicated by invitations to participate in international conferences
and scholarly undertakings. See examples at the end of this letter.
Finally, on the issue of the quality of my tenure case, I
recognize that there is confusion about this statement from the
provost's January 29 e-mailed "Message to the Faculty."
"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:"
The "three important faculty reviews" is a misstatement on
the part of the provost. First, there were no faculty reviews of the
tenure case other than that which was the basis for the complaint.
The first proceeding was an inquiry conducted by a single faculty
member to provide facts to Provost Robert Brown for his evaluation of
my request for a grievance to investigate my complaint that racism,
improper procedures, and a conflict of interest resulted in a
negative tenure decision. The second proceeding was a grievance in
which a 3-faculty member committee was charged to investigate the
same charges to provide Provost Reif facts for his adjudication of my
complaint. The third proceeding was a second grievance, on appeal to
President Hockfield, with the same committee of 3 faculty. Although
the appeal was partly based on the lack of diligence on the part of
that committee, the provost insisted on retaining the same faculty
members, despite my protest.
During the grievance investigation, I requested that the
committee be disbanded, because, again, their investigation lacked
diligence. The provost again refused to replace them. Conflicts of
interest also abounded on the committee. One committee member had a
potential conflict of interest due to his relationship with one of
the subjects of the investigation, but the provost ignored this
concern. Also, the provost appointed the chair of the committee as
chair of the MIT faculty during the investigation, ignoring how such
an appointment would compromise the work of the committee.
So, all should be clear now, that my tenure case has only
been reviewed my a group of MIT faculty once, for less than an hour
after the BE faculty had already advised Douglas Lauffenburger to
advance two other faculty member's cases for tenure. They did this
without a committee to assemble my case and select referees, conduct
an in-depth look at its merits, and present it to the rest of the
faculty. They did this after Lauffenburger had allowed them only one
week to review the case in his office. He told them what to do, and
they did it. They enabled MIT's racist policies that discriminated
against me when I started at MIT, and they enabled the racist
practices and improper actions of Douglas Lauffenburger that enabled
him to achieve a negative decision. Surely, when my charges are
shown to be true, the MIT faculty can endorse that the corrupt
negative decision must be overturned with all speed. Such a just
action will not injure the sanctity of tenure at MIT. Instead, it
will preserve it, and at the same time move MIT closer to the ideals
that we hold for it.
Sherley's comments on McDowell suggestion:
Please, recognize that this is not great news at all. It's
rubbish. Please, see it for what it is. First of all, members or
the "minority faculty group" like Rafael Bras are working to support
the Provost, by coming to me at the protest to tell me that no
negative tenure case can be overturned, when if fact they have been
in the past when members of upper administration were willing to
admit that wrongdoing had occurred during the decision. That is, the
process was corrupt. In my case, both the decision process and its
investigation by the provost were and continue to be corrupt.
So, in this setting, first a group of minority faculty, many
of whom have been outright critical of my position, even going so far
as to indict my veracity, make a decision that they will now
represent me. In an immediate e-mail to them, I have clearly
rejected that disingenuous, deceitful proposal.
Despite my rejection of this proposal, the provost moves a
head with suggesting yet another evaluation which he is initiating
and will control. It is also noteworthy that my advocate, Kenneth
Manning, has been excluded from these transmissions. Listen, I want
the minority faculty all to get it in their heads, if they are not
talking to Ken, they are not talking to me.
It is a pitiful commentary on minority intellectuals, that so
many of my minority colleagues have allowed themselves to become
selfish enablers of racism at MIT. Michel, now, please, know that I
reserve these comments for those who have not actively joined me in
the protest and decided not to sign the Degraff, McDowell, Chomsky et
al. letter which HELPED ME. How can those have not join me in the
protest and who refused to sign that elegant letter of truth think
that I would trust them to represent me.
Hear me when I say, this protest is not just about me, it is
about the future of minority faculty at universities like MIT. Is
the minority faculty so filled with internalized racism, cynicism,
and self-denial that they believed that I would have lost 14 pounds
from starvation last week over a trivial issue like my own tenure?!
They need to wake up and believe in themselves and their own minority
colleagues. It is time at MIT to "Fight the Power," to recognize
that "We are somebody!", and to put the fire back into achieving
Here's my final word for the minority faculty, if they want
to join me in this struggle. Tell Susan Hockfield to hurry up and
get a committee of external advisors for herself on this protest.
Any resolution process cannot have integrity if the provost plays a
role, because it is he who has been charged with obstruction of
justice in my case.
Michel, I continue the struggle without a change in position,
other than allowing the provost censure instead of dismissal. Peace
Reif's e-mail to McDowell
Forwarded message from -----
Date: Sat, 10 Feb 2007
From: L Rafael Reif
Subject: Re: Statement from Min Faculty
To: Ceasar McDowell
Thank you for your note.
I want to thank you, most sincerely, for all your significant efforts
and those of the minority faculty in this extremely difficult and
The idea of having a professional mediator help Professor Sherley and
the MIT administration engage in a constructive conversation is
excellent. This mediator would be a mutually acceptable person
experienced with educational institutions and in matters including
racial sensitivities. Please help me convey this message to
Ceasar McDowell wrote:
Dear President Hockfield, Provost Reif and Professor Sherley
On February 6, 2007 a significant number of the minority faculty expressed the following opinions:
1. Our community is very worried about the damage that the dispute between Prof. James Sherley and the MIT administration is causing to all the individuals involved and to the Institute.
2. We urge all parties in the dispute to consider external mediation/arbitration.
We stand ready to help in any way that may lead to a resolution of this problem.
Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 12:14 PM