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Professor accuses MIT of racism

As some 30 students and colleagues gathered in support yesterday, an MIT professor began a hunger strike outside the university leaders' offices, saying the school has denied him tenure due to racism.

For nearly two years, James L. Sherley, a stem cell scientist, has asked senior administration to overturn his department head's decision not to put his name forward for tenure. The provost said the decision would stand.

Sherley, who is African-American, said he will stand outside the offices each day from 9 a.m. to noon until they grant him tenure, censure the provost, and initiate a process for addressing racism at the school. He said he would eat no solid food during the strike and would subsist on bottled water and vitamin supplements.

"One of the things we have to recognize in America is that when we are all free, we are all better off," said Sherley, 49.

Less than half of MIT's junior faculty members are granted tenure. After Sherley was initially denied tenure, his case was examined three times before the university established that neither racial discrimination nor conflict of interest affected the decision. Twenty-one of Sherley's colleagues issued a statement yesterday saying that the professor was treated fairly in tenure review.

"The tradition here is that we help the faculty members move on to their next opportunity because we hire people who are very good, and we deny tenure to people who are very good," said chancellor Phillip L. Clay. "In this case, we're obviously deeply concerned, because a hunger strike is extremely unusual."

Sherley has earned several distinctions, such as a $2.5 million award for innovative research from the National Institutes of Health, and he maintains that he deserves tenure for his noted leadership and research.

Some MIT professors are circulating a letter that asks for further investigation into the process that denied Sherley tenure. The letter states that a head of Sherley's department is married to a senior faculty member whose relationship with Sherley has been "openly contentious." That division head should have recused himself from deciding Sherley's case, rather than soliciting an internal letter from his wife to include in Sherley's tenure file, the letter said.

"We checked to see whether that influenced the decision, and we are confident that it did not," Clay said.

Of 740 tenured faculty members at MIT, 27 are African-American or Hispanic. Three minority faculty members have earned tenure since Sherley was denied, according to the school.

The professor mingled with colleagues and students during his three-hour protest. .

Last week, the provost announced a study of the impact of race on hiring, advancement, and experience of minority faculty. James H. Williams, who in 1991 protested the lack of black faculty members and the treatment of black students with a weekly fast, criticized the new initiative.

"Suppose they came upon someone being lynched and even though they knew it was illegal to lynch people, what they would do is maybe decide to make a study on lynching people," said Williams, an engineering professor.

Clay said the initiative is not an academic study, but a continuing effort on how to broaden diversity.

April Simpson can be reached at