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MIT center director resigns in protest of tenure decision

Says colleague was denied due to race

A prominent Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor and pharmaceutical researcher has resigned in protest over the case of James L. Sherley , an MIT colleague who held a 12-day hunger strike in February after he did not receive tenure, faculty members and school officials said.

Frank L. Douglas , executive director of the MIT Center for Biomedical Innovation , wrote in an e-mail obtained by the Globe that he will leave the university at the end of the month because of MIT's refusal to reconsider its decision not to grant Sherley tenure.

The message was appeared to have been sent from Douglas's MIT e-mail account to Associate Provost Claude Canizares and several top MIT administrators and colleagues at the biomedical center. Douglas did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

In a statement, MIT said it "deeply regrets" Douglas's decision, calling him a "visionary leader."

Sherley, a stem cell biologist, is slated to leave the university June 30 when his faculty appointment expires. But Sherley said yesterday he will not leave the university until administrators reexamine his tenure case and his allegations that he was denied tenure because of his race. Sherley is African-American, as is Douglas.

Sherley, 49, was first turned down for tenure two years ago when his department head decided not to nominate him. He has said that decision was racially biased. MIT administrators deny the allegation and say Sherley has been treated fairly.

In the resignation letter, dated June 1, Douglas accused university leaders of reneging on an agreement with Sherley to arbitrate the tenure dispute. It also said they didn't act aggressively to resolve the matter.

"Frankly, I am so astonished that the Institute did not resolve this issue that it leaves me to believe that the desire to do this was and is lacking," read the e-mail. "Clearly, where there is no will, there is no way!"

School officials have said they never agreed to revisit Sherley's tenure request or his allegations, and said the school's tenure decision is final.

"We believe his decision is based on inaccurate information, and we sincerely hope that once we have an opportunity to meet with him and clarify the facts, he will reconsider his decision," the MIT statement yesterday read.

Fewer than half of junior faculty members at MIT are granted tenure, and a special committee created to examine Sherley's tenure review found no evidence of racial discrimination.

Sherley said he learned about Douglas's e-mail Friday and expressed surprise at the decision, which he hopes will give his grievances greater prominence.

"This is a courageous act by someone who has a lot of character and concern for African-American faculty," he said. "And it raises the broader issue of why this administration treats African-American faculty members differently than others."

Sherley said he had spoken with Douglas about his plans to leave MIT only after Douglas sent the e-mail.

Before joining MIT, Douglas was an executive vice president and chief scientific officer at Aventis SA, a leading pharmaceutical firm, where he oversaw global pharmaceutical research, according to his biography on the MIT Sloan School of Management's web site.

"I leave because I would neither be able to advise young Blacks about their prospects of flourishing in the current environment, nor about avenues available to affect change when agreements or promises are transgressed," the e-mail read.

Chi-Sang Poon , a research scientist and outspoken supporter of Sherley, said the resignation reflected deep discontent among faculty members who are racial minorities, who make up a small percentage of MIT's tenured faculty.

"Minority faculty have been passed over for tenure for years," he said, adding that he had been passed over for promotion several times. "The administration has to come to the reckoning that this has been a long standing issue."

Peter Schworm can be reached at