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MIT Professor Threatens Hunger Strike Over Tenure Denial

A Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor has threatened to go on a hunger strike outside the provost’s office on February 5, 2007, if he is not granted tenure.

Dr. James L. Sherley, an associate professor of biological engineering, says he is also protesting against what he calls an onslaught of racism at MIT.

Sherley wrote a letter to his colleagues this week asking for support and calling for the resignation of Provost L. Rafael Reif.

“I will either see the provost resign and my hard-earned tenure granted at MIT, or I will die defiantly right outside his office,” Sherley wrote. “This is the strength of my conviction that racism in American [sic] must end. What better place to kill a small part of it than at a great institution like MIT.”

Sherley told The Boston Globe in a January 2005 article that although he had not experienced any overt racism at MIT, he still faced a hostile environment where he was labeled “stubborn” instead of “independent-minded.” At the time of the story, Sherley was one of 28 Black professors at the institution.

The stem cell scientist, who is also the son of a Baptist minister, has attracted attention because he does not believe in research using human embryonic stem cells. His stance has often led to loud, public arguments between Sherley and his colleagues. On Jan. 3, 2005, the director of the biological engineering division told Sherley that senior faculty did not believe that his case for tenure was strong enough.

“This is a case of an uppity Negro, and there is a strong faculty who would like to see me move on,” Sherley told the Globe.

“In light of MIT’s current initiatives to increase diversity among the ranks of tenured faculty, you should all be embarrassed that I have to be subjected to this,” he wrote in another e-mail to MIT faculty. “But then, has there ever been a single African-American tenure at MIT who was not?”

Reif ordered an investigation into Sherley’s case by three senior faculty members in late 2005. By January 2006, Reif concluded that there were no grounds to reconsider Sherley’s case for tenure. This week, Sherley was told that the decision to refuse him tenure.

An MIT spokesperson told Diverse that the institution has a well-established procedure for reviewing and granting tenure to faculty.

“This process is thorough and extensive and we are confident it was followed with integrity in this case,” said Patti Richards, a senior communications officer.

— By Shilpa Banerji

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