When Dr. James L. Sherley began a hunger strike outside the Massachusetts Institute of Technology provost’s office in February 2007 alleging racism in his tenure denial, the then-associate professor of biological engineering re-ignited, in a very public way, concerns about the institution’s commitment to diversity.
The lack of diversity has been a recurring problem at MIT. At the time of Sherley’s protest, just 27 of MIT’s 740 tenured faculty members were American Indian, Black and Hispanic. Today, there are 34 underrepresented minorities out of 767 tenured faculty members.
Sherley never won tenure, and a Black faculty member and a Black former trustee broke their ties to MIT as well in protest over the manner in which the school handled the Sherley incident as well as its seeming lack of commitment to diversity. Two years later, the administration is taking steps to ensure the school is welcoming to faculty members of color — an effort some say is moving too slowly.
Many of Sherley’s supporters say they were not in a position to know if he should have been granted tenure based on his scientific credentials. However, former MIT professor Frank Douglas and former trustee Bernard Loyd, who both left the university as a result of how Sherley was treated, say the case was symptomatic of an unwillingness to grapple with diversity issues, a problem they had witnessed during their relationships with the school.
“I was not insisting that James should get tenure because I was not present at the university when [the tenure denial] happened,” says Douglas. “I didn’t know the case. My issue was, ‘Is there an environment which led him to believe that he was treated unfairly?’ And, in fact, I think there were things that gave him reason to believe he was treated unfairly.”
In a letter circulated at the beginning of Sherley’s hunger strike, 11 MIT faculty members (Douglas was not one of them) outlined what they said were a number of problems with the case. Supporters pointed out what they said were problems with the mentoring and lab space that Sherley received, felt that the school had failed to adequately acknowledge Sherley’s achievements, and asserted that Sherley’s racial discrimination complaint was mishandled.
The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission rejected Sherley’s racial discrimination complaint in February 2008, saying in its ruling that MIT had articulated legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for denying tenure. Last June, the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination also rejected Sherley’s complaint.
In his interaction with other faculty, Douglas says, “what I discovered … is that many of the young [minority] faculty were unsure as to how they would be evaluated and what type of career they would have.”
“What I also discovered is that there were a number of individuals who left MIT, either because they did not receive tenure or because they felt unwelcome. James Sherley is a symbol of something that is more widespread than you would think,” adds Douglas, who is now a senior fellow at the Kauffman Foundation, a partner at PureTech Ventures, and a senior scientific adviser for Bayer Healthcare.
Former MIT trustee Loyd, who finished his five-year trustee stint in 1995 but stayed active on university committees, says the Sherley case was “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
“We had been told by senior leaders within MIT that these were important issues, but they needed time,” Loyd says. “Time came and went.”
Loyd says MIT’s administrators were largely unresponsive when he and other Black alumni urged the university to prioritize diversity issues. He was particularly frustrated by the school’s response to the Black alumni group’s attempts in 2005 to create both a committee to assess the Black experience at MIT and a leadership program to promote excellence among Black students. The university rejected the idea of creating the committee, and, while MIT did create a leadership program for Black students, Loyd says it bears little resemblance to the program suggested by the Black alumni group.
“I am not hearing that they have elevated this question of diversity to the level of importance that I believe it deserves,” Loyd says.
Since Sherley left, MIT has created a number of new positions that focus on faculty and staff diversity, including two associate provosts for faculty equity. The school is also in the midst of an initiative on faculty race and diversity, centered around researching the current climate for minorities at MIT and creating an action plan to solve any problems. And, in November, the school brought 300 of its administrative, faculty and student leaders together for an event called the Diversity Leadership Congress.
“In my mind, MIT has prioritized diversity,” says Wesley Harris, one of the new associate provosts, pointing to the creation of his position and the initiative on race and diversity. Harris, who came to MIT in 1972 as a faulty member, is the former head of the school’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. The other new associate provost focuses on gender equity, rather than race. “MIT has made commitments,” Harris adds.
Provost L. Rafael Reif says Harris is making a difference because he is able to speak to faculty members of color and department heads and make sure they are on the same page regarding the faculty members’ progress. “You can see a change in the minority faculty feeling that they do belong and that people are paying attention to them at the highest level.”
Reif notes that the total number of faculty members from underrepresented minority groups, including those without tenure, stands at 63. Although that’s still only 6.2 percent of the total faculty, it represents a 47-percent increase in the last nine years.
But Reif says he is less concerned with immediate numbers than he is with creating a sustainable “pipeline” that attracts and retains talented undergraduate students, graduate students and faculty members of color and ensuring that they receive adequate support.
Reif notes that MIT’s undergraduate numbers are much better than the faculty numbers, with underrepresented minorities making up 21.5 percent of the undergrad student body. But he acknowledges that the number for graduate students — just 5.8 percent of whom are underrepresented minorities — is lagging. The graduate school is working to fix that by bringing minority students from other colleges to MIT for the summer and encouraging them to apply, Reif says.
Paula Hammond, a chemical engineering professor who is heading up MIT’s initiative on faculty race and diversity, says the school has shown an increased commitment to diversity in recent years, even if that commitment has yet to show up in faculty numbers.
“I think MIT has become a place where these issues are pushed,” she says. “We want to be at the forefront of these issues.”
As part of the initiative, researchers are compiling data on salary levels and promotion timetables for minority faculty members, as well as conducting interviews with faculty members about their experiences. By the end of the year, Hammond hopes to have a set of recommendations she hopes will result in real policy changes.
‘All Talk and No Work’
Chi-Sang Poon, an Asian American MIT research scientist who supported Sherley’s attempt to get MIT to revisit his tenure, says the university has done “next to nothing” to promote diversity. (Poon has brought a racial discrimination lawsuit of his own against the school, and MIT declined to comment on his case.)
“It’s an attractive list of things,” says Poon, referring to the race initiatives. “But the bottom line is, those are all works in progress. Of course, anything is better than nothing. But this is typical of MIT. They treat the subject matter academically and scholastically. It is all talk and no work.”
Still, some question the meticulous approach to solving longstanding problems. Christopher Rose, a board member of the Black alumni group and a Rutgers University engineering professor, says the school’s diversity problems are readily apparent.
“I think it’s clear already what the results [of the study] are going to be,” Rose says. “I don’t think it’s going to yield any surprises.”
If not for a “lack of will,” Rose says, MIT could take immediate bold action, such as hiring a cluster of faculty members of color to study in a particular research area.
“If MIT decided this is something they wanted to do, if they wanted to create a self-sustaining nucleus of Black scientists and engineers, that’s something they could do,” Rose says.
But others who work on diversity issues at MIT say such a characterization is not fair.
“I think to say that MIT is doing very little would be a discredit and a disservice to the people who are doing this work,” counters Robbin Chapman, an MIT alumna who has been working since 2007 as the manager of diversity recruitment in the School of Architecture and Planning. “Are people frustrated? Yes, some people are. Do I think MIT should be doing more? Of course, I think everybody should be doing more. MIT is going through what I think a lot of other schools are going through now. They’re saying, ‘We should be paying attention to this.’ They’re figuring it out.”
One thing all parties seem to agree on is that MIT has a way to go before it can claim a leadership position on issues of diversity.
“Ideally, we would want other schools to look at us and say, ‘Wow, that’s innovative,’” says Chapman. “I can’t imagine anyone would think that we’ve somehow completed any kind of journey with this work. We’re clearly working on it.”
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