When Race Enters the Equation

More than half of all MIT professors do not receive tenure. When African-American stem cell researcher James Sherley learned he was among this unhappy majority, he accused the university of racism, then launched a hunger strike to ensure his complaint got a national airing—plunging a campus accustomed to working with hard numbers into a messy, emotionally charged controversy.

Deprived of food for as little as three days, the body begins to break down its stores of fat to produce the energy it needs. This is merely the first in a series of physiological reactions to malnourishment that are said to lead, eventually, to a feeling of intense euphoria. And watching professor James Sherley sip from a bottle of Aquafina water as he stood outside the offices of MIT’s president and provost, he did seem to be radiating a kind of dreamy warmth.

Sherley, an African-American stem cell researcher who has won the prestigious $2.5 million Pioneer Award for “individual scientists of exceptional creativity,” by this time had not eaten in more than a week. He was on a hunger strike to protest MIT’s decision at the end of 2004 to deny him tenure, a decision he believed had been motivated by racism. Ingesting only water and a daily multivitamin, he’d already lost 14 pounds, so it was possible that his good mood of the moment was nothing more than a whoosh of starvation-induced endorphins flooding his brain. It seemed just as likely, though, that after two grinding years of grievance hearings and administrative investigations, he simply found it liberating to finally go public with his allegations of discrimination at one of the world’s elite universities.

Sherley had alerted the media of his intentions, which he summed up this way in an e-mail to his fellow faculty members: Either MIT gave him tenure, “or I will die defiantly.”

James Sherley has never been the sort to bottle up his beliefs. He learned as a boy in Memphis that you have to stand up for yourself. One day when he was 7, his family stopped at the local ice cream stand on the way home from church. The new owners informed his father, a Baptist deacon who’d once earned a living as a sharecropper, that he’d have to use a separate entrance for service. He stormed right back to the car, carrying nothing for his children but a life lesson. “If we don’t stand up to this,” he told them as they wailed, “it’s not going to stop.” The family drove away, and never went back. At MIT, Sherley once interrupted the dean of the School of Engineering during a keynote address, demanding to know why increasing faculty diversity had come last on the dean’s list of goals. Today Sherley keeps the pictures of two men hanging in his office: Malcolm X, and the black boxer Jack Johnson, who was as famous at the turn of the 20th century for his taunting defiance of polite society, and his supreme confidence, as he was for his skill in the ring.

A few days after Sherley began his hunger strike, I visited him in his tidy seventh-floor workspace. He told me he’d been treated unfairly from the moment he was hired in 1998. It wasn’t until after he arrived on campus, he said, that he learned he’d been brought to MIT using resources set aside for the recruitment of minority and female academics. That may have sounded like a welcome effort to increase faculty diversity—only 5.7 percent of MIT professors are black, Latino, or Native American—but Sherley believed it had predisposed his colleagues to think of him as somehow less qualified, and less deserving of tenure. He also insisted that, as the only black member of the biological engineering department at the time, he’d received less lab space and a lower salary than his white counterparts. During his stay at MIT, he said, “I have a zero for my raise. I don’t think others got a zero raise. He’s not compensating me the way he is others.”

The “he” in question was professor Doug Lauffenburger, the head of the department, and the man Sherley said was personally responsible for denying him tenure. “The problem starts with Doug,” Sherley told me. “He’s the one who makes the decision and he’s going into it with a racist outlook.” Sherley claimed there was also a personal dimension to Lauffenburger’s decision, retribution for a professional feud between Sherley and Lauffenburger’s wife, Linda Griffith, who is also a biological engineering professor.

MIT had conducted a succession of inquiries into Sherley’s complaints, but he believed they amounted to little more than bureaucratic paper shuffling. So he resolved to throw the sort of haymaker his hero Jack Johnson would have admired. He would not eat again until the school set things right. While on his hunger strike he would also spend three hours each weekday morning outside the office suite of MIT president Susan Hockfield and provost L. Rafael Reif, leading a series of teach-ins, which he called Tenth Hour Talks, with titles such as “Story of an African-American scientist at MIT—Where are the tenured minority scientists?” and “I’m hungry for the end of racism. What about you?”

On the morning of February 12, I attended one of Sherley’s teach-ins. He was leaning against a wall when I arrived, being interviewed by a writer for a British science magazine, one of a handful of reporters in the narrow hallway. A group of 15 professors, including Noam Chomsky, had circulated a letter in support of Sherley, and newspapers and blogs across the country were picking up his accusations. He was scheduled to appear on CNN the following night.

Beyond the explosiveness of the allegations themselves—Racism! On campus! In the Republic of Cambridge!—it was the fumbling response from MIT, which has a tangled racial history, that had kept the story burning. To read the news accounts, half the administration seemed to be out of town at any given time, unavailable for comment. The statements that did come from the Institute (as everyone affiliated with MIT calls it) tended to be in the form of press releases that sounded as though they’d been written by lawyers. At the same time, the Institute had forbidden Lauffenburger, Griffith, or any of the other faculty involved in Sherley’s tenure decision to talk to the press. If there were two sides to this story, Sherley’s was the only one being told.

By the time Sherley was ready to speak, about 20 people had assembled in the hall, a dimly lit space that reflected the kind of utilitarian, meritocratic shabbiness that pervades MIT. The Institute seems pleased to leave the ivy and the scrubbed brick to other universities. Besides Sherley’s protest, in fact, the only clue that the offices he was standing in front of were the center of institutional power at MIT was the modest drop ceiling just outside the doors. And even that gave way about 15 yards up the hall, where exposed pipes hung above a busy stairwell. Off to one side, a tall black man with dreadlocks was talking to a young white guy holding a video camera and wearing headphones around his neck; a few feet away, a professorial sort dressed in rumpled khakis and a sweater over his shirt and tie was chatting with two women.

Sherley, who is 49, wore a bright pink dress shirt, suspenders, and oversize eyeglasses that covered a good third of his face. Though he’d lost weight during his hunger strike, he had, at 5 foot 8, another 240 or so pounds in reserve. “What day is this?” he asked. “Is this the sixth day?”

“It’s day eight, James, isn’t it?” someone said.

“Oh,” Sherley replied, “I didn’t count the weekend days. It is day eight.” He switched on a small voice recorder and told the group that the morning’s session would involve a human rights issue that doesn’t get enough attention. “I want to talk about the relation between what I call embryoism and racism,” he said. “When I say ‘embryoism,’ I mean discriminating against human embryos, just like there is discrimination against people of different cultures and races. The
human rights issue is a younger member of the human community who, because they don’t have the same number or the same power or the same size, are discriminated against by the majority.”

From the start, Sherley had been eager to present his hunger strike as part of the universal struggle for social justice—he encouraged those attending his morning talks to share their own stories of oppression, or even just to read aloud a poem—so if you stretched your thinking enough, you could see how this embryoism might relate to Sherley’s tenure fight. Still, this was not the sort of thing you would expect to hear at MIT. Liberty University, perhaps, or maybe in a Mitt Romney speech written anytime after 2005, but definitely not in the halls of the planet’s most important center of scientific research. No one else seemed especially surprised, though. It had become common knowledge on campus that Sherley believes embryonic stem cell research—in contrast with his specialty, adult stem cell research—is morally reprehensible.

As the talk ended and the group began to break up, I asked the tall guy with dreadlocks what he made of the situation. His name was Charles Morton and after attending MIT as an undergrad he was now working on a Ph.D. He said the lack of communication from the administration had been frustrating. “The whole process has been very secret. Right now the campus is left to form its own conclusions.” Sherley’s allegations were especially painful, Morton said, because Sherley was one of the three most influential professors he’d studied under. Making it worse, he said, was that the other two were Doug Lauffenburger—the man Sherley was accusing of racism—and Lauffenburger’s wife, Linda Griffith.

Tenure at MIT, as at most universities, is a strikingly subjective process. Deciding who gets it is closer to scoring a figure skating competition than timing a 100-yard dash; the judges know what they’re looking for, but there’s simply no uniform measure of a candidate’s worthiness. Most faculty members come up for tenure after six years on campus. The 50 percent who are approved essentially have a job for life. The rest have a year and a half to find a job somewhere else.

When ruling on a tenure case, the senior faculty in a candidate’s department meet to review his body of work, the papers published, the grants obtained. They consider opinions, known as referee letters, that have been solicited from experts in the candidate’s field, both within MIT and from other institutions. Then they vote whether to forward the case to the next level. There is something ironic about this kind of personal interpretation figuring so prominently at an institution devoted to the objective analysis of empirical data, but be that as it may, it is this faculty vote alone that in some MIT departments determines whether a candidate’s tenure case moves ahead. In others, such as Sherley’s biological engineering department, the faculty vote is merely advisory, with the final decision on whether to move the case along left to the department chair—but even then it would be a rare, and politically unwise, occurrence for a chair to ignore the will of his faculty.

Sherley had been recruited to MIT in 1998 from the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, where he first developed his belief that it was adult, rather than embryonic, stem cells that held the greatest promise for the dramatic medical breakthroughs of the future. “James,” he recalls being told by the respected Fox Chase researcher Alfred Knudson, “you’re either completely off your rocker, or you’re up to something good. Either way, the reception will be the same.”

Sherley holds other opinions that diverge from science’s conventional wisdom—he is, for instance, skeptical of Darwin (“Evolution’s a theory, it’s not proven”), nor is he sure about the big bang or global warming—but nothing is as controversial as his views on embryonic stem cells. This kind of research is not just immoral, he believes, but pointless. In his view, it’s impossible for these cells to ever deliver on their much hyped medical promises. Worse, he says, they would lead to cancer if implanted in a person. Sherley also maintains, rather startlingly, that “embryonic stem cell researchers are misleading the public.” They’re doing this, he says, because even though they know their work is futile, they need to maintain their research funding. Sherley insists that it is adult stem cells—which his lab gets from either mice or the livers and kidneys of humans who have died of natural causes—that offer the only true research potential.

MIT professor Rudolf Jaenisch, one of the world’s foremost cancer researchers, has sparred with Sherley in the past over this issue. He believes study is needed on both adult and embryonic stem cells, that they complement each other. If Sherley wants to argue that embryonic stem cell research is immoral, Jaenisch told me, “fine, I respect that. But if he argues from a scientific point of view, it’s unacceptable. He sounds like a fundamentalist.” What infuriates Jaenisch is Sherley’s contention that embryonic stem cell researchers are lying to the public. “This is an outrageous, outrageous allegation,” he says. “We’re doing science here. I can’t even take him seriously anymore.”

Sherley says that Jaenisch’s real problem with him is that he’s embarrassed to be confronted by an African American. “I really believe that. It’s not just that my ideas are challenging, it’s that I’m the black guy.”

“I’m not talking about him being black,” Jaenisch insists. “I want to say this very clearly: For me it’s only about the science. Bringing this up—these allegations, they are totally without basis. I’m rather annoyed and bothered by these comments.”

Jaenisch isn’t the only prominent scientist with whom Sherley has clashed. A year or so before his tenure review Sherley attended a talk the renowned molecular biologist Richard Roberts gave before the biological engineering department. After the speech Sherley and Roberts had a discussion about stem cell research. That night, as is customary, some of the faculty took Roberts out for dinner, gathering at the Blue Room in Kendall Square. Around the time coffee and dessert were being ordered, Sherley and Roberts started up again, this time exchanging sharp words. The discussion grew heated and voices were raised. Three senior faculty members from the biological engineering department—Peter Dedon, Leona Samson, and David Schauer—agreed with Roberts. “It was me against the other four,” Sherley recalled. Dedon, who is the department’s associate chair, downplayed the incident, telling me it was “a very enjoyable discussion about a very important topic,” and insisting that “Rich Roberts loved it.” Still, why would Sherley get into a public yelling match with colleagues and a distinguished visiting scientist? “In these situations,” Sherley told me, “it’s an opportunity to inform the ignorant.”

The ignorant in this instance included, in Roberts, the 1993 winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, as well as three of the biological engineering faculty members who in less than a year would vote on whether Sherley got tenure.

On the afternoon of January 3, 2005, Doug Lauffenburger and Peter Dedon met with Sherley to deliver the news that his tenure case had been rejected. Sherley and Lauffenburger met again three days later, this time alone, and Sherley claims Lauffenburger said “he knew my race would be an issue in the revi
ew of my tenure case.” It was at that moment that Sherley began “to consider that racism was playing a role in Doug’s decision.” (Lauffenburger declined to comment for this article.)

Sherley believed he’d been the victim of both racism and conflict of interest. He felt Lauffenburger had violated university rules by requesting a referee letter from his wife, Linda Griffith. Sherley says Lauffenburger was well aware that he and Griffith had a history of acrimony. On January 24, 2005, Sherley requested that the Institute investigate his claims. Over the next two years MIT launched a series of grievance hearings and investigations into Sherley’s accusations. The investigations exonerated the Institute, which led to further appeals by Sherley, which led to still more committees and reviews. Sherley, whose appointment at the Institute was supposed to have ended on June 30, 2006, was allowed to stay for an additional year. Other than that, nothing changed.

Sherley began his hunger strike on February 5 after a final meal of two bowls of Chex cereal. The ensuing uproar placed the Institute in the curious position of being attacked both from the left, which decried what it saw as racial injustice, and from the right. “This is MIT,” Rush Limbaugh told his radio audience on February 6. “They’re not going to tenure a guy who doesn’t fall in line on this embryonic stem cell business.”

It was primarily the racism charge that put the Institute on the defensive. Though discrimination is often thought of as a relic on progressive college campuses, MIT has been battling the perception that it is inhospitable to African Americans throughout the past quarter century. Sherley is not the first black MIT professor to stage a hunger strike: James H. Williams Jr. fasted one day each week for a month in 1991 to protest the small number of black professors on campus, as well as what he told the Globe was the “neo-colonial” treatment of black students. In 1996, James Jennings, a tenured UMass Boston professor, claimed that MIT hadn’t included tenure in a job offer it had extended to him because some members of his recruitment committee felt Jennings didn’t meet the impossibly high standard of being one of the nation’s three best black scholars. The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination ruled in Jennings’s favor, and the matter was settled out of court. Past MIT presidents Paul Gray and Charles Vest both cited the failure to improve faculty diversity as among their biggest regrets. Yet nearly 20 years after Gray stepped down, only 32 out of MIT’s current 998 professors were black, with only 17 of them holding tenure. Even the headlines seemed not to have changed. “Racial Bias at MIT?” asked the Washington Times; “Professor Accuses MIT of Racism” ran above a story in the Globe.

On the evening of February 15, the night before MIT’s annual breakfast to honor the legacy of Martin Luther King, two faculty members representing Sherley in negotiations with the administration came to his house and excitedly announced a breakthrough. If Sherley ended the hunger strike, he says they told him, the university was offering either to negotiate tenure somewhere other than biological engineering, or to bring in an outside arbitrator to decide the whole thing.

The next day, Sherley and the Institute issued statements to the press. MIT said it would “continue to work toward resolution of our differences with Professor Sherley.” Sherley announced he was ending his protest and called for “the administration to act in good faith” during the ongoing negotiations.

Not long after, provost L. Rafael Reif wrote to Sherley’s faculty representative, professor Kenneth Manning, to inform him that, whatever anyone else may have read into the MIT statement, as far as the Institute was concerned, there would be no tenure. MIT had reached an “endpoint” on that matter, Reif wrote, and Sherley would have to leave by June 30, 2007. Manning, who is black and has been an MIT professor for 33 years, promptly withdrew from the negotiations process, saying it was “not ‘mediation’ in any fair sense of the term that I am aware of.” A month after that, Reif e-mailed the entire MIT faculty, insisting that no deal was ever made with Sherley. Reif said the administration had explored tenure for Sherley outside the biological engineering department, “but no other option was found.” Why such an effort was undertaken if there’d never been an arrangement with Sherley was unclear. Nor was it apparent why Sherley would have ended his hunger strike absent any sort of agreement. I put that question to Reif in an e-mail. “I can’t speak for Professor Sherley,” he replied.

In any case, once the hunger strike ended, reporters from national publications who’d been considering writing articles about Sherley quit responding to his e-mails. Rather than Sherley himself, it was his story line that seemed to be dying.

When it comes to a heavily white faculty, MIT is hardly alone among elite, science-oriented universities. Blacks make up only 3.5 percent of the full-time faculty at Johns Hopkins, for instance, and 3.2 percent at Carnegie Mellon, while at the California Institute of Technology, as of 2005, just 4 out of 282 professors were black. Still, in the months after Sherley’s hunger strike, there was a sense among the Institute’s small minority community that, whatever the merits of the decision to deny tenure, the administration had been too quick to dismiss Sherley’s claims. Indeed, if the end of the hunger strike had quieted the press, it had only served to further incense some nonwhite faculty members who suspected that the Institute either was in denial, or had calculated that by simply repeating the same denials over and over, the entire embarrassing spectacle would just blow over. Most frustrating of all, however, was the emerging sense that MIT had misled one of its professors in order to end a very public humiliation.

In the March/April issue of the MIT Faculty Newsletter, professor Michel DeGraff, who is black, published an article outlining many of Sherley’s claims. In response, professor Steven R. Tannenbaum, a member of the biological engineering faculty, sent an enraged e-mail to a colleague on the newsletter’s editorial board. “I am frankly disgusted at the piece of garbage FN published by DeGraff,” Tannenbaum wrote, calling the submission a “diatribe” and “full of lies.” Around this time, DeGraff ran into Tannenbaum in the faculty lunchroom and extended his hand. Tannenbaum refused to shake it, saying, “We’re not friends…” Sitting with Tannenbaum was Dr. Jacquin Niles, who is black, and who was at the time considering whether to accept a job offer in biological engineering. (In some circles, he was regarded as the minority replacement for Sherley.)

In May, the MIT researcher Chi-Sang Poon circulated a letter he’d written to L. Rafael Reif, comparing him in a roundabout fashion to disgraced U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, and imploring him to get out of the way while “other departmental leaderships proceed with Professor Sherley’s tenure case.…” Then, just last month, in the most extraordinary development of all, professor Frank Douglas, an African American who is the executive director of the MIT Center for Biomedical Innovation, announced his resignation from the Institute in protest of Sherley’s treatment. In an e-mail to associate provost Claude Canizares, who had represented the Institute in negotiations during the hunger strike, Douglas explained that, to his thinking, the issue had nothing to do with whether Sherley deserved tenure. Th
e problems at MIT, he wrote, affect “every present and future minority faculty member….” It reminded him of the 1960s, he wrote, “when institutions did not understand the existence and insidiousness of institutional racism.”

Canizares asked Douglas to reconsider, to stay and be “part of the solution.” Douglas declined, wondering how that would work when the Institute didn’t even seem to be serious about the problem.

As the controversy simmered, about the only two parties who hadn’t said anything in the media were Doug Lauffenburger and Linda Griffith. I decided one afternoon in March to try them over e-mail. Fifteen minutes later, Griffith called me. She sounded hurt and angry, and she spoke very fast. She said she’d remained silent in the press because the administration had warned her that if she made any comments beyond what they had approved, she’d be on her own in any lawsuit Sherley might file. “I’ve been completely scared to say anything,” she said.

It had come as a surprise, Griffith said, when Sherley began claiming they had been adversaries. In truth, she said, they’d been friends. She’d even used more than $1 million of her own grant money to help fund his research. Sherley’s allegations were a “smoke screen,” she said. “He didn’t make any of these kinds of charges, he didn’t make any of these claims, until he got his tenure decision.”

At the end of March, more than two years after Sherley’s tenure decision, 20 members of the biological engineering department finally released a statement responding to Sherley’s accusations: The faculty knew of no conflict between Griffith and Sherley. The decision to deny tenure had come from the faculty as a whole, not just from Lauffenburger. During his time at MIT, Sherley had published only six peer-reviewed papers, and was the lead or coauthor on only three of those. (A typical candidate might have 20 or more such papers.) Sherley’s external referee letters “were not strong enough.” And Sherley had secured only $1.5 million in research funding in the six years leading up to his tenure review, and $1 million of that had come from Griffith.

Charles Morton, the Ph.D. student I’d met at Sherley’s teach-in, was grateful to finally get the other side of the story. MIT had waited too long to respond, he said. “That left the scientists and engineers with incomplete data. We don’t like that.” Had he ever seen any evidence that Lauffenburger or Griffith is racist? “Absolutely not.”

Professor William Thilly, a member of the biological engineering faculty whom Sherley considers a mentor, believes Sherley deserved tenure. In an e-mail, Thilly said Sherley’s unconventional stem cell theories were the main problem for him, but “several interpersonal relationships had soured and that didn’t help.” Thilly said he’d “never encountered a critic of James’s work that could be deemed racist; ‘pissed off’ was a better characterization.”

When I visited Sherley at his office for the final time, he bristled at the assertions of the biological engineering faculty. Linda Griffith had given him $1 million from her grants? “My contributions helped her get those grants!” he told me. “No one gave me anything.”

It was true, he said, that he had published fewer papers than some, but “the word is ‘impact.’ Other cases have been tenured with the same number of papers I have. The question is whether or not I’ve had an impact on my field. They don’t address that fact.”

I asked him about his contention that he’d received no pay increases in his time at the Institute. Peter Dedon had told me that Sherley got raises like everyone else, except for the year they were frozen across the board. Sherley opened a binder and flipped through the pages until he found his salary records. I could see from them that he’d received a raise of about 4 percent on three occasions, 14 percent the year he was promoted from assistant to associate professor, 2 percent another year, and no raise twice. The information from his own notes seemed a genuine surprise. He looked up at me, silent. “Pete shouldn’t be giving you that information,” he finally said. “Even a 2 percent—I dare say people got more than 2 percent.”

Sherley said the June 30 deadline became invalid the moment the Institute agreed to offer him either tenure or arbitration. He wasn’t going anywhere, he said, until the administration started negotiating in good faith. “How am I supposed to be getting ready to leave,” he said, “when this hasn’t even been resolved?”

Was it possible that he could simply ignore the Institute’s decision? How would that work? As this story went to press, the deadline was approaching and Sherley himself wasn’t sure. “Will I suddenly not have e-mail access? I don’t know. Will I not be able to get into my office? Will they really make my staff leave—for no reason?”