The Boston Globe
Scientist: Racism hurt him at MIT
Says key example is tenure being denied
By Marcella Bombardieri and Gareth Cook, Globe Staff | January
A stem cell research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology said yesterday that he is being denied the opportunity
to get tenure because of racism.
Dr. James L. Sherley, one of 28 black professors at MIT, said
the decision not to put him forward for tenure is only the latest
example of racism he has experienced at MIT. He said he has been
denied sufficient lab space, paid less than his peers, and repeatedly
slighted by colleagues.
Sherley, a proponent of controversial theories about stem cells,
also said that he has not been given the freedom to challenge
scientific orthodoxy that white faculty members are given.
"This is a case of an uppity Negro, and there is a group of faculty
who would like to see me move on," said Sherley, the only black
out of about 40 professors in his department.
Asked to respond to Sherley's allegations, MIT released a statement
saying: "An allegation of discrimination is a matter of great
concern to MIT. . . . These are serious charges that will be
handled seriously, according to our well-established procedures
for handling grievances."
Sherley's accusations touch on one of MIT's self-acknowledged
faults -- its trouble increasing the share of non-Asian minorities
on its faculty. Black, Hispanic, and Native American professors
represent about 4 percent of the 970-member faculty, though that
proportion is no lower than at most science and engineering programs
around the country.
Former President Charles M. Vest has said the greatest regret
of his tenure was not achieving greater diversity among the faculty
and graduate students.
"It is a cold, hard fact that there was a time when MIT was a
clear leader in attracting women and minorities to science and
engineering," he said at a faculty meeting last year. "I do not
feel today that we can claim that same leadership position."
His successor, Susan Hockfield, who started her job last month,
has cited diversity as a concern.
But only 41 percent of junior professors hired at MIT earn tenure,
and there are factors that may complicate Sherley's case. The
son of a Baptist minister, Sherley is vocal in his opposition
to research using human embryonic stem cells because he thinks
this amounts to sacrificing human lives. This stand puts him
at odds with most of his scientific colleagues -- and once prompted
a shouting match with another scientist at a faculty dinner at
the Blue Room, a Cambridge restaurant, he said.
Several stem cell biologists contacted by the Globe yesterday
said that Sherley's theories about adult stem cells, which do
not require the destruction of embryos, are controversial, and
that he had not published papers in the field's elite journals.
But Sherley said yesterday that Douglas A. Lauffenburger, the
director of the Biological Engineering division, did not cite
Sherley's publications as a reason for not supporting his tenure
application. Lauffenburger was traveling yesterday and could
not be reached.
If Sherley is not granted tenure this year, he will have to leave
MIT. He was hired in July 1998 as an assistant professor, and
later promoted to associate professor without tenure.
According to standard practice, Lauffenburger solicited letters
from the world experts in the field to comment on the importance
of Sherley's work. Then the senior faculty of the department
met in December to discuss the letters, Sherley's publications,
and his academic work in general, according to Sherley.
On Jan. 3, Sherley said, Lauffenburger told him that senior faculty
did not believe that Sherley's case for tenure was strong enough,
and that he would not forward it to the engineering council,
the next step in the process.
In a later meeting, Sherley said that Lauffenburger told him
the outside letters were strong, and that the fundamental problem
was that he had not convinced the faculty that his approach to
adult stem cell research was truly promising.
Sherley said that he has made major discoveries, and that MIT
has filed 10 patent applications stemming from his work, and
one has already been licensed, a sign of its commercial interest.
He stressed that he had not experienced any overt racism at MIT,
but that the environment was hostile in myriad ways. He recalled
many instances of being asked whose lab he worked in, when he
runs his own lab. When he didn't take the advice of other scientists,
he said, he was labeled "stubborn" instead of independent-minded.
After a faculty dinner devolved into a shouting match about the
relative merits of embryonic and adult stem cells, he said he
was no longer invited to the dinners. Slowly, he said, he became
more and more ostracized, and the atmosphere become more poisonous.
"This is what racism looks like today," he said.
On Sunday, Sherley sent an e-mail to about 15 people at MIT,
laying out his qualifications and examples of how he has been
"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. "But then, has
there ever been a single African American tenure candidate at
MIT who was not?"
In the e-mail, Sherley said he wanted Lauffenburger to give him
a written apology and send his tenure case forward.
Yesterday, Sherley said he has made appointments with the dean
of engineering and provost, both of whom were out of the country
yesterday and could not be reached for comment. Sherley said
that he also requested a meeting with Hockfield, but that her
office had not replied yet, other than to acknowledge the request.
"I have no plans to leave MIT," he said.
Hockfield did not respond to requests for comment yesterday.
Sherley's work focuses on discovering the intricate machinery
that stem cells use to divide, and harnessing this machinery
to coax stem cells to grow better in laboratory conditions.
Marcella Bombardieri can be reached at [log in to unmask]
Gareth Cook can be reached at [log in to unmask]
© Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company