Professor at MIT Resigns, Criticizing Its Dealings With a Colleague Who Was Denied Tenure
A prominent professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has resigned, saying the university breached an agreement to reconsider allegations that racism played a role in the decision to deny tenure to his colleague, James L. Sherley.
"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 effect change when agreements or promises are transgressed," Frank L. Douglas, executive director of the university's Center for Biomedical Innovation, wrote in an e-mail message on Friday to MIT's president and provost, among other officials. Mr. Douglas and Mr. Sherley are both black.
MIT officials said on Monday that they believed Mr. Douglas's decision was based on "inaccurate information" and that they hoped he would "reconsider his decision" after meeting with administrators.
Mr. Sherley, an associate professor of biological engineering, has been contesting the decision to deny him tenure for more than two years and held a 12-day hunger strike this year in an effort to get the university to admit that racism played a role in that decision. He ended the hunger strike on February 16 after exchanging statements with university officials and forging an agreement with them that is now in dispute.
Faculty members in the biological-engineering department have defended their decision not to recommend Mr. Sherley for tenure, and the university has said its review found no evidence of racism in the proceedings. In February, the university announced plans to formally review the hiring, advancement, and experience of minority faculty members. An administrator said there was no connection between the timing of that announcement and Mr. Sherley's hunger strike (The Chronicle, February 6).
In the statements exchanged in February, the university pledged to "work toward resolution of our differences with Professor Sherley," and the professor said his demands, while "carefully modified from the original," were "still on the table."
Mr. Sherley and his supporters say the university's statement conveyed the spirit of a verbal agreement made by top administrators to participate in an external review of Mr. Sherley's case that might lead to his being tenured and that extended the deadline for his leaving the university.
In an e-mail reply to Mr. Douglas's message of resignation, however, an administrator unequivocally dissented.
"I can state categorically that MIT did not agree, implicitly or explicitly, to arbitration or to extend Professor Sherley's faculty appointment beyond June 30," wrote Claude R. Canizares, associate provost. "MIT's sole agreement with Professor Sherley was to exchange and release our respective statements."
Both Mr. Douglas, who declined to comment on Monday, and Mr. Sherley questioned why such a flimsy gesture would have persuaded Mr. Sherley to stop fasting.
"I mean, how could anybody believe that all I did was meet with them, and then we wrote some things down and passed them to each other, and then I left?" Mr. Sherley said in an interview on Monday.
Mr. Douglas posed a similar question in his response to Mr. Canizares's e-mail message.
Mr. Sherley said he would not meet with administrators until they agreed to acknowledge that the June 30 deadline for his exit was "not legitimate within our understanding of our agreement." So far, administrators have declined.
He also said that he was not sure that Mr. Douglas's resignation would persuade administrators to reconsider his case, but that he was "stunned" and "moved" that Mr. Douglas was willing to put his career at risk on principle.
He added that until learning of Mr. Douglas's decision on Friday, he had not spoken with the more-senior professor since a point during the hunger strike. At that time, he said, Mr. Douglas had, with "almost fatherly" support, suggested that he consider "another approach."
The two academics have said they are responding to what they see as a pattern at MIT of poor treatment of faculty members who are black or members of other underrepresented minority groups.
Another supporter of Mr. Sherley's said he also believed that there was such a pattern. "MIT's failure to fulfill their promise ... sends a very chilling message to all the minorities in the faculty, including the young and up-and-coming individuals," said Chi-Sang Poon, a research scientist who calls his own experience at the institute "terrible."
Mr. Poon sued the university in 2001, alleging discrimination and retaliation. He said he took that action "out of desperation" after having been consistently passed up for promotion over nearly two decades. Since he filed the lawsuit, he said, more Asian-Americans and members of underrepresented minority groups have been hired in his department and at the university, but it hasn't helped him. "I'm still struggling," he said.
Sylvia L. Sanders, a former assistant professor of biology at the institute, said she admired Mr. Douglas for taking a stand.
In February, Ms. Sanders wrote an open letter to the university protesting its treatment of Mr. Sherley. "I was the sole African American member of MIT's biology department from 1997-2001, when I resigned," Ms. Sanders wrote. "Some of my experiences during that time undercut my status and represent the kind of racism that Professor Sherley is opposing and that his ... colleagues claim does not exist."
Ms. Sanders left academe and now teaches third grade at a public school in Palo Alto, Calif. She said racism contributed to her resignation but was not the only cause. "It depends a lot on your personality too, whether you would thrive in an environment like that," Ms. Sanders said in an interview on Monday. "And, clearly, mine was not the thriving sort. Was that because of race? I don't know. Probably, partly. It gets very complicated and hard to say."
Ms. Sanders said she puts little faith in the university's decision to formally review the experience of minority faculty members. "The university announced that they would start this task force or whatever, and then they renege on their promise to James Sherley to negotiate, so why would anyone believe them?" she asked.