MIT stem cell researcher threatens unprecedented hunger strike after alleging he was denied tenure because of his race
By Ishani Ganguli | January 10, 2007
An African-American associate professor of Biological Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has vowed to go on hunger strike if he does not receive tenure, alleging that it was denied because of his race.
James Sherley has been appealing the school's decision for nearly two years, and plans to camp outside the Provost's office starting on February 5 until he receives tenure and Provost L. Rafael Reif resigns. If neither occurs, "I will die defiantly," he said in an Email to colleagues. "I will go as far as I can because [racial bias] is not just a problem at MIT," Sherley told The Scientist.
A statement from MIT asserts that the school has a "well-established procedure for reviewing and granting tenure to faculty," and officials are "confident it was followed with integrity in this case." The statement adds that an independent review by senior faculty members reaffirmed the decision.
Less than half of junior professors at MIT receive tenure, according to a spokesperson for the university. Last January, Provost Reif launched a committee to improve MIT's retention of minority faculty.
During the strike, Sherley said he plans to spend mornings protesting in front of the office, and tending to his research in the afternoons, "unless they bar me from campus." He said he will hire a physician's assistant to "make sure my electrolytes don't get wacky too fast."
Sherley's appointment ends on January 31. He has offers at other institutions but said he has resolved to make his point at MIT.
Though history tells of several tenure controversies attributed to race, gender, or religious discrimination, Sherley's choice to go on hunger strike is likely a first, according to Jonathan Knight, director of the American Association of University Professors' program in Academic Freedom and Tenure.
Since joining the department in 1998, Sherley said he felt he was treated unfairly as its only African-American member, citing delays in funding allocations and smaller lab space than his junior faculty peers.
When his tenure case came up for review in 2004, he said that Biological Engineering division head Doug Lauffenburger handled the case improperly, in part due to conflict of interest -- Lauffenburger is married to Linda Griffith, a colleague with whom Sherley has sparred on scientific grounds. Sherley said Lauffenburger told him that his race was a factor in the decision.
In a letter to colleagues announcing his hunger strike, Sherley also cited his prominent stance on embryonic stem cell research as a reason he was unduly denied tenure.
Lauffenburger and Reif did not respond to requests for comment, and Griffith declined to comment beyond MIT's official statement.
A senior faculty member in Biological Engineering called Sherley's claims "factually incorrect," and said Sherley's research was "well-received" by MIT. "This has been just terribly painful for everyone," he said, "[but] some people get [tenure] and some people don't."
Last fall, Sherley received the prestigious $2.5 million Pioneer Award from the National Institutes of Health for "highly innovative research." Sherley was one of the first to demonstrate evidence of the immortal DNA strand hypothesis -- the theory that adult stem cells minimize mutations in their genomes by dividing asymmetrically. He has since worked to expand adult stem cells in culture by suppressing this asymmetric segregation. Since joining MIT in 1998, Sherley co-authored eight other original research papers.
Some of Sherley's colleagues have signed a petition to protest his tenure decision, and rallied to his cause. Harvard Medical School's George Church has been sending letters of support to top administrators since 2004, calling Sherley "a leader in mammalian adult stem cell division" and "a great lecturer and mentor."
Dennis Discher at the University of Pennsylvania, who does not know Sherley personally, said that his work in the "new" and "controversial" area of asymmetric stem cell division has important basic and applied research implications.
"MIT has a history, when confronted with difficult issues, of facing and meeting the challenge," Paula Hammond, chair of MIT's Committee on Minority Faculty Recruiting, wrote in an Email. "I have every confidence that the Institute will find a way to address this important issue as well."
Links within this article:
L. Rafael Reif
American Association of University Professors
Sherley, JL "Embryos aren't essential to stem-cell research," Nature, 423:381, May 22, 2003.
Merock, JR et al., "Cosegregation of chromosomes containing immortal DNA strands in cells that cycle with asymmetric stem cell kinetics," Cancer Res., December 1, 2002.
Lee, HS et al., "Clonal expansion of adult rat hepatic stem cell lines by suppression of asymmetric cell kinetics (SACK)," Biotechnol Bioeng. September 30, 2003.
Petition: Appeal Tenure Case of Professor James Sherley