Discrimination in Academia

A faculty member and administrator who resigned over conditions at MIT speaks out.

By | October 1, 2007

<figcaption>MIT Professor James Sherley in his office. Credit: AP Photo / Chitose Suzuki</figcaption>
MIT Professor James Sherley in his office. Credit: AP Photo / Chitose Suzuki

Editor's Note: The Scientist published this piece online on July 31, 2007 (see http://www.the-scientist.com/news/display/53451/). Frank Douglas resigned from senior positions at MIT earlier this summer, in the wake of the Institute's controversial denial of tenure to James Sherley, who staged a hunger strike in protest in February. Please comment on this piece and related issues by clicking here.

On June 3, I resigned faculty and administrative positions at MIT, effective June 30. I did so because I perceived an unconscious discrimination against minorities and because my colleagues and the institute authorities did not act on my recommendations to address these issues. The timing was such that many of my colleagues thought I was resigning over the case of James Sherley, who was denied tenure in 2004 and went on a hunger strike earlier this year in protest, but my decision was based on the complex, insidious nature of discrimination in a university context.

I will go into more detail about my decision below, but several things have become clear to me throughout my decades of experience in industry and academic science. In academia, the leaders and change agents of society and the world are educated, imprinted, and nurtured. Selecting and preparing these future citizens and leaders has historically relied on various methods. Foremost is that based on excellence, whether it is in the ability to recite, repeat, or find new solutions to historical problems. This is the discrimination of excellence to the discipline, and it is widely held to be a good thing.

The other two methods are not considered as positive because of the role that personal preferences - that is, prejudices - play in them. One, the curious phenomenon of fraternities, sororities, and special clubs, which discriminate along social lines, is the discrimination of social acceptance. The other, based on a behavioral or style component supportive of the goals of the department or discipline, is the discrimination of best fit. What makes these selection methods particularly troublesome for minorities is that discrimination of excellence to the discipline is influenced by the other two criteria. Recent events at MIT have been no exception to this pattern.

MIT: From women to BiDil

In 1994, women faculty at MIT expressed their belief that "unequal treatment of women who came to MIT makes it more difficult for them to succeed, causes them to be accorded less recognition when they do ... and that [as a result,] these women can actually become negative role models for younger women."

The response of then-MIT president Charles M. Vest was most instructive: "I, like most of my male colleagues, believe that we are highly supportive of our junior women faculty members. However, I sat bolt upright in my chair when a senior woman, who has felt unfairly treated for sometime, said: 'I also felt very positive when I was young.'" That sarcastic comment indicated that when she was a young faculty member, she did not realize the extent of the discrimination to which she was being subjected.

These women faculty were facing discrimination of social acceptance and best fit, and recognized the impact that it would eventually have on their evaluation with respect to discrimination of excellence to the discipline.

Although some women faculty believe that the gains made by women faculty at MIT have been modest, the movement initially led by Nancy Hopkins has quite sensitized MIT. When it seemed last year that Nobel Laureate Susumu Tonegawa wanted to actively block the hiring of Alla Karpova, a young woman, there was an immediate reaction from 11 senior women faculty, who engaged the administration in this issue. They wrote that MIT had "damaged [its] reputation as an institution that supports academic fairness." Ultimately, Karpova declined the offer of a faculty position at MIT, saying, "I could not develop my scientific career at MIT in the kind of nurturing atmosphere that I and young people joining my lab would need to succeed."

Given the potential discrimination against Karpova with respect to best fit, her chances of meeting the criteria under discrimination of excellence to the discipline at MIT would be impaired. The fact that the administration and a large segment of MIT expressed dismay that this situation had occurred illustrates that fighting for the rights of women faculty has attained social acceptance.

In March 2007, I was invited to make a presentation at a symposium organized by David Jones in the MIT Department of Science, Technology, and Society. The attendees were primarily academics from MIT and other universities. I presented health statistics, focusing on BiDil, a drug that is marketed for the treatment of congestive heart failure in self-identified African American patients. Although I was forewarned that the group was hostile to this drug, which it labeled a "race drug" that the FDA should never have approved, I was astounded at the lack of appreciation of the realities of the situation: This drug had demonstrated a 43% decrease in mortality in a population that dies at a rate up to twice that of white patients.

The group seemed uninterested in discussing the drug development and regulatory issues associated with BiDil. In short, it appeared that it was socially acceptable to ignore scientific facts and the impact on the lives of the affected patients in favor of pursuing a discussion about a race drug. As I told the audience, given the large sums that are raised each year for some diseases that happen to disproportionately affect other ethnic groups, I rather doubt that if we were fortunate to find a good treatment for those diseases, we would deny those patients access to the drug on the basis that it was a race drug.

"I began to wonder whether there was a lack of integrity at the highest levels of the Institute, or simply a lack of care in expressing the Institute's intention. "

The James Sherley case

In 2004, the Department of Biological Engineering denied tenure to James Sherley, who went through an appeal process that he claims was tainted by "racism and conflict of interest." In February 2007, he began a 12-day hunger strike in protest, which he ended because he thought that the administration at MIT had "committed to continue to work toward resolution of its differences with Professor James Sherley," according to a letter to me from associate provost, Claude Canizares.

Along the way, I had made the simple suggestion that MIT should assign an external panel to evaluate and make recommendations to improve the environment in which minority faculty at MIT work. I also recommended that depending on the findings of this external commission, a decision could be made as to whether the Sherley case should be evaluated further.

In April, MIT made it clear that it intended to enforce Sherley's departure by June 30. What was astounding to me was that MIT said it had no intention of involving an outside mediator. MIT also withdrew from an agreement to discuss the "differences" as understood by Sherley.

I began to wonder whether there was a lack of integrity at the highest levels of the Institute, or simply a lack of care in expressing the Institute's intention. I concluded that it was not an issue of lack of capability, but one of lack of will to deal with a problem that had clearly polarized minority faculty and the larger MIT community. James Sherley's open and confrontational e-mails about his perception of racism and conflict of interest that led to his being denied tenure created sympathizers and critics among both the minority and majority faculty. His unorthodox and somewhat "unacademic" approach made it difficult for some to support him openly.

The administration failed to recognize that the case had become a complex mixture of discrimination of excellence to the discipline, social acceptability, and best fit, and that it needed to deal with these separately and then reassess possible cross contamination. While women faculty had used the metric paradigm, highlighting differences in the size of labs and access to resources to make their case, Sherley focused on process. The approach by the women faculty met criteria for social acceptance. Sherley's unorthodox approach had little chance of success because it took many out of their best-fit and social-acceptance comfort zones.

I decided to resign and did so on June 3. Here is what I wrote to Canizares in my resignation letter, which was released publicly. This is the part that the press and MIT have chosen to ignore: "The issue for me is not whether Prof. Sherley should be given immediate tenure or not. I cannot judge that and would not even presume to do so. The issue is: Why has this great institution not been able to find a mutually acceptable solution for a problem that affects not only Prof. Sherley, but [also] every present and future minority faculty member? I am convinced, and I have other reasons to believe this, that the will to do this is lacking."

Following my announcement of resignation on June 3, I engaged in three weeks of intense discussions with members of the administration, and many colleagues. They expressed dismay at my leaving and were convinced that my action was based on inadequate knowledge of the facts of the Sherley case. It was striking that although I repeatedly stated that Sherley's tenure was not the reason for my resignation, my colleagues were so trapped by the sanctity of the tenure process that they could not see the larger problem.

I decided that I do not "fit" in such an environment, and as I said in my resignation letter: "I would neither be able to advise young Black [faculty] about their prospects of flourishing in the current environment, nor about avenues available to affect change when agreements or processes are transgressed."

What's next?

Institutions such as MIT will proudly parade successes in increasing the number of minority undergraduate and graduate students, and perhaps even the entry of young minority faculty. As promising as these statistics might be, they do not predict success for minority faculty seeking tenure. Indeed, they are irrelevant, because the issues of fit are quite different at each stratum.

The absence of evidence of racial discrimination does not equate to evidence of absence of racial discrimination. James Sherley's case may have been one of the interplay between discrimination of excellence to the discipline and discrimination of fit. When there is insensitivity to the challenges of diversity, what we have is an institution trapped by its historical paradigms. Such an institution may not be relevant for tomorrow's world.

I knew and worked closely with many brilliant and humane professors and leaders at MIT, but there is a major problem that lies just below the surface. MIT has not grasped the full and global impact of diversity. It prides itself as a place where "a thousand flowers bloom," but these are independent blooms. MIT also needs to be a place where, through cross-pollination, hybrid and novel transformative solutions are evolved and tested to address today's and tomorrow's problems. MIT must reexamine its criteria for discrimination of social acceptability and best fit to ensure that it is relevant in a rapidly changing world.

Frank Douglas is the former Professor of the Practice at MIT and director of MIT's Center for Biomedical Innovation.


December 26, 2008

I think "assign an external panel" is a good suggestion (or a necessary step) if there is a disagreement between an employee and the school, because an internal panel will be affected by conflict of interest. The author did not agree with the school on this issue. Would the school be happy with that? How could the author obtain a full support from school for his career if he did not listen to the school in the past? It would be wise to resign should no full support can be obtained. This may be a type of conflict of interest. How many employees would like do what the school dislike? Is it better to listen to school if one would like to stay? Therefore, an external panel may avoid the conflict of interest if a disagreement occurs between an employee and a school.\n
Avatar of: Louis Cohen

Louis Cohen

Posts: 1

December 26, 2008

I had the pleasure of knowing Dr. Douglas when he was a Faculty Member at the University of Chicago. His tenure here was too brief. He has had a deservedly distinguished career. \n\nIt takes courage to resign as he did. It would take courage to have stayed and continue to try to cause change from within. He is a gifted diplomat and persuasive and his concerns and their remedies probably would have been addressed, though academic change is not often swift. I wish him and MIT without him well.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 107

December 27, 2008

Your verbatim republication of this piece a year and a half on, without comment, has piqued my curiosity. Is there some significance to the sesquiennial? New circumstances? Someone doing a favor for a friend?
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 125

December 28, 2008

Their awful teaching skills and unproductive or unremarkable research contributions is a clear proof that white-privilege entitlement, but not merits, is the reason why they are there and not more faculty of ethnic minorities who are often more qualified to be in their positions. This is also why so many American corporations are unprofitable or bankrupt by the mismanagement under the predominantly white, oldboy network.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 2

December 30, 2008

My understanding is that if discrimination of excellence to a discipline will out at an institution is the highest value then you can guide others based on knowing that at that institution, that value holding for all conflicts or at least some avenue will exist for which that value will hold. \nHis resignation demonstrates great character.
Avatar of: Alison McCook

Alison McCook

Posts: 68

January 4, 2009

Thanks for your comment. We made this article freely available from our archives over the year-end holiday of 2008 as a look back at some of our more controversial stories. \n\nAlison McCook\nDeputy Editor
Avatar of: David Clark

David Clark

Posts: 4

January 8, 2009

Protesting about "discrimination" in the USA must take about as much courage as protesting about capitalism did in the old Soviet Union.

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