James Sherley, MIT, and Denial: Won't Eat, Won't Work, What Will You Do?:


Tenure. It’s the carrot that dangles before academics; it’s prestige and a degree of job security; it’s the big prize in the big box of cracker jacks. “Cracker,” according to James Sherley of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), being the operative word. A black biologist on the tenure track at MIT, Sherley was denied tenure back in 2005 and has since been petitioning and appealing the decision, but all that ran out, so he plays the race card and accuses MIT of racism in their decision to deny him tenure.

Let me first be clear in saying that I believe most academic institutions are racist, either in unfairly giving people positions (such as Sherley’s own) based on race (he was hired as a “minority” candidate, after all, a racism to which he did not object) or in denying tenure, the ultimate prestige and sign of success, to qualified minority candidates. Happens all the time, especially in the Ivy Leagues (such as MIT). So does sexism, for that matter. A lot of noise about the possibility of the first ever female president of Harvard, right (note that one of the women up for the job is also black)? But I’d be surprised if that happened; women don’t get tenured with much more relish than do black people, and president? Huh! So my gripe with Sherley and his idiocy (more on this in a moment) is not that he’s wrong about racism; it’s that he’s wrong about it being racism in his case.

Following the rejection of his appeals and whatever else might be construed as useful and normal he did to this point, Sherley decided his new approach to winning the favor of his department and therefore tenure would be a hunger strike. Yes, a hunger strike. If you don’t give me what I want, I won’t eat, and that will show you! Rolling eyes. On top of His Chunkiness’ decision to stop eating, he also plants himself outside the Provost’s office from 9 to 5, demanding either the Provost’s resignation or his “hard earned” tenure (or both). Wtf? Can someone please explain to me how this . . . this . . . unprofessional, petulant, and bizarre behavior is going to allow him to keep his current job (just when DOES he teach, btw? If he’s starving himself in front of the Provost’s office?), let alone get him tenure.

But you know what? People (er, the press) hear “racism” and rush to judgment; well, that’s nothing new, right? Thinking of Steele’s work with white guilt, etc. But let’s just take a wee peek at Sherley’s MIT faculty page; note that there are exactly seven (7) publications listed between 1998 and 2003, none more recent. Now take a look at a page I randomly clicked (biological engineering is so not my field, so I’ve never heard of any of these people); Angela Belcher has so many publications that she furnishes a link to a separate page listing them all, and there are as many recent as older publications, indicating reliable and constant contributions to her field. Okay, so that was a random prof in the same department as Sherley; let’s take a look at the cv of the department director, the guy who leads by example; Lauffenburger’s publications are so extensive that he not only has a separate page but separate pages linked from that page.

That’s only two examples (feel free to click around MIT’s site), but even from these, it seems clear that academically, Sherley is out of his league. Publish or perish is the war cry of academics, and heard never more loudly than at top ranked institutions like MIT. He doesn’t publish. That alone would disqualify him for tenure anywhere, even at Joe’s Community College and Bait Shop.

A quick search of the site led me to MIT’s tenure guidelines and policies; now they don’t actually say “publish or perish,” but it’s implied throughout in phrases like “outstanding scholarship” and “major contributions to the field” and “first rank among scholars.” There is no doubt, even among us peon doctoral candidates that publications (and good ones, in peer reviewed journals–good ones) matter.

The MIT guidelines even stipulate that good teaching is not enough, popularity among students is not enough. According to Sherley’s appeal case and petition, however, that is ALL he really has to offer this top notch university: an “energetic and approachable personality” and an “enthusiasm for teaching,” among other equally empty and immeasurable qualities. Based on that criteria, MIT could tenure Jessica Simpson, who, let’s face it is very enthusiastic about teaching us about Proactiv and curing us of the dreaded acne.

Okay, so not only does Sherley not publish, he himself can’t think of any contributions he makes to the faculty beyond his bubbling personality. Ummm. After all, he’s been very vocal in opposition to and (according to Harvard professor Robert Stickgold who, btw, both researches and publishes extensively) quite wrong about embryonic stem cell research. Here’s a Stickgold letter to the editor of the Boston Globe:

JAMES SHERLEY may get an A for the fervor of his opposition to embryonic stem cell research, but he gets an F in biology, and given that he is a stem cell biologist at MIT, this is unjustifiable.

His three examples of “simple truth” are falsehoods: 1) The smallest human embryos are not warm to the touch, but, like a table or chair, take the temperature of their surrounding space ; 2) they do not move as they grow until they are many thousand times larger than these smallest embryos, and 3) they do not “breathe just as surely as we do” until they are millions of times larger.

His other claim, that embryonic stem cells can never be used to treat disease, may turn out to be true, as it may turn out that humans never return to the moon. But to state it as fact is ridiculous.

In the end, it appears that Sherley makes only one legitimate statement in his entire piece, that he subscribes to the belief that a single fertilized egg cell should be considered a full and complete human being and that he personally finds embryonic stem cell research immoral. Let him say that, and skip the mumbo jumbo. He’ll find only a small percentage of people who agree wit
h him.

Department of Psychiatry Harvard Medical School

So. Add to his professional inactivity and empty popularity among students his institutionally unpopular and politically suicidal views on embryonic stem cell research, particularly if he’s as wrong about it as Stickgold states, and you have to wonder about Sherley. And now he’s starving himself? Camping out in the hallway for eight hours a day (hours he should be spending making himself tenurable)?

To my mind, Sherley’s cries of “racism” in the decision not to grant him tenure are just so much political and social pressure being applied to force MIT to tenure a man simply and only because he is black. He in no way qualifies for the position he HAS let alone tenure, and I am appalled that he’s been taken this seriously. Next he’ll be donning diapers (his hunger strikes allows him to drink water, of course) and not budging from the Provost’s office door even for potty breaks. Will he get his way? It’s a tough call; the oh my God, I can’t be a or be seen as a racist climate is mercurial here. All I can say is that I hope not.


Here’s a link to the mostly white faces of ALL of the MIT faculty granted tenure in 2005 (only about 41% of junior faculty ever earn tenure at MIT), the year Sherley was up for it: http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2005/tenure-1019.html. Before you rush to “look how white (and male) they are!!” judgment, click on their cv’s, look at their qualifications. Then look again at Sherley’s. Does his black skin “equal” thirty or more publications (each of which reflects active participation in and contribution to his field)? I think not. Nor do I think my vagina equals thirty or more publications; being a woman, being a black person is just not enough to earn anything, let alone tenure at the top technical institute in the country, arguably in the world.

25 thoughts on “James Sherley, MIT, and Denial: Won't Eat, Won't Work, What Will You Do?:

  1. I’m still falling off my chair at your vagina not equaling 30 or more publications, I’m sorry 😛
    You kind of know my thoughts on this. Racism…while I agree it’s a terrible thing, it vexes me when people shout “racism” when it blatantly isn’t, or to further their own ends. We’re all equal. Which means not being treated less OR MORE favourably based on the colour of your skin.

  2. i think the problem that we are seeing here is how affirmative action doesn’t really work. but until we are able to offer decent educations to everyone equally, regardless of their financial standing, it’s going to be hard to say “let’s only look at qualifications”.

  3. lmao, Tally, yeah, that made me giggle too, and I wrote it!! Of course, I agree with you on all counts. :))

    Kerry, I’m not sure I understand your point here; are you saying that because he might not have received a very good education as a minority (he did his undergraduate work at Harvard, btw, so the implied assumption that because he’s black, he didn’t receive a decent education doesn’t quite work), he should be . . . what? granted tenure because the k-12 system or the entire educational apparatus is unfair? Wow. The implications of that, if I understand you correctly, are immeasurable and all of them that come to my mind are very bad for, even destructive to, our education and country as a whole. What would be the impetus for a quality education if NOT having one meant you didn’t have to work as hard or do as much? Yikes. I don’t want to soapbox, but that scares me senseless. (of course, a lot of folks think I am senseless, so . . . lol).

  4. i’m not sure i’m saying that. i’m just saying that i think you’re going to find it hard to convince people that going solely by qualifications is the way to go. there has to be some sort of help, i think, to help people step up in life. i’m not saying you shouldn’t work for it, by any means. but getting a good education can be exceptionally hard when you have no money. even being smart and working hard doesn’t guarantee you get scholarships into decent schools.

  5. Here is perfect example of someone fruitlooping out like the astronaut, just because they don’t get what they want. Book sense does not equate common sense and the lack of it has been the downfall of many people. It has nothing to do with race, just the ramblings of someone who will pull anything to get what they want, deserved or not.

    BTW…your vagina might not “equal” thirty or more publications, but I bet using it, you could get published in 30 or more to qualify. 🙂

  6. Excellent post Fuzzy
    About time people started using common sense, and get off the politically correct bandwagon that has very little to do with the real world.

    I am totally against racism. Personally I do not differentiate people because of their skin color or ethnic background or their gender.

    Education is very important. That does not guarantee that everyone will get a good education handed to them on a silver platter.

    In this particular case, Sherley is playing the political card….He went through the steps for tenure and he was denied…so instead of taking the correct course of addressing the reasons for his denial and then working to remove the deficiencies…which would undoubtedly entail vast amounts of work on his part…..
    Instead of taking the steps that every other person would have to take….he resorts to politics, childish behavior, and theatrics. I certainly would not be inclined to take any courses taught by this person.

    No matter what job we take in life, there are ground rules that we learn…we learn what is required for advancement.
    If we do not want to follow the rules, then we have a choice…we can quit that job and find another that suits our goals in a different fashion.

    Thank you for your thought provoking post.

  7. Hi Fuzzy,
    Instead of paraphrasing what Rainy Day wrote above, I’ll just say that I agree one hundred percent totally with her words. Very well put, Rainy. There is far too much ‘enabling’ of this sort of behaviour these days, and people should open their eyes and recognize it for what it is.

    Fuzzy, LOL.. although your last sentence in your blog post SOOO reflects the ‘youness of you’ and your tangy humour {LOVE IT!!} it sums up your argument perfectly. I love the way you write.. @@ hugs, G. xo

  8. It’s a tough haul for Professors seeking tenure anywhere much less MIT. I know so many that get 5 year hitches as Associate profs only to move on to the next when tenure doesn’t come along. Publish or Perish is right. If they bring in revenue / grant dollars aplenty and the University gets concerned that revenue may exit with the prof’s departure, then perhaps an easy layed Tenure will occur. Beyond that, there’s always politics.

  9. Hei Fuzz.

    Brilliantly written blog with well-held points of argument all the way through.
    He is clearly crying/wanting something, that he is way out of league in every way, so in comes the Ace Card in his book.
    Take care and do keep well. Rii xx

  10. So, I have just read several articles on this guy. For what that is worth as the info from the press is at best not ideal.

    Seems to me like this guy has ideas about limiting how far stem cell research can go and perhaps has religion behind those beliefs and making people unhappy!

    Could there be a deeper reason why he has not made tenure.

    I hate when anyone plays the race card and not don’t even get me started! I have nothing useful or nice to say about it!

    However, going in a hunger strike seems to indicate his belief in what he thinks is an injustice. Regardless, it still feels like there are agendas here on both sides of this and tenure is a side issue.

    But what do I know. I only read a few articles…over to your…BBB…be gentle!

  11. I believe Amber has brought up something to consider. Is it possibly true that most of our educational institutes are extremely liberal in thought and political support. It is also true that Sherley has taken a position on stem cell not supported by the media or education or liberal politicians. Perhaps Sherley just isn’t sharp enough to realize his pass over was due to his views and not his race? In either case it seems he shouldn’t be there anyway.
    Don’t assume that your vaginal prowress will get you published in the appropriate magazines. How ever you may make more money than as a teacher, even if you are the best teach around. lolol

  12. I was trying to be so good and not bring up the topic of your vag, but Heyman is so funny in the last part of his comment…could we be seeing Fuzzy in the top shelf mags soon….tee hee.!

  13. Thanks, everyone, for your great comments!! Especially Rainy, Gloria, and Rii for the great compliments on my writing :)) And Amber and Heyman, I agree that his views on embryonic stem cell research had something to do with his not getting tenure. Huggs all ’round!!

  14. Perhaps he thought the colour of his skin was a MITigating circumstance? Or maybe he just didn’t listen to ‘Weird Al’s “White & Nerdy”. Who can tell? Whatever the reason, as another commenter stated, should he achieve tenure on the basis of these outrageous antics, and were I a student at MIT, I would certainly be disinclined to want to be taught by him. Having lost totally any respect he originally had with both peers and students, I can’t see how MIT can back down now. Should they do so, they would lose all credibility in the academic world. And that would be disastrous given MIT’s status in said academic world. This isn’t about race, it never has been. The sooner Sherley gets that through his remarkably dense professorial head, the better.

  15. Hey Mitch and lol @ “MITigating” I think that your point about a loss of respect is a good one, especially among the students because they seem to be the only ones who are (at least vocally) supporting him. As I wrote in the post, his controversial views about embryonic stem cell research have been politically and, therefore in the highly political academic world, professionally suicidal and extremely unpopular among his colleagues and the institution as a whole (or so I gathered from what I’ve read and seen on the news; I don’t know this personally).

    I don’t know, but I would wager that he hasn’t had the respect of his peers as a result of these (apparently scientifically unsound and incorrect) views–the stinging letter to the editor of the Boston Globe from Stickgold seems to be indicative of the fallacies of whatever Sherley says about embryonic stem cells. The ethics of embyronic stem cell research are beyond my experience and education, but I do know that going against the tide, particularly about an area that garners a great deal of grant and research money, can end an academic career, or at the very least stop it in its tracks.

    He’s screaming “racism,” though, not academic, theoretical, or researching freedom. Ultimately, respect will likely play a part in his eventually being asked to leave MIT (they may not, for example, renew his contract after all this). Anyway, that remains to be seen. And thanks for not mentioning my “lower regions,” btw. Huggs to you and thanks for your great comments! :))

  16. It’s sad that this sort of behavior (aka using a political “hot topic” issue to get your way) seems to be happening more and more lately. Whatever happened to giving the job to the person most competent for the position? Why make life more complicated than it already is? Whine, and you shall receive? :p

  17. Oh good greif! i am so sick and tired of people playing the race card. Whitre people dont getot play it. i dont care what reasion, dont go there. Now, as far as this looney tune is concerned, cant they just fire him. isnt he being paid enough, and now he is being paid to starve to death in front of his bosses office. or is he being paid. and is there a sub for his classes. Why do we even have to deal with people like this? I want it and you have to give it to me because i am ______________________fill in the blank. Oh good greif.

  18. Hi Ceres, yes, the “whine and you shall receive” policy makes things unfair all around; the students are even short-changed because they end up with less than qualified professors.

    Gaby, I took a quick look at that paper and scanned the numbered points Samuels makes. I think that when grad students started unionizing several years ago, that was a step in the right direction. Some of his points, though, are problematic given that the basis of his complaint seems to be inequity; for example, all he’s really asking for is a replacement of one set of standards with a different one, one that may actually work to the detriment of higher education. As much as tenure problematizes things, it also serves as a pretty good impetus to stellar work, lots of it; in other words, with something to shoot for, professional academics are going to be more active in the field. The downside, and we’ve all seen this, is that some of those professionals begin resting on their laurels once they’ve won tenure. But that’s okay, too, because tenure isn’t as air-tight as it once was. I do agree with Samuels that those of us at the bottom of the food chain, those not on the tenure track, those exploited by having to patch together part-time classes at numerous institutions just to make a living (without any benefits, of course), need some sort of protection. A union might be a good option; I’d have to read his entire essay and do a bit of research before advocating it whole-heartedly. And I’d have to do some thinking about tenure itselt . . . maybe I’m not keen on having it removed simply because change is distasteful or because it’s the prize I’ve had my eye on or any of a number of intuitive or emotional reasons, rather than rational ones. Food for thought, Gaby, and I just love that. :)) Thanks, too, for your kind words about my blogs. Blogs are fun to write . . . low pressure stuff that I can run with.

    Yes, Claudia, I know. It IS a shame that we have to deal with people like this!! And it’s a real shame that anyone buys into that politically correct mumbo jumbo about “racism” without even looking at the man’s cv or his “accomplishments” in his field. He’s black, that’s good enough. Sigh.

    Thanks everyone for your great comments!! Keep ’em coming. :))

  19. I appreciate your consideration. Many just blow such ideas off. Yes rules and more rules make things bog down. I agree that we need incentive and so publishing should remain critical to maintaining tenure. (Tenure, by the way, isn’t all it’s cracked up to be in many ways…but the benefits and relief created by ANY job security is a blessing.) Still, the boredom creeps in even to the best and most enlightened Profs.

    I like Samuels ideas, though I think he puts a negative spin on it from the start by calling it a UNION. In the Academic Aristocracy and in the upper class the word Union causes tremors. Perhaps he should call it something else. The Docs and Lawyers have their protections and standards…why can’t profesional academicians? Movements are easy to do once ignited.

    More on slackers: Yes, I hate the slacking off that everyone seems to do once they are “in”. But ‘slacking’ seems to be a part of the human flaw in many a person…even this guy Sherley is slacking and he isn’t even tenured! He’s on a diet. LOL

    By not making tenure a freebie lifetime appointment could help. This is exactly my argument against lifetime appointments of ANYONE! But then that’s just a Llama’s take on it. (grin)

    Sorry, I didn’t mean to ramble on like this. I’ll bow out quietly now. My apologies.

  20. I love this sort of exchange, Gaby!! And I do see what you mean both about tenure not being all it’s cracked up to be, and it’s certainly not a guaranteed lifetime appointment, though getting it revoked is difficult to do, more and more univs are putting teaching standards on it, if not continued “contribution to the field” codicils. Sherley’s cv looks like one long slack off, though, and that’s sort of my point in this case; he’s not done anything to earn tenure in that he’s not playing the game (his embryonic stem cell claims) and he’s not publishing, etc. If this is him trying to earn tenure, what’s he going to do once he has it? There’s not much less he can do, so will getting out of bed in the morning prove too challenging? :))

    I think that Samuels article lays out some interesting points (again, I’ve read only the numbered points at the beginning at this point, so may be talking rot), and I don’t think that standarizing certain things about teaching in higher ed (as a grad student, part-time faculty, or full-time non-tenured faculty) is a “bad” thing. I do think that it is unrealistic to imagine that some community college in Opp Alabama is going to pay its part timers the same thing that Yale does; likewise, legislating class size opens a whole can of worms that makes the mind boggle from faculty to class space to annual offering of core class requirements to . . . as I say, mind boggling, esp for univs with large student bodies and limited resources.

    Anyway, it’s definitely an interesting set of ideas, ideas that sound like they belong in a country with free college for its citizens–they have this in many European countries, but I don’t know the workings of it, just that it must be overseen by the government, and that’s what Samuels is advocating, a sort of nationalized higher ed . . . I’m just not sure about that Gaby. But am definitely open to hearing more about it! You’re fab to share your thoughts about it with me, I truly appreciate it. :))

  21. Note: anyone is welcome to respond, either in agreement or in disagreement; however, rudeness will not be tolerated, nor will ad hominem “arguments.”

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