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
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.