Friday, July 06, 2007

Sherley It's Time For An Update

The case of James Sherley's employment at MIT is still one of the most common searches leading to my web site, and there continue to be developments. To catch up, check out my first entry on this topic. (For you bloggers trying to get listed higher on Google, it actually *helps* to make a little spelling error deep in the entry...)

According to a news feature in Science Magazine last month, the biological engineering professor was asked to leave his position on June 30, 2007. Of note is that Frank Douglas resigned because MIT's handling of Sherley's case for tenure creates a hostile environment for African-Americans on campus. Douglas was the director of MIT's Center for Biomedical Innovation. He held faculty appointments in the science, engineering, and management schools.

It sounds to me like MIT has a problem with race. Philip Phillips, another Black scientist, formerly at MIT and now at the University of Illinois, predicts that Douglas will be treated as was Sherley—“as just another irrational person.” This got me thinking: I wonder how many irrational White, South Asian or Hispanic people there are who were denied tenure at MIT. Or is irrational a word only reserved for Black professors. I wonder also, how irrational individuals received appointments at the premier science institution in the world, if they were irrational.

I admit that some of Sherley's actions and his use of hyperbole (on this issue and others) can easily confuse what is the real issue at hand, but it is hard to lay the blame entirely on one man. Is MIT just offering lip service to issues of race? Do they have anything more than official statements to try and improve this situation? Is the environment there really hostile to African-Americans? What will James Sherley do next?


D.J. Seomun said...

MIT does not have a problem with race. They have tenured black professors before, and during Sherley's moment of fame, they tenured several more.

MIT made the right decision in not granting tenure to Sherley, whose antics made it clear that he was not deserving of the honor.

thomas said...

Thanks for your comment.

Why are you so confident about MIT's lack of a problem even though you are a thousand miles away. (I too am distant, so can really only ask questions.) It is true that Sherley's statements and actions are outrageous. However, that so many respected individuals are critical of MIT's handling of this case begs many more questions than have been answered.

Do you know how many Black tenured professors there are at MIT? The most recent information I have is 11. By my calculations, that's less than 3% of the total tenure pool.

An African-American colleague of mine at MIT confirmed to me the paucity of anyone of his skin color above the undergraduate level. There just are not that many Black post-docs, grad students or faculty there. He feels alone in that regard, but cannot report any manifestations of racism against him.

I am of the opinion that a healthy academic community should have people from different backgrounds, including race. My main point is that it seems like MIT is having trouble with this mission - one that they have said they support.

Could you share with me the data regarding recent promotions?

Drugmonkey said...

the perception of "gee, i don't see many african-american faces around" could be applied to most big Universities and most scientific meetings for that matter. African-americans are underrepresented in science, period. Is this more of a problem at MIT or any other place? That's hard to determine...

Given human nature, the hard data available, the hard data available from the gender equality thing and, finally, the increased snobbiness of institutions with high self- and external regard...yeah, they probably have a problem with race. but again, any worse than any other top flight research institution?

Drugmonkey said...

Sherley has left MIT for the Boston Biomedical Research Institute, in case anyone was wondering.