Who knows what goes on behind closed doors in any promotion at any institution? However, with the high amount of Federal funding that goes into research institutions, such as MIT, this universal problem of a lack of African-American scientists in faculty positions is appalling and should be seriously questioned. There is a lot of hand-wringing that accompanies these discussions, but when I see a man who has hacked his way through the system and get denied, it make one wonder.

James Sherley, an African-American stem cell researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, began a hunger strike last week to protest the school’s denial of his bid for tenure. Claiming that racism played a part in his rejection, Sherley vows to maintain a daily presence outside the provost’s office until MIT “admits” its bias and grants him tenure. His protest has divided the faculty and shined a spotlight on the dearth of tenured African-American scientists at the nation’s elite research institutions.

Sherley, an associate professor, would have been the first tenured African American in the 41-person biological engineering department on a campus where 4% of the tenured faculty are under-represented ethnic minorities. Despite winning a $2.5 million Director’s Pioneer Award from the National Institutes of Health for work on expanding lines of human adult stem cells, Sherley’s request for tenure was denied in January 2005. Two internal reviews didn’t change the decision. Sherley’s list of complaints includes the allegation that he was given less laboratory space than other colleagues and that the department chair asked his wife–a departmental colleague who often clashed with Sherley–to weigh in on the tenure decision. He also believes that some of the hostility from his colleagues is fueled by his opposition to human embryonic stem cell research.


Sherley’s hunger strike has also elicited support from two former MIT researchers, both African Americans, who say they encountered an adverse climate at the school. “Some of my experiences during that time undercut my status and represent the kind of racism that … Sherley is opposing,” wrote Sylvia Sanders, an assistant professor of biology between 1997 and 2001, in a 7 February letter circulating among MIT faculty. In one case, she says, a senior white professor told her that she had violated rules by bringing students into the faculty lunchroom. (There is no such rule.)

Sanders’s letter also cited the reaction of a white colleague after returning from a neuroscience meeting. “There were 10,000 neuroscientists there, and the only black people I saw were the waiters. Why is that?” he asked her during an elevator ride. When she responded by asking him, “Why are there so few African Americans at MIT?'” he replied: “Anyone can be a neuroscientist, but this is MIT!” Sanders now teaches third grade at a public school in Palo Alto, California.

[excerpts from the AAAS publication, Science.]

I think it would be naive to think his opposition to embryonic stem cell research did not play a role. However, conservative African Americans have an even tougher time in academia and elsewhere. He probably would have been denied had he been white, based on his stem cell stance, but tenure is well known to be based not just on merit (his $2.5 M grant sort of speaks to his abilities) but throughout academia, it is also based on how well you “fit in.” That leaves many people out of the tenured ranks: women, African-Americans, Asian, hispanics, and the list goes on.

African-Americans in science face many hurdles: their African-American friends telling them they are too “white” for working in such an egg-head field, while white scientists think the only reason why they were admitted into school, or get their grants, is because of affirmative action. I am not black, so I cannot speak to the reasons why black scientists don’t feel welcome enough to either pursue graduate educations or stick with the field, if they graduate, or I cannot get into the heads of tenure committees. One reason given for the lack of black scientists is the lack of black students and faculty in the pipeline. Will someone please explain all this to Dr. Sherley, an accomplished faculty member who is in the pipeline and who wants to do medical research?

You know how hard it is for us scientists to try to convince students, minoirty or otherwise to enter scientific fields, with so many years of education and so little payoff in the end (postdocs usually last for 4-6 years on average now, and are paid $21K – if they are lucky. Starting professors – low $30’s)? How do I explain this story to the promising young black man who feels his parents’ sacrifice for his education would be better paid off by his going to law school (just what we need – more lawyers!)?

Sorry for the rant – this story puts a pit in my stomach.

Dr. Sherley’s lab web page here.

Dr. Sherley’s petition: here.

Dr. Sherley’s Pew Scholar web page: here.

An interview with Dr. Sherley regarding the “myth” of embryonic stem cell work here.