Validating Blackademia

by Zeke Turner | 3/6/07 6:00am

On Sept. 19, 2006, James Sherley, a 49-year-old black associate professor of biological engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, won a $2.5 million grant from the National Institute of Health for his work with adult stem cells. Five months later, on a gray February morning, after two bowls of Chex, Sherley began to starve himself outside of the office of MIT's provost. He was protesting the administration's decision to deny him tenure, which he believed was based on his race.

"I will either see the provost resign and my hard-earned tenure granted at MIT, or I will die defiantly right outside his office," Sherley wrote in a letter to the editor of The Tech, MIT's campus newspaper, in December 2006.

We cannot know what led MIT to deny Sherley tenure because tenure processes are kept confidential. We should not trouble ourselves by imagining what went on behind closed doors during Sherley's tenure hearing. But we must ask ourselves why Sherley -- a man who received $2.5 dollars worth of validation last September -- would be moved to starve himself when denied tenure from an academic powerhouse such as MIT.

Should we not worry that the pressures on black academics are so severe that they warrant such extreme acts of protest? If we refuse to validate Sherley as a critic of MIT's administration, we must validate him as a black academic facing insurmountable pressure to become tenured at a leading university.

Sherley's protest surprisingly received very little sympathy from students at MIT.

"This guy was kind of a sore loser," says Ben Wasserman, a senior at MIT. "Race, ethnicity and sex don't matter at MIT; it's the quality of your work."

There was little support behind Sherley's protest because it is steeped in ambiguity. No one can decide whether Sherley is a race-baiting, embittered persona non grata or a genuinely self-sacrificing academic Ghandi.

It is unclear if we should view Sherley's demonstration as a planned fast, a hunger strike, a desperate cry for help or, as Harvard Crimson columnist Shai Bronshtein claims, a diet.

In situations like these we find comfort and clarity by reducing the ambiguity to a binary. We want to ignore the complexity of Sherley's situation and denounce him as an unqualified, immoral whiner or praise him as sincere victim nobly sacrificing his dignity to end racism.

"I'm not going to doubt that he's sincere," says J. Martin Favor, chair of Dartmouth's African and African-American studies department. "But that doesn't mean that he isn't wrong."

At the end of the day, we will never get the concrete answers we are looking for. We will never know if Sherley was denied laboratory space because he is black or if a vicious coterie of administrators actually aligned with each other to block Sherley's application (as he claims).

We should trouble ourselves, however, with the degree and severity of Sherley's protest -- not its merits.

"What if he really is suicidal?" asks Favor. "What makes an African-American professor at an elite university suicidal over the question of tenure?"

Sherley's case has reminded us that nowhere is validation more precious than at the intersection of race and academia. Academics of color face the normal pressures of getting published, pioneering new fields of research and earning tenure while managing an extra set of responsibilities and stresses.

"There's a burnout factor," says Favor. "How much can you do your research, teach your classes, serve on all sorts of committees, mentor students of color and mentor faculty of color who are junior to you."

We at Dartmouth should be proud that we continue to welcome faculty of color, but it is our responsibility to validate the pressures they face. As much as we craft policy around responsibility and inclusion, we cannot erase academia and science's legacy of racism and exclusion.

Twelve days and 20 pounds after he began his hunger strike, Sherley abandoned his regiment of water, vitamins and electrolytes and resumed his usual diet. He is still untenured, he is still black, and he is still subject to the pressures that weigh on minorities in academia.

We will never be able to evaluate the veracity of Sherley's claims, but we owe it to him to validate his struggle.

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