How Not to Get Tenure

February 6th, 2007

I remember hearing about this a while ago, but it’s making another news cycle:

A professor at MIT began a hunger strike yesterday in protest of the university’s decision to deny him tenure. Alleging racism in the workplace, Associate Professor James L. Sherley ’80 has vowed not to eat until MIT offers him tenure and fires Provost L. Rafael Reif.
“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 an e-mail to the MIT faculty in December.
Sherley claims that he was unfairly denied lab space and was treated poorly throughout his career at MIT due to his race. Sherley is African-American.

Well, if that’s the way he’s going to behave, maybe MIT made the right decision on tenure.  Since March Madness is right around the corner, let’s have a warmup pool:

1.  Will Sherley starve to death?
2.  What date will he die or eat again?
3.  Will he get tenure at MIT?

I’ll take: 1. No, 2. Wednesday, and 3. No.  He’ll end his strike when MIT publically offers him a new hearing, but they’ll make that offer just so Sherley can live and save face.  He seems to be a talented guy, my guess is that another school will take a gamble and give him a position.

There’s more info in the Globe.

Previous Comments

  1. joel Says:
    February 6th, 2007 at 9:10 am Hunger strikes in the US are always so silly because they garner little sympathy from the overweight public.
    May as well just hold his breath.My bet:
    1. No, or unless he’s a diabetic.
    2. Friday. He’s obviously delusional for wanting to be at MIT to begin with
    3. Absolutely not. And this episode will follow him if he goes to another university. See: student abstains for an A+
  2. TheEdge Says:
    February 6th, 2007 at 10:30 am The PiledHigherandDeeper blog pointed out this open letter in the Globe:…..lls_f.html
    Sadly, only one of the signees is actually a scientist, and none are in his department, so I don’t know how much it actually matters.
  3. eugene Says:
    February 6th, 2007 at 11:26 am Serious comments aside, the hunger strike might do him good if it lasts a few weeks. The poor guy probably gained a lot of weight due to stress during the whole thing. And the picture from the article seems to bear me out. Since he’s overweight, just like our American public, maybe there will be some sympathy.And, is it just me, or does the average professor usually lose a little weight right after they get tenure?
  4. Uncle Al Says:
    February 6th, 2007 at 11:32 am “I will either see the Provost resign and my hard-earned tenure granted at MIT, or I will die defiantly right outside his office”If only the rest of social engineering had such a deterministic exit strategy.
    His work is decidedly second-rate. Why shouldn’t diversity hiring be balanced by diversity firing?
  5. excimer Says:
    February 6th, 2007 at 12:01 pm I would be less willing to have sympathy for him, but hard numbers don’t lie:number of black chemistry profs at harvard: 0
    number of black chemistry profs at MIT: 0
    number of black chemistry profs at stanford: 0
    number of black chemistry profs at Illinois: 1 (physics prof, appointment by courtesy)
    number of black chemistry profs at Berkeley: 1 (Sarpong, who grew up in Africa)
    Highest number of black chemistry profs at one top 50 institution: 3 (just U. Washington. Rutgers has 2, the rest have 0 or 1.)

    Percent total: 1.2%

    ChemE fares little better (1.6%), as does MechE (2.0%), and math (0.9%) and computer science (0.3%) fare worse. The numbers are slightly higher for hispanics across the board and significantly higher for asians. Data was taken from here.

    It’s hard to deny racism still exists with hard numbers like these. The trouble comes when trying to find solutions. I want to make a distinction between black professors who grew up outside of the US versus those who grew up here to see if there is a statistical significance on where they are from. Given my views on race relations in the US, I imagine there is, but I don’t have any hard evidence to support it. Just a thought.

  6. Anonymous Says:
    February 6th, 2007 at 12:54 pm A very small percentage of the general public have jobs as professors at top universities, so it’s a bit of a stretch to make any real conclusions about hiring policies.
  7. anon Says:
    February 6th, 2007 at 1:07 pm And, you can’t publish stats like those until you also supply stats on how many black PhDs graduate in chemistry every year who have sufficient qualifications. While that may be a problem inandofitself, it is not racist hiring practices.
  8. K Says:
    February 6th, 2007 at 1:20 pm Matter of fact, I’d say it’s the complete opposite. Look at those letters announcing open tenure-track spots. They don’t have lines that say “Please send us more upper middle-class whites and Chinese emigres.”
  9. excimer Says:
    February 6th, 2007 at 2:26 pm To clarify: I gave these statistics not as a measure of hiring practices per se, but to point out that the academic elite in the sciences contains few african-american minorities. My point is not that this is due to hiring racism (which I imagine, considering the liberalism of most professors I know, this is NOT the main problem) but that there IS a problem, and Sherley’s pretty much a lone wolf in his position. My belief is that the problem has to do with race relations among blacks and whites in the US in total, not at the top of the academic heap-problems at the top usually start at the bottom. That, I imagine, puts a LOT of pressure for someone like Shirley to succeed.
  10. Hap Says:
    February 6th, 2007 at 5:35 pm I think that the chemistry profession doesn’t do well for a lot of people for reasons that don’t have to do with their qualifications; however, a hunger strike for tenure doesn’t seem to do much to alleviate that problem. At best, it generates a bunch of publicity for Sherley, most of it not good. Not only is he giving MIT an ultimatum they can’t accede to (otherwise, they will always have that threat hanging over their heads if they deny tenure to someone), they can chalk up the problems he brings up (which might exist – I don’t know) to the perceptions of someone not quite all there. Any other school which might hire him has to contemplate their ability to deal with a similar threat, and considering the permanence of tenure in most circumstances, this seems to make him almost unhireable.He has to hope that his (self-inflicted) plight gains enough publicity and protests in the wider community to force MIT’s hand, and that seems hard for me to believe possible, though anything can happen, I guess. I would figure that K-12 education would be a far more productive place for those forces and others to expend effort on.
  11. joel Says:
    February 6th, 2007 at 6:00 pm The earlier linked article says Sherley recently received an NIH director’s Pioneer award.
    This is highly prestigious, and I doubt many schools would not want some of that guaranteed
    overhead.Although it is for adult stem cells, which makes me wonder about his “controversial theories
    about stem cells,” and how this sort of gold plated funding fits in with the politics of the day.

    It would be interesting to know if there are many biological engineering Profs at MIT with similar
    (or dissimilar) views on embronic stem cells and whether it amounts to taking a human life.

  12. Anonymouse Says:
    February 6th, 2007 at 9:34 pm UCSD’s Organometallic Professor Joe O’Connor lost a tenure decision and moved to University of Nevada Reno while fighting it. He ultimately won and regained his position at UCSD. So Sherley has an array of methods to redress the tenure decision beyond going on a hunger strike.
  13. Paul Says:
    February 6th, 2007 at 10:21 pm That letter linked to above outlines a pretty good case for Sherley’s deserving tenure somewhere. He’s really messing things up by being so childish. It never ceases to amaze me how scientists, a group of people who pride themselves on being objective, will participate in the same dirty politics as everyone else.
  14. Anonymous 2 Says:
    February 6th, 2007 at 10:21 pm Although Uncle Al has weighed in with one of his expert commentaries I would disagree. What Uncle Al may not know about–since it has nothing to do with black lab coats of psychodelic drug synthesis–is that the division Shirley is in (Biological Engineering) has all sorts of weird dynamics. Linda Griffith is a notoriously difficult person and her husband happens to be Doug Lauffenberg, the chair. In the article in the Globe Shirley elused to this couple but doesn’t mention names.
  15. anon Says:
    February 7th, 2007 at 1:04 am Speaking of black lab coats of psychodelic drug synthesis…anyone notice the Org Lett ASAP on the synthesis of THC by Trost?
  16. Paul Says:
    February 7th, 2007 at 1:46 am Here it is. How many errors in grammar or punctuation can you find in the first column alone? I count four.
  17. Anonymous Says:
    February 7th, 2007 at 2:31 am Prof. Sherley is not being childish. Look at how long ago this began – Jan. 2005 two years. This man has gone through reviews, appeals, open letters, and new provosts. This man is not stupid. This isn’t about getting tenure anymore, but exposing MIT. It’s about making a problem know to the MIT community and an MIT administration that refuses to admit there is a problem. TheEdge post a letter from the BostonGlobe by Norm Chomsky (maybe not fully written by him). Well this is the same letter:

    but there are more signees.

  18. Shrug Says:
    February 7th, 2007 at 7:11 am Strangely though, Anonymous, there’s only one fully-MIT-affiliated hard-scientist on the list of signers. I don’t know if that means anything; it’s just worthwhile to note. I do get a chuckle when I read “Department of Writing and Humanistic Studies”. I think you lose some cred at MIT when you’re in a department like that…
  19. J Says:
    February 7th, 2007 at 7:48 am I’m not seeing the four errors in grammar or punctuation. In fact, I see none.
  20. The Chem Blog » Racially Unbalanced Says:
    February 7th, 2007 at 7:50 am […] Paul at ChemBark brought to our attention this little gem of a news story and perhaps wisely said little about the situation other than hunger strikes aren’t too conducive to furthering one’s prospects at other institutions. To be honest, it’s not a bad thing to be denied tenure at MIT. The process is so exquisitely political there you might as well just run for office in Boston. Seriously – egos gone wild. So, when I read that an MIT prof was going on hunger strike because they were being denied tenure I knew something was amiss. In a nut shell: a black guy named James L. Sherley was hired because, as one of his qualifications, he was black. An interesting qualification for a scientist, but I’m not going to step on anyone’s dick here – if MIT thinks they have a caucasian problem then they’re free to do what they wish about it, but you know shit is going to go down when a stipulation of employment is blackness and everyone knows this but you. […]
  21. anon Says:
    February 7th, 2007 at 9:07 am If you’re close to 50 and still not tenured, it’s time to take a hard look at yourself. Playing the race card will certainly get media attention (I give it another week) and not gain any ounce of respect. As I understand it, tenure decision is made by a committee and not just one person (although the chair’s view usually has more weight). As mentioned, it’s interesting to note that not one of the signee on the petition is from his dept.
  22. Paul Says:
    February 7th, 2007 at 10:25 am J: 1) Failure to enclose a non-restrictive, parenthetical phrase in commas, 2) Failure to maintain parallel construction in a list, 3) Failure to use a comma after an introductory word, and 4) Misplacement of an apostrophe.Am I an ass? Yes, but rules are rules and ignoring them in a formal written piece is really distracting to the reader.
  23. jb Says:
    February 7th, 2007 at 11:16 am Time for Trost to read Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynn Truss. Perhaps, he’s one of those P.I. who leaves the writing to his grad students/postdocs.
  24. Paul Says:
    February 7th, 2007 at 11:23 am Stay tuned for an upcoming grammar post. A new version of the ACS Style Guide came out last year and there were some interesting changes from the previous edition. It’s puzzling to figure out why ACS style chooses to deviate from standard written English in some cases but not others.
  25. J Says:
    February 7th, 2007 at 11:38 am Touche.
  26. Hap Says:
    February 7th, 2007 at 1:31 pm I read one of your compatriots, and while I can’t see how Sherley believes a hunger strike will get him tenure (as above), I don’t see what MIT’s point was here. If MIT believes that there’s a problem that should be remedied then it seems to make sense that it should have at least committed enough resources for the people they are allegedly helping to succeed. Pretending to remedy your racial inequities while denying the resources needed to do so and while steadfastly ignoring the (highly nonoptimal) personal relationships that sustain it is actually worse than doing nothing – at some point someone will recognize your dishonesty, making it hard for people to ever believe that you are willing to deal with your problems, and making it hard to attract the people to help without nuking your department. Of course, not advertising the status of the position to everyone but your applicant would probably also be helpful.Also, even acknowledging that this is apparently a department with more issues than a newsstand, why did MIT allow this to occur, knowing that eventually it would come to light and cause them substantial damage from within or without? There are limits to the autonomy one grants to departments, after all, and when the actions of a department risk a substantial amount of your school’s reputation, that would seem to be a good spot for some oversight.
  27. excimer Says:
    February 7th, 2007 at 2:36 pm Am I an ass? Yes, but rules are rules and ignoring them in a formal written piece is really distracting to the mildly autistic reader.Fixed that for you. Grammar Nazi’s are among my least-favorite group of Socially Acceptiable Obsessions (SAO’s). I find its relatively simple to skim past peoples’ linguistic foibles if one stops placing an emphasis on them.

    …right? ;)

  28. Paul Says:
    February 7th, 2007 at 2:46 pm Sure, but admit it: You found ” Evan’s ” to be annoying/distracting in the Trost paper. Who is Evan?
  29. bob Says:
    February 7th, 2007 at 3:22 pm Perhaps they can offer him a position in the departments of “Writing and Humanistic Studies” or “Urban Planning”, as those faculty appear more interested in having him than any of his actual coworkers.MIT can’t afford to cave on this. He won’t get tenure. I’m sure they’ll expand the affirmative action program now, though, so the next Shirley will probably get space, grants and lots of other goodies so it can’t be pinned on MIT if they suck. I’m surprised Bush hasn’t airmailed the guy the entire NSF budget since Shirley apparently only believes in adult stem cells.
  30. excimer Says:
    February 7th, 2007 at 3:37 pm Well I just assume Evan is some guy I haven’t heard of, which happens pretty much all the time. Can we just assume the author was enjoying the fruits of his labor when writing this piece?Fun THC chem fact: Roger Adams (chem prof at Illinois who, along with Marvel, are directly responsible for the department being as renowned as it is today) did a lot of research on cannabis and was one of the first researchers to attempt to extract the active ingredients in Wacky Weed (he was unable to extract THC, but isolated many other cannabinoids). His work, funded by the Narcotics Bureau, prompted him to get put on J. Edgar Hoover’s blacklist. The Defense Department wanted Adams as a science advisor during WWII but could not get the necessary security clearances due to Hoover’s blacklisting.
  31. Anonymouse Says:
    February 7th, 2007 at 4:41 pm Roger Adams was a science advisor during WWII and Vice Chairmen along with Conant of the wartime National Defense Research Committee (NRDC). After the war Adams spent time in Europe as advisor to General Clay and then in Japan as advisor to General Mac Arthur. His long absences from Champaign-Urbana during the war years were the reason that Nelson Leonard then a post doc for “the Chief” was appointed a faculty member.
  32. J Says:
    February 7th, 2007 at 4:43 pm Evanses’s, obviously.
  33. excimer Says:
    February 7th, 2007 at 5:12 pm Anonymouse,Oops, looks like I got my facts wrong. He was under close scrutiny due to his research and Hoover’s bias against scientists of the day, but eventually he got clearance.
  34. Wolfie Says:
    February 7th, 2007 at 10:10 pm Wow, that was a furious post with equal responses.Be careful. Black people think and feel in a different way than I and you do, just like gays. It’s not allowed to say this, but it still remains like that. They may even be genetically different. So, in the end, the only way to succeed is to get along with them, and to keep one’s own goals in mind. This is called Christian, which is why that religion has had the best materialistic success on earth so far.

    I don’t know when or if that materialistically successful period will end for western people, but as soon as it does, let me know.

  35. European Chemist Says:
    February 8th, 2007 at 4:45 am Wolfie,Are you racist, ignorant of the latest discoveries in human genome or just blatantly stupid?

    I personally think Sherley is doing this just to attract attention and maybe, try to pave the way for the next generation. It IS strange to see so little racial diversity among Ph.D.’s even in Europe. And I don’t know if I could list 2 famous black professors in my domain (Organic Chemistry).

    As for the Trost Org Lett, I have to agree with Excimer #27. Although it can sometimes be relaxing to read a paper written in literary style by Danishefsky, I would rather quit chemistry than judge an article by its grammatical content. And the scientific value of this particular Org Lett seems to be very high to me.

  36. eugene Says:
    February 8th, 2007 at 8:50 am Wolfie is poor because he pays his Kirchensteuer regularly and always keeps his life goal of being the best blog troll in mind above all else.
  37. Shrug Says:
    February 8th, 2007 at 9:38 pm In defense of Wolfie, I believe he was being sarcastic. Probably.
  38. My Lord, My Guide Says:
    February 9th, 2007 at 4:24 am Wolfie: “So, in the end, the only way to succeed is to get along with them, and to keep one’s own goals in mind. This is called Christian, which is why that religion has had the best materialistic success on earth so far.” Despite many consider wolfie, you as a troll, I now found a reason to believe otherwise. Your above surmise is correct. A person who has always been surrounded by Christians cannot appreciate the relegion’s many unsolicited usefulness, which Wolfi you and I can, since we are living among pagens. Although Relegion forces us to learn many nonsenses during our youth, we often fail to appreceate the fact that religion indirectly help us to elliminate many unwanted, unuseful and unnecessery animalistic things from entering our brain at our youth and hence allowing us to pursue our (materialistic ?) targets easily. What has been happening to these pagens is they can not be more materialistic since they love their animalistic indulgence.

    “I don’t know when or if that materialistically successful period will end for western people, but as soon as it does, let me know.”

    Incidently, I believe ‘these materelistic succesful period’ will end soon the childeren stop attending Sunday school/ relegious lectures! A Child indulging in every thing cannot go much further. When people loss the ability to rationalize, for that one do need to elliminate less relevent data from a plethoro of more relevent data, they become idiots. Every idiots will (and should?) be used by others and eventually they become unfit for surviving (in a materialistic world).

    (Edited for text formatting –P)

  39. anon Says:
    February 9th, 2007 at 9:16 am to #27/28: chemists make grammatical mistakes when writing their results, sure. but citing somebody’s name incorrectly? it’s neither annoying nor distracting–it’s wrong. they wrote “Evan’s’’ in the body text and “Evans’’ in the reference list.
  40. Darksyde Says:
    February 9th, 2007 at 9:43 am Three research articles in mid-rate journals over 8 years of “selected publications”? Don’t let fear of being called a racist blind you to Uncle Al’s point. There are good African-American researchers out there — this guy isn’t one of them.
  41. table Says:
    February 9th, 2007 at 12:00 pm Speaking of race and tenure, the PBS/Nova special (which aired this week) about Percy Julian seems particularly timely. Check out for more.
  42. Paul Says:
    February 9th, 2007 at 2:05 pm Everyone is required to watch that episode of NOVA this weekend. There will be a quiz on Monday.
  43. Shrug Says:
    February 9th, 2007 at 5:28 pm I don’t know what’s more unsettling: the fact that Wolfie made a poor attempt at sarcasm, or the fact that someone actually made an argument for the validity of the sarcastic comment. This blog has officially reached its pinnacle!
  44. Anonymous Says:
    February 9th, 2007 at 10:37 pm Lost in this discussion has been any attempt to actually look at the data. (Quite surprising for a bunch of nominally empirical scientists.) Web of Science easily yields the follow statistics on the publication record for James Sherley:MIT (> 1998):
    Review articles (9).
    peer-reviewed, non-corresponding author (5 articles , cited a total of 25 times)
    peer-reviewed and corresponding author (6 articles, cited 5, 0, 11, 0, 35, 0 times)

    This is not a record of independent scholarship that would be commensurate with the award of tenure at any top institution.

  45. My Lord, My Guide Says:
    February 9th, 2007 at 10:52 pm Shrug,I notice that this is not the first occasion some one got hurted with my comment. I have no intention to hurt anyone’s beloved beliefs. The above user name I use just to reveal myself more (than possibly with ‘anon’) to my chosen but unknown audience. I thought my ‘name’ can never be considered as blasphemous even in the eyes of a pious man as it is ambiguous and can be interpreted in any way one would like.
  46. Darksyde Says:
    February 11th, 2007 at 1:44 am Percy Julian was effing awesome.
  47. First Reply Says:
    February 11th, 2007 at 3:31 pm following #44: But there were also some not-so-top people tenured in MIT, maybe with less impressive records than Sherley’s. It is very political. In Sherley’s case, they could have awarded him a tenure, but they chose not.
  48. Darksyde Says:
    February 11th, 2007 at 4:12 pm Yes, but in what department. The linguistics department at MIT presumably has a different threshold of publication than the chemistry department. And don’t just go by numbers — if an author has two articles, but one in say, science (as much as I revile that journal), and extensively cited one — then is that good enough?
  49. bob Says:
    February 11th, 2007 at 10:50 pm 47: I would challenge you to find a chemistry professor who got tenure at MIT with a less distinguished publication history. Good luck.
  50. anon Says:
    February 12th, 2007 at 12:28 pm Another case of one person holding an institution hostage lest it be labeled racist and “un-PC”.
  51. J Says:
    February 12th, 2007 at 8:17 pm #49: research in bio engineering doesn’t lead itself to fifty publications a year. Especially when you have as little lab space as he did.
  52. Wolfie Says:
    February 13th, 2007 at 1:05 am Eugene, I pay Kirchensteuer, I still don’t know why, but I do. A professor of mine (not of chemistry) told me years ago, you may need the church at least twice in your life: for marriage and funeral. And am I not the troll this blog needs, regarding the answers ? What if everything were so dull and rational as Paul wants things to have (just like TRUE JACS articles) ?My Lord, I admit, under certain circumstances, it is hard to spell things the right way.

    Anyway, no sex, no life. Sex is missing here and Paul does not like it (because it leads to untrue papers).

  53. First Reply Says:
    February 13th, 2007 at 8:42 am #49. I am in no position to comment on who is good or not. But you could do the research by yourself..not many new people are tenured recently there.
  54. Anonymous Says:
    February 13th, 2007 at 10:28 am Turn the question around. Look at the peer-reviewed publication record. Could you make a case for a tenured hire at your institution?
  55. Anonymous Says:
    February 17th, 2007 at 8:05 pm Any everyone wonders why people hate these whiney sprogs.
  56. ChemBark » Blog Archive » Sherley Ends Hunger Strike Says:
    February 18th, 2007 at 7:32 am […] James Sherley, the MIT professor who went on a hunger strike in protest of MIT’s decision not to grant him tenure, finally broke his fast on Friday.  He lasted a whopping 12 days, although it should be noted that he was still ingesting liquid nourishment and probably snuck in a couple of Snickers bars when nobody was looking. […]
  57. ChemBark » Blog Archive » I Judge People By Their Grammar and Knowledge of Phenol Says:
    March 10th, 2007 at 5:23 am […] Some commenters in a previous thread took umbrage at the fact that I admit to judging people by their grammar. Well, I do, and I’m not going to change anytime soon. I’ll put poor grammar on par with poor hygiene, dressing like a slob, and bad table manners—while they don’t automatically invalidate a person’s ideas, they will cause me to treat anything the person says with more skepticism than usual. With respect to the four errors I found in the first paragraph of this recent paper from Org. Lett., the misplaced apostrophe in “Evan’s” was the most aggravating. While the chemistry in the paper was good, as The Chem Blog has noted, the authors’ lack of attention to detail was borderline disrespectful. I expected more from one of the most legendary labs in synthetic organic chemistry. […]
  58. Zinc Says:
    April 8th, 2007 at 5:58 pm #58: Best spam comment ever.
  59. Paul Says:
    April 8th, 2007 at 10:14 pm ok, that’s got to go

4 Responses to “How Not to Get Tenure”

  1. Sherley Ends Hunger Strike | ChemBark Says:

    […] Sherley, the MIT professor who went on a hunger strike in protest of MIT’s decision not to grant him tenure, finally broke his fast on Friday.  He […]

  2. observer Says:

    Writing and Humanistic Studies at MIT was mentioned in some posts above. That department has two computer science Ph.D.s creating artificial intelligence-based literature. It has a pulitzer prize and MacArthur “Genius” Grant winner. It recently merged with the well-regarded Comparative Media Studies Program, which is one of the top places for study of digital media such as computer games. You should do your research before naysaying any academic unit at MIT, all MIT professors have to be tops in the world to be tenured.

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