Racism and Tenure at MIT

February 18, 2007, 5:17 pm

On Friday, James Sherley ended a twelve-day hunger strike intended not, he claims, as an attempt to reverse the negative decision in his tenure case but to highlight racism in personnel decisions at the Massachuestts Institute of Technology. This is what I know:

1. Sherley does stem cell research, but on adult, not embryonic, stem cells. Sherley believes that the latter practice is immoral, since it involves the “killing” of day-old human embryos. I use quotes around “killing” here to give a nod to the idea that not everyone (for example, me) believes that it is unethical to use human embryos in this way. According to my research Sherley believes that he was denied tenure because of public statements he made opposing colleagues’ research on embryonic cells. A white member of the faculty would not have had to pass such an ideological litmus test, he charges, but he has been fired for making an ethical position known.

2. MIT says the decision has been reviewed several times since it was originally made in 2005, and there was no racism involved. I have not seen a comment on the ideological question.

3. At MIT, 4% of the tenured faculty are from minority groups. Fewer than half of all scholars reviewed for tenure are actually awarded tenure. I have not seen figures on how many members of minority groups are reviewed for or awarded tenure, but 4% of the standing faculty does seem pitiful. Not as bad as Harvard Law School, but still pitiful for a top research institution.

This is a tangled and difficult case to understand from the outside for many reasons, but I would like to start with one thing: of course there is racism at MIT. If you doubt the reasons I might assume this, read Cheryl Clarke’s essay, “The Failure to Transform,” in which she tackles the question of homophobia in the so-called “black community.” Clarke argues that rather than deny homophobia, or resist dealing with it on the theory that racism is more important, black intellectuals and political leaders must understand that the larger homophobia of society in general is shaping to blacks’ view of queers. Lessons learned from the struggle against racism can, and should be redeployed against homophobia inside and outside the “black community.” Thus, the question is not, is there homophobia, or is it worse here than elsewhere, but what are we doing about it?

Regardless of his work, which may or may not be tenurable at MIT on its own merits (whatever that may mean), I do not doubt that Professor Sherley’s tenure evaluation occurred in a university context that was, and is, racist. I also would not be surprised if most white people at MIT do not perceive this. Let me explain.

Racism, and the other -isms, takes many forms at institutions of higher education, one of which is to portray people who point out racism, or gender inequality, or homophobia, as crazy or just covering up for their intellectual inadequacies. Sherley probably didn’t help himself much in this regard by choosing the hunger strike as a tactic, not because it is a crazy thing to do, but because it is a grave thing to do and is probably more appropriate for a situation with much higher moral stakes than a tenure case. Like trying to get American soldiers to stop waterboarding you, or freeing your nation from colonial slavery. And a tenure case at MIT, for God’s Sake: how many people can get seriously committed to what goes on at one of the most elite institutions in the country, one which wouldn’t hire most of us if we offered to work for free?

But here’s where I would like (as a white, queer, feminist if you didn’t know) to muster some sympathy for Professor Sherley, whose politics in general I would probably more or less disagree with. Racism in higher education, because it does not take the form of physical violence, and mostly does not take the form of direct name-calling, is not taken seriously at virtually every institution I know. Tell me if any of the following things that happen, or have happened, at Zenith are familiar to you:

1. Racist assumptions in judging a candidate pool. Jobs in the study of race are silently reserved for people who identify racially as part of the group under study (this is also true for the study of sexuality and gender.) White people are usually not considered for these jobs, and (white) people often complain loudly about this. But here’s the racism: people of color working on people of color are usually eliminated from consideration from “unmarked” jobs (read: most jobs) that are really, well, for white people studying white things. Thus, an Asian-American person working on Asian American intellectual history could be hired for an Asian American history job (a big part of which would be teaching a social history survey of the field, which would not be this person’s field exactly) but not a U.S. intellectual history job, which would be unspokenly presumed to be for someone working more or less on white intellectuals like William James. Someone white or black working on W.E.B. DuBois would be seen as an African-Americanist, and someone in the hiring meeting would point out that “we already have one.” This means that, for example, all Asian Americans with Ph.D.’s in history are pitted against each other for the six Asian-American history jobs posted each year.

2. A large percentage of the black students who matriculate as undergraduates are Carribbean and African, and are aggressively recruited to the university. African American students, outside of a few students most elite schoools are interested in, are not aggressively recruited — or rather, a very small pool of students is aggressively recruited by a large number of schools. When it was suggested at Zenith that recruiting in the South might produce well-qualified black applicants (assuming that there aren’t more well qualified African Americans in New York and New England, which I do not believe) the admissions office said their budget would not stretch that far.

3. Overheard at Zenith: a scholar of color with a scholarly book in press being criticized by a white colleague for articles s/he had in non-academic publications because it was evidence that s/he “wants to be one of those public intellectuals, not a real scholar.” Please note that “public intellectual” is not just racially coded in this instance, but connotes “unprofessional” and “troublemaker,” so it is an insinuation about racial identity, a presumed political stance and a lack of intellectual depth. All without mentioning race explicitly.

4. Encountered in a meeting: an administrator who, when I had proposed a tenure-track line in Asian American history for the fifth or sixth time, since we hire adjuncts to teach these courses and they are always full, told me that he “just wasn’t convinced that Asian-American history is a mature field,” and that it was “too soon to tell.”

5. White colleagues who say publicly they do not believe in race as a viable category of intellectual analysis, and that to talk about race at all is “racist.”

Now there are equivalent nightmare scenarios for women and queers, but I am going to stop here so that I don’t lose my focus on the MIT case. And I want to be clear that I don’t know whether Professor Sherley was denied tenure because of endemic racism at MIT: in every failed tenure case, there is plenty of evidence on all sides, and it is probably true — as it is at Zenith — that some people skate through the process because for some reason they are beloved by those in charge. And those in charge at elite institutions are invariably white men, which I have been told is not by design but merely an “accident of history.” The accident in question, of course, was outright refusing to hire women and blacks for decades, rather than having to find indirect ways of keeping them off faculties.

Whatever, as Extravaganza would say. But there is a phenomenon I would like to draw attention to nonetheless: when I h
ave seen a candidate hired or promoted to a lower standard than usual, it is always a white person, sometimes male and sometimes female. And when a man with more or less ordinary qualifications zips through some evaluative process like a hot knife through butter (a tenure case, a hire) that a woman, a queer or a member of a minority group would get nailed on this is called a “beloved son complex” by those of us who tend to feel resentful when we see it happen. In other words, there are some white men who see in younger white men something that reminds them of — well, themselves at that age. And the idea that they could retire, knowing that the department, or the university, is still in the hands of young (white!) men with their values, is compelling — so compelling that they sometimes make idiots of themselves extolling mediocre or flawed work as “brilliant!” because the author has had the gumption to resist “fashionable scholarly trends” (which means every important intellectual stride the field has made since 1968.) And to speak for those of us who watch this happening all the time– it isn’t giving up on making interesting hires that gets to you once you get used to it and realize you should just go home and do your own work. It is being in those crazy-making discussions where bad work, or boring work, is being represented as “pathbreaking!” because of the human package it comes in on.

It can be really exhausting. So I don’t doubt that Professor Sherley’s response to being turned down for tenure, in addition to all the ordinary pain, is refracted through a similar exhaustion. Whether he should have gotten tenure or not, I can’t say. But if he were my friend, I would tell him to move on and save his career if possible, because most of us don’t give a damn what’s happening at MIT.

We’ve got too much going on in our own houses.

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