Update: the James Sherley Tenure Case at MIT

July 3, 2007, 1:41 pm

You may recall this post that I wrote in February about James Sherley’s tenure case at MIT. Since he ended his twelve day hunger strike in February Sherley, whose research is on adult stem cells, has continued his activism. He has acquired at least one ally, Frank L. Douglas, executive director of the MIT Center for Biomedical Innovation, who resigned a few weeks ago to protest MIT’s failure to reconsider the Sherley decision. I believe that Sherley has been on hunger strike at least one other time this year, and he has been holding daily vigils in front of the administration building.

The current struggle, as you can read in a Boston magazine article written by John Wolfson and e-mailed to me by an editor, Jamie Bellevance, is that MIT considers the case closed and wants Sherley to leave the campus. Sherley does not consider the case closed and does not plan to leave campus, at least of his own volition: you can read about it here. If you are hungry to see a great deal more documentation and news coverage, you can go to a pro-Sherley web page. The page also invites us to “PLEASE JOIN James Sherley EACH DAY AT NOON AT MIT 77 MASS. AVE. TO ‘SAY NO TO JUNE 30′ AND SAY YES TO FAIR INCLUSION AT MIT!” So if you really have strong feelings for Professor Sherley, and wish to help him retain his office, and you live in the Boston area, do so. Anyone who goes, pro or con, is invited to report back to the Radical: I would be happy to consider posting your report as a news item. Truly partisan, and of course civil, remarks belong in the coments section.

I have deliberately not called friends at MIT and Harvard to ask them what they think about this because I don’t want to develop an opinion about something I can’t know much about. I suspect that Professor Sherley and I may have a great many intellectual disagreements, the central one being his insistence that life begins at conception, which causes him to oppose the use of fetal stem cell lines. As a pro-choice feminist, I disagree profoundly with this as an ethical and as a factual position; however, I am persuaded by Sherley’s insistence that his views on the sanctity of human life may well be part of what is actually at stake in his belief that he was persistently marginalized and his work misrepresented prior to having been fired. I say “actually” because I don’t think MIT has admitted that this was an issue, but it is certainly believable. What is a philosophical and political difference in my world is a question of fact and a politicizing difference in Sherley’s world, and one that puts him in a position to be seriously critical of a majority view at MIT and probably the major thinkers in his field. And what Sherley is arguing about the significance of his views on life to the tenure case I also find believable — that although a white man would have been permitted the luxury of iconoclasm, perhaps even praised for his courage, a black man whose views are consistent with evangelical conservatism was not.

As I noted earlier, although I don’t know whether this was the central issue in the Sherley case, I do not find this argument inconceivable as some people clearly do. I don’t. Nor do I find it inconceivable that as Sherley struggled unsuccessfully for resources and for the respect of his colleagues that angry, sarcastic or aggressive behavior that would have been seen as a reasonable response in a white man was seen as uncollegial in a black man and became an excuse to further marginalize him.

Part of what I find intriguing about this case is Sherley’s refusal to acknowledge that the process is complete, even though MIT keeps telling him that it is. Of course, I have personal reasons for being interested in this approach: during the Unfortunate Events, both allies and — shall we say others? — continued to invoke “the process” as if what I was undergoing was knowable and rational, when in fact it was not. And the purported rationality of the process was an illusion that was, and is, integral to why tenure and promotion processes are so often profoundly screwed up. As I now understand, with distance, many of my colleagues did not perceive the way my case was manipulated at various stages because manipulating how the case is presented — benignly and maliciously — is foundational to the “process.” Furthermore, promotion and tenure processes — and here I completely get what Sherley is saying — are designed to take little or no account of the events and/or conditions of labor that actually occurred before the promotion dossier was assembled and presented. The person who teaches eighty students a term is expected to meet the same scholarly “standard” as the person who teaches twenty students. The person who enjoys the full support of powerful colleagues, and is given discretionary opportunities to publish, sets the “standard” for scholars in marginalized fields, who are criticized and often demoralized by that criticism and by being assigned to low-status work. The allies of marginalized scholars are also not only in the minority but are often themselves seen as a detriment to the candidate because of their own difficult promotion processes, and the scorn to which they have been persistently subjected. The notion of a “standard” — a word that plays the same obscuring function as the “process” — also does not take account of what is always at stake in a tenure case, which is that, at various stages, many cases turn on the judgement of individuals who are not in the least independent or objective, who have genuine likes and dislikes that they activate in the language of the “process,” and who are often because of their own intellectual preferences or prejudices, unable to perceive the worth of scholarship to an audience of scholars unlike themselves.

We all have likes and dislikes, and the fact is that it is possible for some people to vote positively for someone they dislike or disagree with, and it is impossible for others to bring themselves to vote positively for such a person. It is also possible for people who are prone to the unethical exercise of their own influence to overcome their prejudices in relation to some candidates, but not in relation to others. Has James Sherley been misjudged? I don’t know, and none of us not acquainted with this case can know for certain: I have never known someone turned down for tenure or promotion who did not feel deeply wronged and who did not have allies who mirrored the outrage that accompanies feeling wronged. But a contested tenure case brings these questions about how we judge scholars and scholarship to the forefront. If we could own them, as a community, it would be a basis for thinking about how to reform the tenure process itself, or whether in fact, it is reformable.

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