Black Professor Who Went on a Hunger Strike at MIT Says University Is Not Complying With Agreement That Ended His Protest

In January 2005, James L. Sherley, an associate professor of biological engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was denied tenure. Sherley claimed that he was denied adequate laboratory resources and that the racism of his colleagues was a factor in the denial of tenure. After two internal reviews of the process failed to reverse the tenure decision, Sherley vowed to go on a hunger strike to bring attention to institutional racism at MIT.

Professor Sherley began his hunger strike on February 5. He drank water and other liquids but had no solid food. Each day he stood in protest outside the provost’s office for three hours before returning to his laboratory to continue his research.

Dr. Sherley kept up with the protest for 12 days. He called off his protest saying he had been successful because it had brought “attention to the issue of equity, diversity, and justice at MIT.”  MIT vowed to continue to negotiate with Professor Sherley over his grievances.

But now Professor Sherley tells JBHE “the president and provost at MIT are stalling on their agreement with me that was the basis for ending my hunger strike. They pledged to either conduct an external arbitration of my charges of racial discrimination and obstruction or to grant me tenure based on the admission of unfair racial discrimination. Yet the provost, who it was agreed would not participate in the deliberations because he himself is charged with obstruction of my grievance, has sought to intimidate me with threats of sending termination notices to members of my laboratory.”

Professor Sherley has vowed to fight on. Sherley told JBHE, “Those who say to me that MIT is not worth it miss the point. MIT is only the setting of my rejection of racism. My battle at MIT is the same as those who battle for equal opportunities and fair treatment in housing, education, employment, and on and on. We must fight racism where we meet it.”