Addendum: James Sherley & Racism at MIT

I want to thank the quirky bloggers over at Three Bulls for engaging me further in this debate.  I’ve been enthralled by this whole Sherley fiasco, especially given my research on equity in science, and I was inspired by our exchanges yesterday to dig a little deeper on Sherley’s past.

This case is much more interesting than his charge of racism implies.  Turns out Sherley is a vocal pro-life activist within the scientific community’s stem cell debate.  In his widelydiscredited interpretation of embryonic stem cells – what to the untrained eye look like not too much in a petri dish (that’s about as scientific as I get here) – they are warm, mobile and breathing, just like fully-formed humans.  There’s quite a range of quotes in the links provided here, and many references to the distancing of colleagues from his beliefs that he’s asserted over the last several years, including in op-eds on cloning and embryonic stem cell research to the Boston Globe.  (He has also been featured in the pro-life press.) 


Especially, that neither Sherley nor MIT has emphasized this tangle over his research approach in its internal comunications with the campus.  See my post yesterday for all the difficulties in how issues of race and gender become bound up in broader cultural conflicts.  And MIT is aware of its weak performance in retaining minority candidates (its female president and black Chancellor notwithstanding!); In my department, I’ve seen us lose some terrific black, female professors in the 2.5 years I’ve been there, while we’ve retained 2 men during the same period, one white and one Latino. 

But, there’s no doubt in my mind now that Sherley chose his battle cry very carefully, choosing to believe that racism was a broader catch-all for his grievances than the fact that his choose-life-oriented science was seen as a poor and distasteful fit in this aggressively-entrepreneurial science and engineering institution in which academics are expected not only to produce original, cutting-edge research, but also to grapple with the commercial (i.e., money-making) application of their work (with BE being one of the more commercially-oriented departments on campus).  Stem cell research and MIT both sit at the nexus of the academic-industry boundary.  It is no surprise that BE has no desire to play host to a researcher who discredits both this area of research and his colleagues who do this work; there is also a strong debate that his research is not up to snuff (my own research on his publication record demonstrates that it is well below the average pub rates of his peers, and this is one of the most durable metrics in tenure cases.  Yes, his NIH award suggests otherwise.).

So, here we have a devout African-American Baptist biologist with a research record that is open to interpretation, who vociferously defends beliefs at odds with the broader scientific community – in one of the hottest debates in science, and openly criticizes his peers (a definite no-no, as I’ve learned the hard way…twice…which unfortunately I can’t expand upon here).  Sure sounds like he’d be one of the 60% of professors who are told to go their own way.  It’s likely impossible to say race didn’t factor in, but his political conflict with BE is much bigger than that. 

I still think MIT should intervene, but I feel more conflicted about this now, as I now also see his moralistic attempt to hold the Institute hostage to his beliefs that they’ve chosen to dismiss, for which they believe they can make a strong case.  Yesterday, I just thought he was nuts. 



3 Responses to “Addendum: James Sherley & Racism at MIT”

  1. February 8, 2007 at 1:10 am

    This has been very interesting to read about. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

    I am not a part of academia, but Prof. Sherley sound kind of blotto to me.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: