Hunger Strike Ends; Sherley new Spokesman for W.W.J.E. Diet

Ok, I don’t have confirmation on the marketing campaign yet, but surely representing Christian dieters everywhere is Sherley’s next career move?

On Friday, February 16, MIT’s Professor Sherley ended his hunger strike, explaining that his “carefully modified” demands were still on the table even though he was breaking fast from his success at shining attention on issues of “equity” and “diversity” at MIT and in higher ed. Too bad it was his insanity that spent most of the time in the limelight; his “open letters” to the MIT community got increasingly vociferous and wacky as he dropped 20 pounds in 2 weeks. In one letter he compared his own travails to that of African-America civil rights activists, writing:

“These actions on the part of our provost and president are nothing short of the water hoses, dogs, and billy-clubs of the civil rights struggles that Martin Luther King, Jr. led.”

This proved to be too much for some on campus. Last week, other professors and execs – including a former President of MIT who bristled at the suggestion that he might be the administration’s “errand boy” in his visit to Sherley’s hallway protest site – got in on the hunger strike “listserv” and started emailing public responses to Sherley.

Some highlights:

“An MIT Associate Professor, typing away on his computer and broadcasting electronic messages from the comfort of his office or home, his only physical suffering self-inflicted, simply cannot be compared to a civil rights marcher being set upon by water hoses, dogs and billy-clubs.

The impact of the civil rights movement was magnified by looking outward and showing the world that the suffering of one race was the suffering of all humanity. In this way it demonstrated that its message was universal and timeless. This inspires our remembrance of it and its leaders, which is not hypocrisy despite our many failings. In contrast, to schedule a deliberately conflicting forum “on the cost of unfairness in higher education” invites us to spend the morning looking inward, examining a topic of narrow importance in our particular place and time. You have inadvertently illustrated the self-absorption of which we are famously accused by those outside academia. Your overstated comparison and your hunger strike illustrate it far more compellingly.”


“I am writing to stand up and be counted…in saying: “enough!” Why would you attack in such an hysterical fashion an event at MIT honoring Dr. King? Your attack on the motives of those hosting this event, and your self-comparison to the
sufferings of the civil rights movement do not stand up to any reasoned scrutiny, and undermine your credibility across the board.

Playing [your tenure case] out in the public email echo chamber is an unfortunate choice. I’ve been somewhat confused all along by the cacaphony of your accusations, but your most recent email really is too much.

I wish you well in moving forward, but cannot support your protest given the direction in which you have taken it.”

My inside sources involved in mediating the end of Sherley’s case told me that they reached consensus with the administration on process issue; i.e., the next chapter in his battle with MIT – and it ain’t over, by any means – will again review the tenure process and whether it was equitable, just, etc. However, my insiders confirm for me that this is so much less about racism, and more about the $$$ involved (or possibly lost) in having an evangelical Christian campaigning against stem cells in a profitable biotech haven like the Biological Engineering dept. As I thought, Sherley believed racism would prove the more playable card than raising questions about his faith.

We’ll see what shakes out next, though it’s not likely we’ll have as close a seat to the drama now that he’s off-line and working with an attorney. Boring! But perhaps best for all. It’s one thing to fight the good fight to equity and justice; it’s another to have your primary mouthpiece be the equivalent of an American Idol audition gone horribly awry. Enough already Sherley!, audience and judges agreed.


3 Responses to “Hunger Strike Ends; Sherley new Spokesman for W.W.J.E. Diet”

  1. February 24, 2007 at 8:36 am

    I’ve been meaning to comment – or post – on this for a while; as someone who grew up as a “faculty brat” around the university system, I have to say all of this felt depressingly familiar. As Chair of her department, my Mom played an integral role in tenure process, and most of the stories weren’t pretty. A lot of this, actually, goes to my feminism, because in my Mom’s profession, a lot of this had to do with the period in the seventies when tenure for women was being played out on a much broader scale than it had been up to then; and the cries of blatant sexism, and racism, held considerable water, because very often they were too true.

    From it, though, I have to say I’ve become a critic of tenure; I don’t think it does for professors what they think it does, and I think rather than the saluatory effect of protecting academic work from the whims of administrative politics, it has served as a protected club where newer ideas and challenges are kept out – especially in the generational sense that the baby boomers outsized presence has distorted the number of tenured faculty. Tenure also plays havoc with university’s budgets and helps to explain the ever increasing tuition game that continues to play out – the tenured faculty expect to be raised, and they tend to have the university over a barrel, and all they have to do, really, is stand still.

    I mention all of this because your description of Sherley’s behavior immediately said to me “unserious.” The ones who try to publically shame the university rarely succeed, even if they become a student cause celebre – one thing to keep in mind in all of this is that students have very little to do with the tenure process, and many don’t understand it. Often these “celebrated cases” become education sessions for a group of students, and that education is lost when they depart the school… so 8, 10 years later the process repeats.

    The reality, as I undersand it, in tenure now is that it’s really stars or nothing; no university can afford to extend tenure to a moderately successful, so-so performer who’s merely adequate. It’s the name players, the biggest grant getters, the research stars who get on the track and who wind up getting tenure, if they jump threough the hoops right. And it’s playing havoc with unglamorous professions where “stars” aren’t “starry” enough. In a glamour field like Sherley’s, his contrarian status might hold some weight, but only if it were generating some serious revenue. While MIT will probably have to pay him to go away (tenure process in many places, surprisingly, doesn’t hold up well to legal scrutiny), I never thought his ploy would work. What’s stunning to me is just how these schools wind up with some of these people in the first place. It’s amazing that the interview process doesn’t turn up some of this madness.

  2. February 24, 2007 at 11:07 am

    Believe me, as someone seriously considering teaching, I realize all too well how little your involvement in the classroom and nurturing young minds matters. You raise some great issues with this comment; it is all about research revenue and production in tenure review, as well as cultural fit, and figuring out how to toe the departmental line (being all deferential and obsequious, for example) while also being an intellectual rock star is grueling and difficult. I’ve got the latter part down, but my undoing could certainly be the former!

    I don’t know how much student support Sherley ultimately retained during this whole episode. He certainly had a loyal following to start, but his excessive claims started wearing on many of us who didn’t know him personally.

    It’s a really weird world, academia, and in some sense the process is one more part that contributes to our insularity from the rest of the universe.

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