Sunday, February 18, 2007

Racism and Tenure at MIT

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 MIT says the decision has been reviewed several times since it was originally made in 2005, and there was no racism involved.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 have 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.


The Combat Philosopher said...

An excellent analysis, as usual. The situation is thought provoking. I looked at this earlier today and have been thinking about whether to comment and what to say. I decided on the brief version.

One of the problems that can arise is when a person from a disadvantaged, or minority group is appointed, they can use this status to engage in a form of blackmail. I know of several cases where gender and gender preference has been cited as a reason why certain individuals should not be subject to sanction for outrageous behaviors. This is not a reason to not make such appointments, though.

When an administration is weak, the threat of legal action can be used as an unfair weapon. I have seen this happen. Analogously, I know weak faculty members who have claimed that the reason they cannot publish is because of their gender. There may be some truth in this, but such a claim would be more plausible if they submitted some articles!

In another case, an argument was made that an individual should be viewed in a stronger light than another, based on an equity concern. Although Wilde was correct in his analysis of comparisons, this was a significant case. A weak faculty member won out over a much stronger candidate, on equity issues alone.

My point here is to note that issues of 'ideological engagement' can cut both ways. I have believed for years that the correct way to address these issues was to offer incentives at the grad school level. If there were more Ph.D.s from traditionally under represented groups, then Smith's Invisible Hand would deal with these issues.

Tenure cases are an especially problematic type of case. If only there was a method where by such decisions could be made 'blind' (as in like referreeing). I think though that you advice on this case is sagely. As always, many thanks.

The Combat Philosopher

ks said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the Sherley case; you've eloquently clarified a complicated topic. I especially like your discussion of the flip-side of the discrimination coin, the invisibility of certain types of privilege.

My initial impression was that Sherley was indeed trying to get his tenure case re-reviewed in addition to drawing attention to the problem of racism at MIT. I can't help but wonder if his story at the end might differ slightly from what it was Feb. 5 when he began the hunger strike. As you wrote, let's just hope he can salvage his career elsewhere.

Tenured Radical said...

CP and KS:

Thanks for your comments -- it was a tough post to write, particularly since some of us here at Zenith are going through a tough case where disscrimination of another kind is being alleged.

I guess one thing I would say more informally is that people who don't get tenure often go off the rails -- sometimes this is an elucidation of a kind of pre-tenure "self," or seems to be, and sometimes it is produced by the process. I've always thought prolonging hte process -- regardless of injustice -- is a mistake under all circumstances. If I hadn't known it was an even up bet that Zenith was the best job I would have, I would have nipped the Unfortunate Events in the bud.

Also what continues to astound me is that we struggle to deal with all of these issues but when it is suggested that our tenure system may be designed for a society, or an intellectual world, that no longer exists, folks back off from critique big-time.


Oso Raro said...

This is a compelling post, resonating with several moments in my own professional life on both sides "of the bed," as a friend recently described the hotel interview scene between candidates and interviewers at national conferences, which I thought was a lovely metaphor for the true emotional and corporeal intimacy that hires and more largely tenure represent in the profession.

The deck is stacked against difference candidates, and for as many Diveristy Carpet Baggers that may game the system for their own advantage (per CP's comment, which admittedly does happen), the real scandal, as you make clear, is the "beloved son complex," which I have witnessed in person, disgustingly enough. The unfortunate fact is that the actual body of the difference candidate is unsettling for white/str8 faculty in conscious and unconscious ways, and therefore must be tested and verified for blandness (are they work-safe?) or eliminated (either a) they are not smart, or b) they are troublemakers/"not one of us"). This reflects the uncomfortable intimacy of our workplaces, and the simple fact that true confrontations with difference are so disturbing for so many that they are avoided at all costs.

At Sadistic College, my former employer, there were two besotten sons, both white and str8 and young, who embodied the ideal of the beloved son and were welcomed into the arms of the college as "ones of us" (LOL). Meanwhile, the gay men and faculty of colour were systemically undermined and fired or driven off, often by other faculty either of colour or LGBT, who served as the brutal enforcers of the system. I generally don't go for open passion plays and name-calling (which may have been part of the problem at SC, but I digress), but racism and homophobia in the university are, obviously, very real, but often unconscious.

That this unconsciousness would be reflective of our larger social norms is unsurprising. After all, following three centures of slavery and indigenous displacement, and one of formal white supremacy against key racial-ethnic communities, white America tolerated affirmative action for what, ten years?, then called the whole thing off. This does not speak well to the health of social discourses around difference (Um, no duh).

One of the things I discussed with my friend of the bed comment was the secret nature of these discourses, specifically in terms of a recent thread on the Academic Job Wiki over a job at a baccalaureate college and whether or not there was an inside candidate. The conversation thread was spicy, but one thing that was really apparent was that any questioning of the superstructure of the institution was verboten, and some of the concern my friend and I expressed was over the very nature of silence around these things, and how we inculcate slave ideologies in our professionalisation processes. Don't question, don't examine, don't cause trouble. You will believe!

All of which is to say, the ability to tell, to reveal the secret, is crucial. This piece is one salvo in that effort.

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