Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Update: the James Sherley Tenure Case at MIT

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.


Anonymous said...

Dear TR,

I have nothing to add to what you say. However, I do have recent experience with not just feeling wronged by a T&P committee, but also feeling that not listening to experts in a field is a privilege many unethical voters both in departments and on external committees take quite seriously as their "right," as part of the uncontestable "process." It seems to me that it IS A PROCESSUAL problem to disregard experts, if we give up expertise, we frankly give up any fair standard by which to judge.

Recent events lead me to believe that the tenure process is there precisely in place to endanger already endangered members of the community--when and if committees can get away with it.

Zenith is a place very famous for taking care of its minorities, no? So I'd be surprised if such things happened there.

Anonymous said...

every school has its problems, including zenith.

Anonymous said...

what? "Zenith" has plenty of cases of queers and people of color getting denied tenure. PLENTY!

Anonymous said...

really ? I also wouldn't have thought that, at all. I think the idea that it's obvious that every place is unsafe is as damaging as the idea that every place is safe. I've heard no major cases coming out of z. but maybe that means nothing.

Tenured Radical said...

Dear anonymous commenters,

It is my personal opinion that the tenure process is quite broken right now, and that in a situation like that, women, queers, and minorities are bound to take it on the chin. Or rather, that the gulf between haves and have-nots becomes quite wide.

Amd of course I cannot comment on tenure cases at Zenith. But I do think that if tenure cases were public, and not private, it would be far easier to actually address the ones where something has gone wrong.

And if we got rid of tenure and joined a union.....well.


GayProf said...

My former department had quite an inconsistent track record. One could not predict based on an academic c.v. how the department would vote (instead, it had to do with how a candidate fit with different factions in the department (as well as race and gender (and probably sexuality)). It was well known that many (if not most) of the people voting on tenure didn't bother to even read the files. Without question, women candidates faced a harder time and amassed more negative votes in the tenure process. None of it was provable, though, or could be documented as discrimination per se (there were so few women candidates that one couldn't declare a "pattern").

I think that making the "process" open to scrutiny and disallowing anonymous voting on tenure cases would go a long way to fixing some of these problems. If people faced more accountability for their votes and knew it would be recorded, they might be less likely to try skeevy interpretations of the file. The cult of secrecy was fine for the Masons, but it has no place in personnel decisions.

Anonymous said...

It does seem that an earlier comment indicated that they might comment--not involved, at another institution, or whatever--why don't we use chains of gossip as other tightly knit professions do? Perhaps we do, could that be the corrective rather than getting rid of the institution of tenure: careful cross-institutional monitoring?

Lesboprof said...

TR, What if we had tenure AND a union?

Anonymous said...

As a current Zenith student, I've become increasingly frustrated with the tenure process, especially this semester. I had an angry outburst in class after my professor (safely tenured) explained that the tenure process boiled down to publishing and teaching - recent experience shows that professors with enormously high approval ratings and publications here, there, and everywhere are still not getting tenure. Particularly when their academic foci are marginalised, such as, completely hypothetically of course, queer studies or Asian American studies. Ahem.

Edward Carson said...

I would hope this is not a matter of ideology. I question this only because he seemed to have been doing some important work with the large grant he received. A real response from MIT would be nice.I too disagree with his conclusions, but I respect his right to have them.

Tim Lacy said...


Thanks for the post. It's enlightening to hear about tenure from someone on the inside (meaning you).

Before reading your posts about the subject, my take on the process oscillated between something like (a) being "made" by the Mob and (b) a pseudo-scientific formula that accounts for teaching evaluations, collegiality, and articles published.

Am I being cynical in feeling like it's about 70/30 (a/b)?

- TL

Anonymous said...

I'm interested in the Zenith student's post. Where can I find out more about the situation or situations--I feel at once naive and envious of Z. for having such students who call things as they are.

I don't recall, but I haven't been following this long enough, TR discussing this. It seems clear that institutional protocol would prevent that, but is there somewhere else to find details or event an account of what's happening there--it sounds like things are very awry--I mean our students would never know that bad things are happening to faculty, or there's been no indication when bad things do happen. Mine being a state institution with a union we are far more in the know, have to be, there is a formula, it must be followed. Expectations are given at the time of hiring. I really did think that this was the only legal way to hire someone into a renewable contract.

dave mazella said...

No comment on the merits of the case. However, from experience I can tell you that 'the process' is always an alienating one, because years and years of work get put into the meat-grinder, while the candidates are not supposed to feel that they are entitled to predict the direction of events, or the eventual outcome.

Remember: 'the weight given to scholarship, teaching, and service is always adjusted to reflect the weaknesses of the candidate.'

Anonymous said...

"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."

Let me get this straight: you are deliberately ignorant of the facts of the case, but you're going to spout off your opinions anyway? You choose of your own volition not to hear about what Prof. Shirley has or has not done, but you will proclaim your decision on his case anyway? Wow.

He could be the most wonderful researcher in the world. But you wouldn't know. He could just be some average schmo. But you wouldn't know. You refuse to know. Your careless indifference is astounding.

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