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MIT’s Black Hole

by Kenneth J. Cooper

MIT’s Black Hole
Dr. James L. Sherley is just the latest professor to protest the lack of Black tenured faculty at MIT.
By Kenneth J. Cooper

Cambridge, Mass.
For at least 25 years, faculty diversity has been a recurrent, vexing issue at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Past president Dr. Paul E. Gray confessed to having failed to reach his goal of greater faculty diversity at the science and engineering powerhouse. “We have not gained on this in the better part of a decade,” he said in 1988.

Gray’s successor, Dr. Charles M. Vest, expressed the same disappointment during his 14 years as MIT’s president. In 2004, he told the faculty his greatest regrets were not achieving more diversity among professors and graduate students.

Now that MIT has its first woman president, Dr. Susan Hockfield, who says she too wants to advance diversity, the issue has surfaced again in a dispute over the denial of tenure to Dr. James L. Sherley, a Black biological engineering professor.

MIT administrators dispute his charge of racism in the tenure denial. Last month, Sherley called off his 12-day fast and daily protests after he and the administration entered talks, whose scope neither side has spelled out.

It was not the first time a Black professor at MIT has gone on a hunger strike over faculty diversity. In 1991, Dr. James H. Williams Jr., a tenured professor of applied mechanics, fasted and protested one day a week for a month, in part, to spotlight the small number of Black faculty.
In response to Sherley’s recent protest, Hockfield and MIT Provost L. Rafael Reif have launched a review of MIT’s hiring, promotion and grievance procedures.

“We’ve had an ongoing effort to recruit minority faculty,” says chancellor Phillip Clay, who is Black. “We’re trying to make improvements.”

Progress in hiring Black faculty, in particular, has been slow at MIT. The first Black professor, Dr. Joseph Applegate, arrived in 1956. There were three Black professors in 1970 and 16 in 1983. Today, there are 30.

Of MIT’s 1,000 faculty members, 54 are Black, Hispanic or American Indian. The 27 members of those underrepresented minority groups with tenure make up 3.6 percent of the senior faculty.As much as MIT has fretted about faculty diversity, it appears to have done better than similarly selective colleges with a science and engineering focus. In its latest survey on the climate for Blacks at top colleges, the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education called MIT’s performance in hiring Black faculty “far superior” to the California Institute of Technology and other science-oriented universities.

The survey reported that Caltech has two Black professors, both tenured, on a faculty of 309. Carnegie Mellon University also trails MIT, but not as much, the survey found.

Such universities have cited the shortage of minority scholars with doctorates in science or engineering as a major obstacle to increasing diversity. Gray has mentioned this pipeline problem in reflecting on his failure to add more minority faculty at MIT.

But the pipeline has been expanding. The National Science Foundation reports the number of Blacks, Hispanics and American Indians awarded doctorates in science or engineering increased significantly in the past decade. They earned 10 percent of those degrees in 2005, compared to 7.7 percent in 1996.

But hiring young scholars with those degrees is only the first step. Giving them support so they have the best shot at winning promotions is another.

Dr. Sylvia Sanders arrived at MIT in 1997 with a doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley. She departed unhappily after four years as the only Black professor in the biology department. Sanders, who admits her research did not go well, says she “felt kind of isolated” in a department that was “not welcoming.”

She switched careers, and now teaches third-graders in Palo Alto, Calif., where her husband is a professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford University.

Dr. James Jennings, a political scientist, never got hired at MIT. In 1996, he was offered a job as director of MIT’s Community Fellows Program, which trains Black and Hispanic activists. He rejected the offer, though, because it came without tenure — which he then had at the University of Massachusetts-Boston.

After a faculty member told Jennings he was faulted for not being one of the nation’s top three Black scholars, Jennings took his complaint to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, the state’s equivalent of the equal opportunity commission. Once MCAD ruled in his favor, Jennings prepared to take the suit to court, but the case was eventually settled out of court. Jennings is now a tenured professor of urban planning at Tufts University.

MIT officials say they hope the review of personnel practices will finally solve the institution’s difficulties with faculty diversity. MIT compares it to a 1999 study on the status of women in the sciences, which led the institution to admit to gender discrimination, equalize salaries and space allocations and appoint Hockfield in 2004 as its first woman president.



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