MIT Case Sparks Row Over Race, Stem Cells and Academic Freedom

By Fred Lucas | July 7, 2008 | 8:06pm EDT

( - Stem cell scientist Prof. James Sherley has lost 14 pounds this month, living on nothing but bottled water and vitamins -- and he's not on a diet.

Rather, Sherley is on a hunger strike against the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's refusal to give him tenure, and he sits outside the school's provost office each day from 9 a.m. until noon.

The controversy extends beyond the Boston campus, involving not only the sensitive subject of race, but also issues of academic freedom and the morality of embryonic stem cell research.

Sherley is the first and only black faculty member of MIT's Division of Biological Engineering, and he was awarded a $2.5 million research grant last year from the National Institutes of Health.

But his position on embryonic stem cell research - which he has described as the taking of a human life - has draw criticism from some of his colleagues. Mychal Massie, the chairman of Project 21, a black conservative group, believes it is those views that have cost him tenure.

"Moral and academic freedom is the issue," Massie told Cybercast News Service Monday. "Morally, Dr. Sherley should be entitled to his own fundamental beliefs. Instead he's being punished and in a sense persecuted for holding to his moral values."

Sherley was the first to demonstrate the "immortal DNA strand," a theory that shows "adult" stem cells are less likely to mutate into debilitating tumors than their embryonic counterparts. Researchers at Harvard University and Wake Forest University have backed this up.

Adult stem cells are those originating from sources such as placentas and bone marrow, whereas embryonic ones are harvested from early-stage human embryos, which are destroyed in the process.

Scientists believe stem cells will someday provide cures for a range of diseases, but their source remains a matter of considerable controversy. Aside from the issue of the embryos' destruction, embryonic stem cells have been found in some animal research to cause cancerous tumors called teratomas.

Sherley could not be reached for comment Monday, but he has said the denial of tenure stems from a conflict of interest on a review panel as well as an institutionalized discrimination policy. He said he's been told that race was a factor in the decision to deny him tenure.

Sherley also said black faculty get fewer resources from the institute than their white counterparts.

"I plan to continue my hunger strike until MIT's upper administration admits that racism is a major factor in the negative tenure decision," Sherley told faculty members in an email this weekend, published by the Boston Globe on Monday.

"I am not outraged that my tenure case was not advanced just because I think it was strong enough for tenure," he wrote. "I'm outraged because of the racial discrimination and corrupt process that operated during its decision."

Sherley's defenders criticized his division head's decision not to recuse himself from a tenure review, despite being married to a vocal critic of Sherley's work.

Eleven MIT faculty members signed a letter drawing attention to the tenure review/conflict of interest issue.

MIT administrators have said that less than half of their faculty is granted tenure.

MIT spokeswoman Pat Richards said she could not say whether the professor's race or views on embryonic stem cell research affected the tenure decision because the tenure system is highly confidential. However, she said, Sherley is one of four professors on campus who use adult stem cells for research.

"The MIT faculty have a wide range of views on any issue," Richards said.

In a letter to faculty, Kirk Kolenbrandor, the MIT vice president for institute affairs, said, "The president and provost have encouraged Professor Sherley to seek other means to voice his concerns, and we continued to hope that he will do so. Should he continue with his fast, however, MIT will respect his right, as a member of our community, to express his views in a manner that does not disrupt the work of our institute."

But MIT's unwillingness to allow scientific debate is the problem, said Horace Cooper, a professor at the George Mason University School of Law.

"A university should be a place where debate and scientific inquiry are encouraged - not stifled," Cooper said in a written statement. "Furthermore, people should not be denied tenure because of their religious beliefs."

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