- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 10, 2007

On Feb. 5, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Associate Professor James Sherley began a hunger strike to bring attention to his ongoing tenure appeal. He says racial and professional discrimination due to his against-the-grain beliefs regarding stem cell research are to blame. These allegations are of concern to members of the black leadership network Project 21, who are asking for definitive answers about Professor Sherley’s effective dismissal.

“A university should be a place where debate and scientific inquiry are encouraged — not stifled. Furthermore, people should not be denied tenure because of their religious beliefs,” said Project 21 member and professor Horace Cooper, a member of the faculty of the George Mason University School of Law. “The scientific community sorely needs to hear from outstanding academics like Professor Sherley.”

First appointed in 1998, Professor Sherley is the first and only black faculty member of MIT’s Division of Biological Engineering. An expert in stem cell research, he deviates from the beliefs of many of his colleagues because he believes embryonic stem cell research destroys human life. “It’s very easy to… ignore our responsibility for responsible conduct in research,” he told the Australian newspaper last year.

A recipient of a $2.5 million Pioneer Award from the National Institutes of Health in 2006, Mr. Sherley is one of the first in his field to demonstrate the “immortal DNA strand” theory that shows adult stem cells less likely to mutate into debilitating tumors than their embryonic counterparts.

Mr. Sherley says conflicts of interest and racial animosity led to the denial of his bid for tenure at MIT in 2004. As detailed in a letter drafted by noted leftist MIT Professor Noam Chomsky and 10 other faculty members, Mr. Sherley’s division head did not recuse himself from the tenure review process despite being married to a colleague critical of Mr. Sherley’s work. This same division head reportedly told Mr. Sherley that race was a factor in the decision against him. Recruited to bolster MIT’s anemic number of minority faculty, Mr. Sherley was also reportedly never told about this fact and later found he had less access to resources than other faculty.

“The behavior of the professorial elite at MIT seems to mimic those in the past who thought the world was flat and the Earth was the center of the universe,” said Project 21 Chairman Mychal Massie. “The fact that researchers at Harvard University and Wake Forest University are proving Professor Sherley’s assertions about the desirability of adult stem cells only makes his case stronger. There seems to be an obvious bias against adult stem cell research in general and of researchers of faith specifically. MIT is unquestionably guilty of the suppression of academic inquiry, but perhaps also of religious bigotry and institutional prejudice against a person of color with a moral conscience.”

Professor Sherley’s MIT appointment officially expired Jan. 31. He has received offers from other institutions, but says he seeks the MIT reversal on principle. He told the Scientist magazine: “I will go as far as I can because [racial bias] is not just a problem at MIT.” Every morning, he is protesting in front of MIT Provost Rafael Reif’s office, and continues his research as best he can in the afternoons.

DAVID ALMASI

Director, Project 21

Project 21, a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization sponsored by the National Center for Public Policy Research, has been a leading voice of the African-American community since 1992.

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