MIT Professor James Sherley Begins Hunger Strike Over Tenure

A black professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology began a hunger strike Monday to protest the university's decision to deny him tenure — a decision he claims was based on racism.

James Sherley, 49, is known for his controversial theories about stem cells. He works with adult stem cells and opposes research using human embryonic stem cells, saying it amounts to taking human life.

Sherley said he has tried unsuccessfully for two years to persuade MIT administrators to reverse a decision by his department head to reject his bid for tenure. He had warned school officials he would start the hunger strike Feb. 5 outside the office of MIT provost L. Rafael Reif.

He stood outside Reif's office for several hours Monday morning, accompanied by about 25 friends and supporters. He said he plans to ingest only water, vitamins and electrolyte supplements until MIT acknowledges racism played a role in the tenure decision. He said he would spend three hours each morning outside Reif's office, then continue his research work in his lab in the afternoons.

In September, Sherley won a prestigious Pioneer Award from the U.S. National Institutes of Health. The $2.5 million grant is for scientists taking innovative approaches to biomedical problems.

MIT administrators denied Sherley's allegations and said less than half of MIT's junior faculty members are promoted to tenured positions.

MIT Chancellor Phillip Clay would not comment on the specific reasons Sherley was not advanced on the tenure track. But he said administrators, as part of the tenure process, sought input from experts in Sherley's field outside MIT.

"He didn't come up to the standard we expect based on those inputs from the outside," Clay said.