On Strike

One MIT professor's hunger strike was a pointless exercise in self-ingulgence

In 1932, Mahatma Gandhi went on a hunger strike that lasted 6 days. He refused to eat in protest of the way Dalits or “untouchables” were treated. His vigil was successful, and it forced the government to negotiate with Dalit leaders over representation and standards of living.

On February 5, 2007, James L. Sherley, Associate Professor of Biological Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), decided that he too should begin a hunger strike to bring peace, harmony, and justice to the world. So, after two final bowls of Chex Cereal, Sherley began his vigil against the oppressors which comprise the administration of MIT. The university that had refused to grant the poor man tenure would be forced to watch him die.

His protest stemmed from the idea that MIT denied him tenure because he is black and they are racist. Yet, a few days ago, in a major setback to the struggle against racism, Sherley started eating again, after only 12 days and a weight loss of 20 pounds.

Of course Sherley never allowed the hunger to become too unbearable: He was ingesting vitamins, drinking water, and taking electrolyte supplements—essentially, he was on an extreme sort of diet. Quite honestly, he could stand to lose the weight. At 245 pounds and 5 feet 8 inches, his body mass index is, according to several hasty online calculations, about 37.2—far above the healthy level of 18.5-24.9. According to Scientific American, the longest anyone has lived on a hunger strike was 73 days, but that is without vitamins. Death only becomes imminent at a weight of 80 pounds, so by the looks of it Sherley would have had at least four or five months to go.

Fortunately, Sherley realized the futility of his actions long before the end. In his statements he blamed not only the department head who denied him tenure but also the subsequent committees created over the past two years to look into Sherley’s claims. Yet, after an extensive investigation—internal and external, including researchers unaffiliated with the institute, and a signed statement from 20 biological engineering department faculty stating they believed race played no part in the decision—the conclusion was the same: He should not receive tenure.

While no one can ever really know the true motives of the evildoers who continue to deny Sherley tenure, we can speculate on the reasons. Perhaps, for example, it was because he refuses to join in “mainstream” research. Sherley, a stem cell scientist, will not work with anything but adult stem cells while most of his colleagues in the field believe the focus should be on fetal stem cells. Could this have been an issue? Of course not, it was probably all because Sherley is black. (Never mind the fact that Phillip L. Clay, MIT’s chancellor, is also black.)

Of course it should be noted that less than half of junior faculty members receive tenure at MIT. He was sadly in the 60 percent who were asked to leave. That is unfortunate, but does not warrant starving himself to death, at least not publicly. There are surely numerous job opportunities for a junior MIT faculty member; it is time to move on to greener pastures.

Sherley claims that his motive was not personal gain but a higher purpose: to highlight MIT’s egregious racism. Yet he claimed he would only end the strike upon being granted tenure—a condition sadly not met. The fact that he then extended his protest to include a campaign against racism only weakened his case.

Mahatma Gandhi ended violence, brought independence to a nation of millions, and sought to improve the living standards of millions more. James Sherley hopes to land a job he feels he would be really good at—oh, and to end racism. He might have garnered much attention, but he has done a poor job of actually convincing people that racism was actually involved. If anything, he has only tarnished an otherwise strong professional record. Perhaps, after his substantial diet, he can now move on—he should call up Harvard to see if there are any openings in the science department.

Shai D. Bronshtein ’09 is a social studies concentrator in Lowell House.