March / April 2007
On March 8, 2007, Prof. Thomas L. Magnanti, Dean of Engineering and Institute Professor, wrote a letter about Prof. James L. Sherley’s tenure and grievance reviews, a letter which he distributed to all Engineering faculty through the Heads of the School’s academic units. Dean Magnanti’s letter is sprinkled with words and phrases like “impressed,” “believe,” “firmly believe,” “confidence,” “[h]aving worked closely with Professor Lauffenburger for the last eight years [...], I am confident that the process in BE was fair and just,” “[h]aving also worked closely with the Provost for the past eight years [...], I am confident that he too has been fair and just,” etc. In his statement, Dean Magnanti also enlisted the February 5, 2007 letter signed by 20 senior BE faculty, a letter in which it is pronounced: “We believe in our hearts that, as in all tenure cases in our department, it was a fair and honest process executed at the utmost level of integrity and ethics.” [emphases added]
It is striking that all the italicized words and phrases in the above paragraph (italics added throughout) seem more closely related to faith, feelings, beliefs, self-assurance, personal acquaintance, and trust than with rigorous logical reasoning based on actual policies and procedures and on documented evidence.
Dean Magnanti forcefully states that he “firmly believe[s] that the Institute handled Professor Sherley's tenure case fairly.” He also reports that he “did not see any evidence to suggest that racial discrimination or conflict of interest had played a role in the tenure decision” and that he “did meet with the [grievance] Committee on two occasions and was impressed by its thoroughness.” In his view, the grievance-committee members “took their responsibilities very seriously.”
In the same passage where he expressed his confidence in the thoroughness of the grievance review and the reliability of the grievance-review committee, he noted that “none [of its members was] from the Biological Engineering Division.” It seems, to me at least, that a grievance committee investigating a tenure-related complaint against any particular unit should, as a matter of principle, not include any member of that unit – that possibility should not even be entertained by any fair-minded administrator. That none of the grievance-committee members was from BE is no evidence that the grievance review was thorough or fair.
Here an apparent paradox emerges: Even as he recognizes that it would have been unfair for any BE faculty to be part of the grievance committee (presumably because of their inherent partiality vis-à-vis Prof. Sherley’s complaint), Dean Magnanti endorses as evidence for fairness a letter from 20 BE faculty stating their collective belief that Prof. Sherley's tenure review “was a fair and honest process executed at the utmost level of integrity and ethics.” Suppose for one moment that after an accusation of gender-discrimination by Prof. X – the lone female faculty in Department Y – 20 of her male senior colleagues had assembled themselves to proclaim their innocence with a similar “in our hearts” statement that Dept. Y’s treatment of Prof. X had been perfectly fair and gender-blind. In such a case, I doubt that their statement alone would carry much weight among MIT women. And neither should it convince any fair-minded MIT man.
Given the confidentiality of the tenure process there are many facts to which we don’t have access. Yet, MIT is an academic environment that, in principle, values honesty, integrity, courage, independent and critical thinking, vigorous inquiry into “truth,” etc. Those of us interested about fairness of outcome have no choice but to closely analyze any available and relevant fact in order to check if our confidence in the tenure and grievance reviews is warranted. My working assumption is that a fair and thorough process conducted by senior faculty who took their responsibilities very seriously would have, at the very least, correctly handled the most elementary material facts and the most explicitly stated procedures, lest our confidence in the process be reasonablyundermined.
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Prof. Sherley’s appointment in the history of the Division of Biological EngineeringDuring the March 21, 2007 MIT faculty meeting’s “Report on the Change of the Biological Engineering Division to the Department of Biological Engineering,” Prof. Magnanti himself highlighted some relatively unambiguous facts about the history of the Biological Engineering Division – facts that should have, at the very least, put a hint of doubt on his belief and confidence in the thoroughness of the grievance process. If not, then Prof. Magnanti's faith that Prof. Sherley's case was handled fairly is exactly that: faith that seems impervious to the straightforward factual contradictions in the grievance committee's findings.
In his PowerPoint presentation of the history of the Biological Engineering (BE) Division, Dean Magnanti clearly documented that the Division of Bioengineering and Environmental Health (BEH), the precursor to BE, was formally established in 1998. His presentation confirmed about BEH what was already widely known, except perhaps by the Provost and the aforementioned “thorough” grievance committee. Indeed online records (e.g., Reports to the President, the BE Website, etc.) and various documents in the purview of Dean Magnanti and the upper administration, entail that in July 1998 BEH was already in formal existence. Prof. Sherley's initial appointment letter from MIT gives July 1, 1998 as the starting date of his MIT appointment. That appointment was into BEH. This makes Prof. Sherley the first new faculty member in the recently created division, contrary to the grievance committee's findings as summarized in the Provost's December 23, 2006 letter to Prof. Sherley:
“While you [Prof. Sherley] feel that you should have been acknowledged as the first faculty member hired in BE, the Committee found that you were in fact hired in the Toxicology division, prior to the formation of BE.”
Dean Magnanti's PowerPoint slides confirmed the fact that, as BEH was formally established as a new division in the School of Engineering, the Toxicology faculty was by then folded into BEH. It must be noted that the former Toxicology Division was part of Whitaker College, not the School of Engineering. Another basic fact is that the Toxicology Division no longer had any formal existence at MIT in July 1998.
Given this simple and well-documented evidence and the related historical facts, as clearly summarized in Dean Magnanti's report at the March 21, 2007 faculty meeting, the Provost’s December 23, 2006 statement about Prof. Sherley’s appointment is factually inaccurate: Prof. Sherley was never, and could never have been, a faculty member in the Toxicology Division in Whitaker College. Independent of the history of the Toxicology and BEH divisions prior to Prof. Sherley’s MIT appointment, from his first day at MIT in early July 1998, his appointment was as a School of Engineering faculty in BEH, as stated in his July 1, 1998 appointment letter. Yet the goal of the Provost’s letter was “to convey the results of the [grievance] Committee's review” – the review by the Committee whose “thoroughness” so “impressed” Dean Magnanti. Furthermore, the Provost's factually inaccurate statement robs Prof. Sherley of his distinction of being the first hire into the new BEH division.
As phrased, this inaccurate statement is also demeaning: Why should Prof. Sherley's reference to well established facts, as documented in his very appointment letter into the BEH Division of the School of Engineering, be attributed to his “feel[ings].”
For those of us with an interest in the Humanities, we can't help but be reminded of still prevailing racist and sexist prejudices that partition humanity between, on the one hand, white males as guided by reason and logic, and, on the other hand, females and non-whites as guided by intuition and emotion.
Why is this historical fact about Prof. Sherley's appointment so important? One of the most senior BE faculty, one who was involved both in Prof. Sherley’s recruitment and hiring and in the creation of the new BEH division, called the Provost's statement a simple “clerical error.” Yet this simple “clerical error” is one that some upper administrators have tried to excuse on the alleged basis that the pertinent facts are “complex.” Not so complex, after all! As for its significance? If the matter were so insignificant, then why have some senior BE faculty and the upper administration stretched to semantic acrobatics and to articles of faith in order to disguise the facts?
Be that as it may, a grievance committee, as “thorough” as claimed by Dean Magnanti who twice met with them, should have realized that Prof. Sherley, even as a new minority faculty in the School of Engineering, could not have been hired into a defunct Toxicology Division formerly in Whitaker College.
The letter “A plea for fairness at MIT” in the February 6, 2007 issue of The Tech discusses the additional implications of the inaccurate and demeaning aspects of the above-quoted statement from the Provost. These implications are germane both to the (un)fairness of Prof. Sherley's tenure denial and of the latter's review by the grievance committee and to the larger context of race relations at MIT and elsewhere.
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MIT’s Policies and Procedures:
Conflicts of interests vs. Potential conflicts of interests
In his March 8, 2007 statement to the School of Engineering, Dean Magnanti, as he professed his belief that the tenure and grievance processes unfurled without any (evidence of) flaws whatsoever, explicitly mentioned the issue of conflict of interest:
“I did not see any evidence to suggest that racial discrimination or conflict of interest had played a role in the tenure decision.”
Then Dean Magnanti went on to voice his “confiden[ce] that the process in BE was fair and just and that Professor Lauffenburger has fulfilled his responsibilities as Division Head in a manner that is entirely consistent with our very high standards of quality and integrity.”
Yet, as has been pointed out a few times already, the issue is not whether one can find “evidence to suggest that [...] conflict of interest had played a role in the tenure decision.” Instead, the crucial issue is whether there is evidence to suggest that there existed, at the time of tenure review, the potential of conflict of interest.
In Prof. Sherley’s case, what we have in terms of potential conflict of interest is a Division Head, namely Prof. Douglas A. Lauffenburger, who is married to a senior BE faculty, Prof. Linda G. Griffith. Prof. Lauffenburger assembled, presented to the BE faculty, and then decided on, Prof. Sherley's tenure case. Prof. Griffith, who has been in open contention with the tenure candidate, was asked by her husband qua Division Head to submit a letter of evaluation of the candidate's scientific scholarship.
Here's what MIT's Policies and Procedures (P&P) prescribe for the handling of such potential conflicts of interest:
Section 4.4 titled “Conflict of Interest” states:
“ [...] potential conflicts of interest may arise from opportunities that an individual may have to influence or to be influenced improperly by personal relationships, in ways that are not consistent with the education and employment policies and the principles to which MIT is committed. Potential conflicts of interest of a particularly sensitive nature may arise out of sexual relationships, especially in the context of educational or employment supervision and evaluation. Because the effects on other people at work or in the classroom are frequently not apparent to the persons involved in a sexual relationship, anyone with such an involvement should be attentive to the feelings of colleagues and to the potential conflicts of interest that may be involved.” [emphases added]
This caveat is amplified in Section 7.2 on “Policy on Employment of Members of the Same Family”:
“While general responsibility for assuring adherence to these policies must rest with those responsible for appointments and assignments (principally academic and administrative department heads and laboratory and center directors), a particular responsibility for sensitivity to the potential conflicts falls on those whose family or personal relationships may give rise to them.” [emphases added]
Thus, given the letter and spirit of MIT's P&P, it is not the case that Prof. Lauffenburger was, in Dean Magnanti's words, “entirely consistent with our very high standards of quality and integrity” as he assembled, presented to the BE faculty, and then decided on, Prof. Sherley's tenure dossier. In my reading of P&P 4.4 and 7.2 which define some of the applicable “standards of quality and integrity,” Prof. Lauffenburger doubly failed his responsibilities. As Division Head and spouse of a senior BE faculty in recurrent and emphatic public disagreements with Prof. Sherley, Prof. Lauffenberger should have recused himself from conceiving, assembling, and evaluating the candidate's case for promotion to tenure. By not recusing himself, he failed to be “attentive [...] to the potential conflicts of interest that may [have] be[en] involved” in his putting together and then deciding on Prof. Sherley's dossier.
The Provost's December 23, 2006 letter to Prof. Sherley reports:
“The Committee found that it was appropriate for [the BE Head] to solicit an internal reference from [his wife], given the overlap in your research areas and the fact that you had not asked that she be excluded from the list of referees.”
Contrary to the grievance committee's findings, MIT's P&P, as quoted above, directly put the onus of preventing potential conflicts of interests, not on the potential victim of said conflicts, but on the relevant unit heads and/or spouses.
This is yet more important evidence suggesting that the Committee's findings are prima facie unfair – and certainly less than “thorough” since nowhere in the Provost’s report of the grievance committee’s findings is any reference made to the applicable passages in MIT's P&P.
One banal, yet central, aspect of marital relationships and their potential influence in promotion decisions is that married couples have private conversations to which no one else is privy, including in their bedrooms. These conversations can end up unduly (positively or negatively) influencing a unit head's and other senior faculty's decisions on tenure. Recall from P&P 4.4 that “the effects [of a spousal relationship] on other people at work […] are frequently not apparent to the persons involved in a sexual relationship.” MIT's P&P explicitly exhort unit heads and spouses in the same unit to be proactive in preempting the potential of conflict of interest. This point cannot be stressed enough: once the potential of a conflict of interest (e.g., due to a spousal relationship) has not been preempted, it may be impossible post facto to determine whether the potential conflict actually played a negative or positive role in the spouse qua unit head's evaluation of the candidate and his final decision.
Dean Magnanti's letter reminds us that:
“In the School of Engineering, the senior faculty serve in an advisory capacity to the department or division head in the promotion and tenure process.” [emphasis added]
In other words, in the context of Prof. Sherley's tenure review at the division level, the final decision about his tenure rested exclusively with the Division Head whose spouse had been, in recurrent occasions, in open contention with the tenure candidate. The potential conflict of interest did not, however, arise directly from the contentious nature of the relationship between Prof. Sherley and the Division Head's spouse. The potential of conflict arose because the Division Head, in deciding on Prof. Sherley's tenure case, may have been unduly influenced by his spouse's unusual relationship with the candidate.
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For completeness it must be emphasized that the period spanned by the recurrent instances of contentious rapport between Prof. Sherley and the Division Head's spouse includes both the time of the tenure review and the recent past – at least until early March 2007. The contention between Professors Sherley and Griffith, which unfurled in faculty and committee meetings and in e-mail, was related to research, funding, and student-related issues, in some of which Prof. Lauffenburger intervened. This contention is not a creation of Prof. Sherley’s “feelings”: there exists reliable and ample documentation of the substantive and emphatic disagreements between Professors Sherley and Griffith, and much of this documentation was provided to the Provost and to the grievance committee.
The most recent instance of emphatic disagreement involved a 2003 paper “Clonal Expansion of Adult Rat Hepatic Stem Cell Lines by Suppression of Asymmetric Cell Kinetics (SACK).” This paper was co-authored by, among others, Professors Sherley and Griffith and was published by Biotechnology & Bioengineering (B&B). That paper was submitted to B&B in 2002, two years before Prof. Sherley's tenure review. Prof. Griffith recently claimed that she “disagreed about many aspects of the B&B paper at the time of submission.” She accused Prof. Sherley of submitting the paper for publication “without [her] agreement on the final version” and of “completely inappropriate” behavior for considering the paper's definition of stem cells as shared by the co-authors. In his reply, Prof. Sherley reminded Prof. Griffith that her “only objection was to [his] usage of the acronym ‘SACK’ . . .”, and he offered “to send [Prof. Griffith] a copy of the copyright transfer agreement signed and dated by [her] own hand, which [B&B] required of all authors before publication of accepted manuscripts.” According to Prof. Sherley’s e-mail records, this disagreement continues a pattern already unfurling before, and around the time of, his tenure review. For example, on November 18, 2004 – less than a month before the BE tenure-review meeting organized by Prof. Griffith’s husband – Prof. Griffith wrote to Prof. Sherley: “The ligs have not panned out to be useful at all . . .” and then went on to describe the relevant research as “a shot in the dark.” According to Prof. Sherley, these “ligs” are what the co-authored B&B paper describes as “adult stem cell” lines, and these “ligs,” which were derived in his lab, are still in use in Prof. Griffith's research.
Last year, Prof. Sherley's so-called "shot in the dark" research hit the bull's-eye: a much coveted "Director's Pioneer Award" from the National Institutes of Health in the amount of $2.5M for, among other things, his work on "the elucidation of mechanisms responsible for the specialized renewal properties of adult stem cells and the use of this knowledge to address major research problems limiting the development of adult stem cells for biomedicine." (nihroadmap.nih.gov/pioneer/Recipients06.aspx)
Another oft-repeated pernicious argument that seems closer to faith than to facts and logic is one that I’ve heard endorsed by supposedly well-meaning faculty members who eagerly report feelings from certain faculty members in Science and Engineering as well as the upper administration. The argument goes as follows:
“On scientific merits alone, it's clear that Prof. Sherley didn't deserve tenure at MIT where standards are so exacting, therefore the tenure decision was correct.”
This argument is fallacious and insidious. No matter the scientific merits of a tenure case, a tenure decision cannot be assumed to be determined “correct” if there's reasonable doubt based on well-documented facts that due process was breached. We just cannot know a priori what the fair outcome of a procedurally flawed tenure review would have been if due process had applied.
Once due process is breached, all bets are off. The claim that one can consider a tenure decision correct in presence of breaches in process seems yet another manifestation of faith – really, prejudice against the particular candidate's tenure-worthiness.
This must be one of the very reasons why MIT has explicit and specific guidelines in order to ensure that our review processes are fair and to guarantee fairness of outcome. Potential conflicts of interests constitute one area where MIT’s guidelines seem the most explicit. Presumably such guidelines were designed to apply with equal force across all academic units in all the Schools at MIT.
With all this in mind, and while noting that the above-noted facts and procedures have already been brought forward to the upper administration, one should insistently ask:
(For a more comprehensive overview of potential unfairness in Prof. Sherley's tenure and grievance reviews, see the aforementioned “Plea for fairness at MIT" in the February 6, 2007 issue of The Tech and my own letter “A suspicion of unfairness in Sherley case” in the February 27, 2007 issue of The Tech.)
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Dean Magnanti concluded his March 8, 2007 statement with a paragraph about his “commitment to diversity” on the model of recent statements from the upper administration (see, e.g., the Provost's January 29, 2007 message to the MIT faculty about Prof. Sherley's grievance.
As it turns out, one embarrassing blemish in what otherwise seems a stellar history for BE is this: There are some 30 tenured BE faculty, and not one of them is an underrepresented minority.
A “pipeline” problem? Perhaps. But consider the fact that the difference between 0 and 1 in this case is a matter of retention, not recruitment. The inconsistencies I discussed above seem to imply that in this particular case the pipeline problem, if any, may be confounded by attitudinal factors, including the faith that certain members of the upper administration have in the tenure- and grievance-review processes, in spite of robust evidence that, in Prof. Sherley's case and perhaps others’, suggests that these processes may have been breached in both structural and specific ways.
Another potential factor relates to mentorship and other forms of support (e.g., space) to junior faculty. In this respect Dean Magnanti made this additional comment about minority recruitment and retention:
“I am proud of what the School [of Engineering] has been doing to create a more diverse and welcoming community and I am proud of the programs we have put in place to enhance our diversity [. . .]. I also applaud the initiative that the MIT President and Provost have put in place to undertake a comprehensive, rigorous, and systematic study of the impact of race on the hiring, advancement, and experience of under-represented minority faculty at the Institute.”
One key ingredient to any successful initiative to recruit and retain minority, women and all other faculty must include reliable support. As it turns out, in Prof. Sherley’s case, this support component failed miserably on several counts, some of which relate specifically to race and space: for example, lack of full disclosure concerning Prof. Sherley’s minority-faculty slot at the time of his recruitment and hiring, inadequate mentorship, inadequate space and, worse yet, the fact that his “independent” lab space could be used to bully him – last summer, one senior most BE faculty even threatened to take away Prof. Sherley’s “independent” lab space, reminding Prof. Sherley that “it was me who gave you access to that lab.” (For details, see the aforementioned “Plea for fairness at MIT” in The Tech.) Dean Magnanti's proud and enthusiastic comments are inconsistent with the documented failures in Prof. Sherley’s case.
How can awareness of the above facts be translated into actions? How can MIT's “commitment to diversity” be effectively translated into actual diversity in ways that do pay attention to the facts? Where do we go from here?
In her presentation at the March 23, 2007 colloquium “Unscripted dialog with Ben Barres and Nancy Hopkins about issues of equality in the university,” Prof. Hopkins identified “two types of problems” that “may contribute to the small number of women faculty.” Given the even smaller number of underrepresented minority faculty, their much slower increase over decades and added barriers to their access to power, I surmise that the factors below may apply with even greater force to slow down minority recruitment and retention at MIT.
“[Firstly] Organizational structures and processes that are inadvertently biased against women. [...] [Secondly] Attitudes that are unconsciously biased and that lead to i. Undervaluation ii. Marginalization iii. Inequities [...]”
Prof. Hopkins rightly noted that one most influential factor in the subsequent watershed progress with gender equity at MIT was what The New York Times on March 22, 1999 called an “extraordinary admission.” In Prof. Hopkins's words, this was former President Charles M. Vest's “courage to recognize that this sort of [gender] discrimination exists” and his ensuing bold and concrete actions in the matter – not professions of faith in a documentedly unfair system, not ineffectual pledges of commitment to equity in the face of persistent inequities.
President Vest had the good sense, honesty, humility, and courage to recognize the specific ways in which MIT has failed to live up to its commitment to fairness. In his February 5, 2004 speech at the Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration breakfast, he admitted:
“ […] the one area in which I feel that I have really not succeeded as your president is that we have not accelerated the racial diversity of our faculty or, for that matter, of our graduate students. […] The real challenge does not lie outside our walls. It lies within our hearts, and in the expectations we set for our students and ourselves, in the ways we teach, in the amount of time and effort we give to supporting our students and our colleagues.” (web.mit.edu/president/communications/mlk04.html; also see February 25, 2004 issue of MIT Tech Talk)
President Hockfield’s upcoming report on minority faculty recruitment and retention should honestly convey the lack of progress, comparatively speaking, to that of women at MIT in the past two decades, as acknowledged by President Vest on several occasions.
The anguish that was voiced at the colloquium with Professors Barres and Hopkins revealed how much extra time, effort, and support is needed by our female students as well. In their ranks, too, the “unconscious biases of the well-meaning” are still sapping some of our best minds.
A trenchant and movingly personal analysis of the problem was provided by Prof. Ben Barres, a neurobiologist at Stanford University, at the aforementioned colloquium. Prof. Barres attended MIT in the 1970s as part of a tiny minority of female undergraduates and then became a man 12 years ago while at Stanford University. As Prof. Barres puts it, through his transgender transition he experienced another kind of transition: he got to experience first-hand differential attitudes toward female vs. male scientists. Prof. Barres stressed the pervasive effect of unconscious biases on the lack of fairness and diversity in places like MIT:
“... There seems to be some huge effect of denial, an intense desire to believe in meritocracy, that the world is fair. Being well-meaning is not enough. [...] Awareness must translate into actions.”
At the very least, it seems to me that our upper administration, like the Bush administration, could start moving away from denial and finally accept that “mistakes were made” in the case at hand. More seriously, and here again I borrow from Prof. Hopkins's March 23, 2007 presentation, what the women initiatives have taught us is that we should “[m]ake it an obligation of faculty to understand what ... bias is, and that it happens.” For such understanding to take place, we as faculty at a premier university in the U.S. should loudly protest when well-established facts and explicitly worded policies and procedures are trumped by faith, confidence, individual beliefs, personal trust, self-assurance, and so on. Any disagreement between established facts and policies, on the one hand, and individual beliefs and personal relationships, on the other hand, should be resolved in favor of the established facts and policies.
If the faith and self-assurance of our upper administrators could ever be constructively challenged by the relevant facts and policies and procedures, perhaps minority faculty – and all faculty for that matter – would be evaluated more fairly, with a resultant increase of minority faculty in MIT's tenured ranks and a concomitant increase in fairness for all.
Initial manuscript received on March 26, 2007.
Ed. Note: All letters referenced in this article can be found by clicking the Letters Regarding Associate Professor James L. Sherley link on the Newsletter Website.
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