MIT Professor Ends Hunger Strike

After 11 days of fasting to protest what he claims was a racist decision by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to deny him tenure, biologist James Sherley has ended his hunger strike. Under a settlement reached between the two sides on Friday, MIT seems to be willing to reopen the case.

The 48-year-old stem cell researcher, who is the only African-American faculty member in the 41-person biological engineering (BE) division, began his strike outside the provost's office on 5 February, vowing to drink only water and take vitamins and electrolyte supplements until MIT admitted its bias and overturned the tenure decision (Science, 16 Feb, p. 920). Today, he issued a statement through MIT's news office suggesting that the two sides were on the way to resolving their dispute.

"Starting today, I will in fact break my fast, in celebration of the attention that has been brought to bear on issues of equity, diversity, and justice at MIT and in higher education," Sherley wrote in his statement, which came hours after he and many of his supporters attended a campus forum on "the costs of unfairness in higher education." The event was organized as an alternative to an official breakfast hosted by the administration to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Sherley's statement makes it clear that he's not giving up his demands.

MIT's own statement seems like an indirect admission of bias, satisfying Sherley's demands at least in part. "MIT deeply regrets that Professor Sherley's experiences at the Institute have resulted in his fast to express his concerns about racism," the statement says. "Professor Sherley's protest has focused attention on the effects that race may play in the hiring, advancement, and experience of under-represented minority faculty, and on ensuring that our grievance processes are comprehensive, fair, and timely."

Despite rumors that MIT might be considering giving Sherley a tenured slot in a department other than BE, it is not clear what steps the institute plans to take to resolve its differences with the professor. Neither party was available for further comment on Friday afternoon.

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