MIT Chancellor Discusses Tenure Dispute

MIT Chancellor Phillip Clay talks with Farai Chideya about the school's decision to deny tenure to Professor James Sherley.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

For MIT's side of things, I spoke with Chancellor Phillip Clay. Clay is also African-American and he was part of the team that looked into Sherley's case. He says Sherley was dealt with fairly and honestly.

Dr. PHILLIP CLAY (Chancellor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology): We had a process that it was a fair process; that he approved the process. And had each and every occasion, the matters he raised were reviewed. They came back with a conclusion that race was not an explanation for his denial of tenure, and that the rules for our review - tenure review - in the department were followed.

CHIDEYA: In one interview, Professor Sherley said that because you are black, MIT chose you to work on this case as a way to promote its own image. Did you feel insulted by that allegation?

Dr. CLAY: I've been in on the review of tenure cases since 1994. As a senior officer, I don't really get to choose those things that I want to participate in and those things that I do not participate in. I'm very comfortable with my role and I'm very comfortable with the process. I think we've made great progress at MIT in attracting and tenuring of faculty members, and I'm very proud of that. And I want to share that good news as well as explain our process in this case.

CHIDEYA: Well, give us a sense of the good news. What are the numbers at MIT in terms of percentage of tenured faculty that are African-American and percentage of adjuncts or associate faculty?

Dr. CLAY: Well, we have about 950 faculty and about 50 - I believe 54 are under-represented members of the faculty. Now, that's a number we'd like to be a lot larger, but it's pretty comparable to our peer research institutions.

CHIDEYA: So if I'm getting this correctly, out of 900 odd, you have 54, which means that you have seven percent or less that are minority not just African-Americans. So what do you think the figure is for African-Americans?

Dr. CLAY: Let's see. The African-American number - I'd have to get back to you on. But I would say it's roughly half that number.

CHIDEYA: But if only 30 percent of professors get tenure, and tenure is basically like being given the keys to the kingdom for life, if you only have 54 professors - period - tenured or nontenured, you've got a very small pool that can even be considered for tenure. Is that not correct?

Dr. CLAY: Well, the pool who can be considered for tenure is refreshed regularly. In the period since Professor Sherley's case was reviewed, we've tenured three minority faculty and we have hired one from the outside with tenure. So we certainly would like to have tenured more but we have been working on this issue with great energy, and with some success. We are very proud of the cases we've brought in and we are working harder to do more. And we have announced a race initiative, which is the effort to redouble our efforts in this regard.

CHIDEYA: So let's move on to Sherley - Professor Sherley, and embryonic stem cell research. Does his opposition to this factor into the equation of his not getting tenure?

Dr. CLAY: Absolutely not. We are very particular about not judging facts with numbers based on their particular point of view on a controversial matter. But I can assure you that Professor Sherley is not the only faculty member who has this particular view on the stem cell issue. In fact, there are probably 10 other faculty members who would share his view, both tenured and untenured.

CHIDEYA: What are your next steps as chancellor in this case?

Dr. CLAY: Well, I think - I don't have the next steps based on anything I know today. We will remain available, and when I say, we I don't mean myself in particular, because, you know, we are part of a larger team but we understand that his term as a faculty member ends on June 30th.

CHIDEYA: If he simply won't move - and I don't know if you have any information from, say, campus security on whether or not he has moved his belongings - if he won't move, are you prepared to escort him physically out?

Dr. CLAY: Well, that's hypothetical and I'd rather not go there. He's been very cooperative in doing what he says he will do in the past, and we hope that it will remain in an orderly and civil level and that at the end of June, he will leave.

CHIDEYA: Chancellor Clay, thank you so much.

Dr. CLAY: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: That was MIT Chancellor Phillip Clay. And MIT did get back to us on those figures we were asking for. There are over 900 faculty at MIT - of those, 740 have tenure; and of those tenured faculty, 17 are African-American. That's roughly two percent of MIT's tenured professors.

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CHIDEYA: Just ahead, a bombing rattles Nairobi in this week's Africa update. And a personal look at Atlanta on this week's StoryCorps Griot.

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CHIDEYA: This is NPR News.

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