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Starving for tenure


By Brain J. McFillen and Brian McFillen



I've studied a fair amount of political movements, negotiations, protests, revolutions, terrorism and other sorts of means to try to get what you want out of the powers-that-be. But I have to say that a phenomenon recently highlighted by the Chronicle of Higher Education has me baffled: Why would a junior professor ever think a hunger strike could get him or her tenure?\nThe question recently arose from a failed attempt by Massachusetts Institute of Technology associate professor of biological engineering James L. Sherley. For 12 days (Feb. 5 through Feb. 16), Sherley subsisted on water and vitamins, proclaiming he would “die defiantly” if he didn’t get tenure – a status denied to him, he said, because he’s black and MIT is systemically racist. \nNow, it’s certainly true that, across academia, the faculty isn’t diverse enough – the latest Department of Education survey (conducted in fall 2003) showed that 87 percent of full professors are white, while American Indian, black and Hispanic individuals made up only 0.3 percent, 3.2 percent and 2.1 percent of members, respectively (compared with being respectively 1 percent, 12.9 percent and 14 percent of the U.S. population). And it’s a good thing that MIT is investigating Sherley’s claims. But it’s hard to believe that in the 21st century, a top international research university would turn away a tenure candidate based on race. Leaving aside that it would fly in the face of higher education’s values, and the potential legal repercussions, there’s simply the fact that the guy’s a biological engineer. Given the private-sector competition for those studying life sciences, a university would have to be nuts to throw away a qualified candidate. Sherley’s bold demonstration had only one true cause in mind: Sherley.\nMore entertaining is the case of Ralph E. Luker, another former hunger-striker-for-tenure interviewed by the Chronicle of Higher Education on Feb. 22. In 1994, despite having “five books in print, four earned academic degrees (and) a nomination for a Pulitzer Prize,” Luker was denied tenure by Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Now, I’ve personally been to Antioch – it’s essentially the stationary version of a Grateful Dead, Phish and Massive Panic tour. My freshman-year roommate, a great guy but also the biggest stoner I’ve ever known, turned down Antioch because “all they ever do is smoke up.” Yet, even at Antioch, Luker’s strike failed.\nThere’s a very simple reason for this: Hunger strikes are based on the idea that an individual is willing to die (painfully) for a cause larger than his or herself. This was why it worked for Mohandas Gandhi, Alice Paul, Cesar Chavez, Nelson Mandela and members of the civil rights movement. This was why the 1981 hunger strike by imprisoned Provisional Irish Republican Army members had a tremendous impact on public opinion – 10 of them died. Thus, if you’re doing it for personal gain, the logic doesn’t really work.\nSo, relax – have a Hot Pocket and update that resume.

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