James Sherley on Success against Adversity: Difficulty in Gaining Tenure
  James Sherley     Biography    
Recorded: 06 Sep 2001

Well, see—I think it’s interesting. I think, you know, I think the average person would say, “Yes, he’s very successful.” I mean I’ve gone through really good schools. But I don’t—I don’t think of myself of having achieved the success that I was capable of achieving. I’m ten years off my postdoc and I am not tenured! All my colleagues are. Everybody that I trained with—that I know is a tenured professor someplace now. Why am I not tenured? And it is definitely not because of the quality of my work. So that’s something that for me is a real—it’s something that I hate! So there are other things that I would point to that I see—again, my excellent, brilliant colleagues have accomplished that I have not. And I can’t explain those things in terms of what I’ve done myself. You know—one of the things that I’ve done recently and I think its good because I think one of the great errors of people who are of my heritage is not talking about it.

You know there was a time, I think, when I spent more time worrying about that, but see, my first moment of tenure consideration wasn’t at MIT, it was before I came to MIT. I had a lot of difficulty getting my promotion case considered at my first institute. And in some ways MIT is, I think still, an extension of that. I mean I think—I’ll give you an example of what I perceive as the problem. The tenuring process, as it is presently designed, can never work for someone like me. Now that doesn’t mean that people of African Heritage can’t get tenured at these institutions because they have! I mean, they have. But what it does mean is that—it will always just be a trickle. There will never be a point in time when people who are well qualified and able get tenure. And the reason is because of the process, which is one of—it’s a subjective process of “behind closed doors,” people voting for who they like. So, I mean, I’ve done this just recently, I said to my chairman, “People are saying to me, they say to me, ‘You know, we like you, James’.” And I think they do. “ ‘We think your work is first-rate’.” It is! “But, they say, ‘We can’t guarantee you tenure here because you have to get these ten letters from these other people’.” “We’re going write for these letters and then, if the letters are okay, you can stay here. But, you know, the letters might not be okay in which case you can’t stay.” So, the problem with that is that if I were white there would not be an element of my ability to get people who know me to write the quality letters that I need. But I’ll be impressed if they can find ten people out there who will not be encumbered by the racism in our society who are able to write the letters and so. Five years ago I would never have brought that to my chairman’s attention. Now I say to him, “That’s fine. But do you think I can get those letters.”

I just got tired, I think is what it is. I say to my wife sometimes, why should I be the only one who’s feeling badly about this. Let’s share the bad feelings around. Let everyone who’s involved spend some time and energy thinking about this. They—maybe they’re not going to spend as much as me, but I’m no longer going to be the only person thinking about what’s happening to James. And I think the people who interact with me, if what they say is true: They value my work; they have to think about the fact that my experience in this scientific community is different. And it’s not anything about me as a person, it’s just because of the way our society works. And the scientific community is not like, you know, many places where we can go in the States, but it’s still has impact about racism in the society. And I think that the people, who try to mentor individuals like myself have to think about that, have to think about that, because I’m having this experience and it is going to have some effect on my work and my productivity and things like that. I think we have to ask ourselves, where do we want to be? Where I would like to see us is that anyone no matter what their background, no matter what their race, who is working and doing good quality science should be recognized by the scientific community the same. And that’s going to take a lot of education.

It does not exist now, does not exist now. You know, its funny—I have a really good colleague at Fox, my previous institution Fox Chase, Randy Strip (?). He and I came in at the same time, had similar issues in terms of grants and funding. Randy’s tenured at Fox Chase; I had to leave. Right, and there’s a difference in the amount of support we got. He and I would talk about this. The other thing is, I ask myself, how much time Randy, who’s white, how much time does Randy think about this problem outside of what he knows from me. And I realize that, you know, there’s no reason that he should be spending more time thinking about it. Especially if nobody’s sharing their experience with him. So I think what I have to do—I mean my responsibility to making change so that people know what I’m experiencing. I chose when I want to do that, sometimes its not a good idea. I find that many people are actually quite open to thinking about it, and that’s really what I want. I just want people to think about it.

James Sherley is a scientist on the forefront of adult stem-cell research. He earned his B.A. from Harvard University and his M.D./Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular and cellular biology (BCMB Program) from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

He was a Principal Investigator in the Division of Medical Science at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and is currently a Principal Investigator at the Division of Bioengineering and Environmental Health at MIT. His present research is in integrated studies in somatic stem cell kinetics.

Sherley was honored as a Pew Scholar in Biomedical Science in 1993, and in 2001 became a Pew Science and Society Institute Fellow.