The University of Alabama-Huntsville shootings and the academic workplace

I usually hesitate to use this blog to provide instantaneous analyses of developing news stories, but already it is clear that Friday’s terrible shootings at the University of Alabama-Huntsville will carry broader implications for academic workplaces.

Three professors were killed, and two other professors and one staff member were injured during an incident that took place at a faculty meeting.  In custody is Amy Bishop, an assistant professor in UAH’s biology department.

Earlier that day, Bishop learned she had lost an appeal of her tenure denial.  As soon as that piece of information was reported, the story behind this tragedy started to sharpen quickly.

The Tenure Track

For academicians, the tenure track is a multi-year gauntlet.  You have roughly 5 or 6 years to assemble a record of teaching, scholarship, and service that meets your institution’s tenure standards.  The stakes are huge: Earning tenure is the equivalent of a permanent contract of employment.  A tenure denial means you’re obliged to leave.

News reports indicate that Amy Bishop was angry over her tenure denial and blamed certain colleagues for her demise.  It appears that once she learned the denial had been upheld, she went to her department’s faculty meeting, armed with a gun.

Should we have seen this coming?

In recent years, several well-publicized acts of violence by unstable students have caused colleges and universities to beef up their emergency response protocols and to take student mental health issues more seriously.

But frankly, there has been very, very little attention devoted to faculty mental health, much less the risks of personal violence committed by fellow faculty members.  In fact, I fear that the increasingly bizarre details surrounding Bishop’s life history (how she killed her brother in 1986, perhaps accidentally; being a suspect in a mail bomb investigation in 1993) will allow us to dodge these matters, instead of using this as a wake-up call.

However, if we do want to reverse our inattention, here are some considerations that might inform our deliberations:

Professorial profiles

Obviously college and university faculty span the range of personality types, but as in many vocations, certain characteristics tend to predominate.

More often than not, professors are deeply drawn to their work and bring to their academic appointments a track record of high achievement as students.  They are invested in the value system of academe and take its judgments seriously.  Their social skills vary greatly.  Some may be the life of the party, but more frequently, terms such as “intense,” “eclectic” and “quirky” apply.

For those who have spent virtually their entire post-adolescent and adult lives in the groves of academe, decisions on promotions, perks, and obviously tenure can take on a monstrously elevated importance, above and beyond how even the most serious folks in other professions and vocations might regard their work.

“Harvard-trained”

News accounts of the tragedy are making much of the fact that Amy Bishop earned her Ph.D. in genetics at Harvard.  From the standpoint of drawing in readers and viewers, it’s an attractive hook: The brilliant Harvard-trained geneticist heads down to Alabama-Huntsville, is denied tenure, and goes ballistic.

But tucked beneath the headlines is a more serious dynamic that may well apply here, and that is the burden of expectations and pressures fueled by being a graduate of an elite university.  At this juncture we can only speculate on how Amy Bishop’s perceptions of her worthiness and her sense of injustice caused her to snap, but I would bet that her own private Harvard-to-Alabama narrative played a role.

Organizational justice

From this distance, it would be wholly unfair to pass judgment on UAH’s overall treatment of Bishop or its tenure decision.  However, in attempting to understand the forces at play, we must understand that considerations of organizational justice — i.e., the actual and perceived fairness and integrity of organizational decision-making in terms of both substance and process — loom large in the culture of academe.

This certainly is the case at the vital threshold stage of tenure.  Decisions over who is invited to become a permanent member of a faculty go to the core of academic life.  Indeed, it is my belief that once a school’s tenure process is perceived to have lost its base integrity, everything else is up for grabs.

UAH and Beyond

At UAH, no doubt there will be considerable looking back to determine how this tragedy unfolded, whether it could’ve been avoided, and how to prevent future ones.

More broadly, let us hope this will prompt other academic institutions to examine their policies and practices with an eye toward fairness and transparency, and to be more attuned to the psychological health and well-being of their employees, both for their own sake and the safety of others.  Sadly, it often takes these headline-making tragedies to get us to do what we should’ve been doing all along.

[Note: As details about this tragedy have become available, I have made minor edits to this entry since originally posting it.  However, my basic points about the broader implications remain intact.]

[This post was quoted and linked in a variety of periodicals and blogs, including the Chronicle of Higher Education.  Here is an update collecting links to news coverage.]

[June 2010 update -- Amy Bishop has been charged with the 1986 shooting death of her brother.]

[March 2011 update -- From the Boston Globe: "An Alabama grand jury has formally indicted Amy Bishop on capital murder and attempted murder charges stemming from the February 2010 University of Alabama Huntsville shootings."]

20 responses

  1. Your analysis is excellent. As a semi-retired professor, I am of the opinion that people who obviously need intervention do not get it. I tried hard to protect myself and others against workplace violence, and though I won, it was a Pyrrhic victory. Nothing was done to the professor who for more than 30 years been terrifying faculty and students. His final act toward me, before I filed against the admin, was to fling Roberts Rules at me in a Senate Meeting (literally). The university found itself to have violated OSHA and internal policies re workplace violence. Outcome? Nothing.

  2. Having never worked in an academic institution, I’ve never understood why anyone feels they’re entitled to lifetime employment.

    Can someone explain this, please? Or why a Harvard PhD in genetics felt that teaching was her only career option when the first, second and even the third world are investing billions in biotechnology?

    • Marcia, the original purpose of tenure was to safeguard academic freedom, so that professors could research, write, and speak on topics related to their work without fear of reprisal from their institutions. I happen to believe that tenure is a necessary safeguard given the realities of how academic institutions work, but there’s a wide range of opinion on this topic that goes well beyond the scope of this particular situation. You’ll certainly find plenty of folks who share your skepticism.

      As for what drove Bishop to do what she did, I don’t think it’s as simplistic as perceiving that her career options were limited. She obviously had some heavy personal baggage to deal with, may well be mentally ill, and we don’t know what inner machinations within her university might have pushed certain buttons.

  3. Another live mass shooter a couple of months after Fort Hood. In this case, will will there be a motive cover-up? Can we expect all probable motives including workplace mobbing and often concomitant organized stalking and community based harassment to be unexamined? Can we afford to not have the guts to examine these issues?

    • Right now (at least as of 2/15/10 in the a.m.) there’s no evidence that Bishop was a victim or target of mistreatment and that she acted out in response. Obviously she perceived it that way, but I’d need to know much, much more before concurring.

      • Today’s NY Times has a good piece about the hoops she was jumping through in order to appeal her original tenure denial. Putting myself in her position, I can imagine how stressful and unpleasant the past year has been for her.

        It certainly does not justify anything she did, but it does help to explain her behavior.

    • As an academic who is the victim of organized stalking and electronic harassment, I can say that I don’t think our names should be linked to people who would go out and shoot some innocent persons. We already have enough to contend with without people associating us with violence. Now everyone thinks we were placed on a list for something that we did or some violence in our profile, when the truth is this has more to do with the sickness in society that allows for illegal surveillance and domestic terrorism. Can you spell MH Chaos etc. This has been going on with impunity for years.

    • The racial issue has been popping up in blog posts and comments. Academe is hardly free from bias, but I’d want to know more, such as the overall racial/ethnic makeup of her department and whether there is evidence of bias in her previous actions and statements.

      If most faculty in her department happen to be people of color, then it follows that her victims’ demographics would reflect that too. That doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a racial motive. Or, there could be, and if so, it definitely should be part of our understanding of this tragedy.

      Mention of her religious faith in connection with this seems gratuitous without evidence that it motivated her actions.

  4. This story just doesn’t seem to go together. I read she’s an evangelical in one story and then a far leftist in another? About the tenure, what I would like to know is how was her research affected by the denial of tenure(which was like firing her-she could no longer continue her research there). Did the university then “own” her research(which seemed to lead to a possible cure to Alzeimers and Parkinsons)? Not a defense of her actions but but this would have been worth a lot of money and maybe a Nobel prize-and the university takes credit)along with tenured professors for her and her husband’s work?

    http://zennie2005.blogspot.com/2010/02/dr-amy-bishop-of-alabama-huntsville_14.html

    • Laura, the pieces are all over the place, indeed. It may be a long time before some of the facts are clarified, and Alabama-Huntsville will be understandably (for legal and ethical reasons) reticent to share much from Bishop’s employment record.

      Bishop’s own story keeps getting more bizarre by the day. The Boston Globe and Chronicle of Higher Education are all over this story, and they may well dig up more relevant information.

  5. This blog post is very insightful. I especially agree with the observation that her possible mental illness will unfortunately divert attention from a major issue on college campuses: the very uneven distribution of power and the lack of avenues to remedy that. You observed that in academic settings, tenure can take on “monstrously elevated importance.” There are many aspects of the academic value system that can be monstrously skewed, and the lack of what you have called transparency allows people to behave as bullies behind a wall of secrecy when they would never have the courage to behave so in a transparent culture. I have watched many new professors at UAH go through the tenure process, and I truly believe that whether a particular person gets tenure is much more a result of who makes up their tenure committees rather than of their work’s quality or promise.

    However in relation to recent events, there is an additional pressure source no one seems to be talking about. In addition to the customary highly political and stressful process of the UAH tenure bid, there has been an added air of hostility and escalating emotionalism on campus for the last year and a half. The faculty has united in very emotional confrontations with the president and provost, and several faculty members have been very vocal in their outrage. The prevailing feeling is that no one is being heard. Even the most stable of faculty temperaments have been drawn into the controversy with emotions continuing to escalate. Most pre-tenure faculty members have been keeping a low profile, however even tenured professors have been very aware of potential retribution if they voice their objections to unpopular reorganization plans and layoffs. Some of us have been quietly waiting, expecting that the pressure must necessarily release somewhere, but we never imagined anything so violent.

    • Dear UAH Resident,

      I am very sorry that you folks are experiencing such a devastating loss, and I can only imagine how difficult it must be to deal with the tragedy itself while being the focus of so much attention. And thank you — very, very much — for taking the time to share this background information about life at UAH. It helps us to understand the context of what we’re all reading about in the newspapers and online.

      Your comments are so remarkably understanding and humane, especially in view of what you and your co-workers have been through. Academic work can be wonderful work, but academic life can be trying enough even without such violence and tragedy. I hope that better days are ahead for everyone at the UAH campus.

      Sincerely,
      David

      • Thank you, David (and everyone), for the outpouring of empathy/sympathy, however I don’t feel “remarkably understanding and humane.” I feel numb. For some in HSV, emotions are raging. For others, we stand here and know that the emotions will come, probably when we least expect it. I am not looking forward to that part of the healing process.

        I have been reading the posts commenting on the online CHE articles. One of the saddest interpersonal phenomena I have observed in academia is that many, many, many academics act by default as if they are the smartest person in each and every room they enter and are therefore qualified, and even obliged, to judge people and situations where their knowledge is incomplete at best. This is evident in most of the CHE comment posts, in some of the news reporting, and in much of what I have seen within academic committees of all kinds.

        I’m not saying that this awful tragedy could have been prevented, but maybe the academic pressure cooker would be at least a little saner if we academics could treat each other more humanely and with less arrogance.

        Please, everyone, put your sympathy into action and next time your heart hurts for us in HSV, look at your academic neighbor with more tolerance and compassion and be slower to decide that you know it all. That will be a fitting tribute for the wonderful people who have lost or are fighting for their lives.

  6. [As a preliminary matter, I should explain that UAH Resident’s mentions of “CHE” refer to the Chronicle of Higher Education, which understandably is devoting considerable resources to covering the UAH tragedy. Many of these articles are freely available online at http://www.chronicle.com.

    “…look at your academic neighbor with more tolerance and compassion and be slower to decide that you know it all.”

    Yours is one of the wisest comments I’ve seen in connection with this tragedy and academic culture in general.

    I have witnessed, experienced, and, yes, exhibited behaviors that emanate from that know-it-all attitude. I find it especially common when there’s a negative, insular, and opaque institutional culture. That very ‘tude can serve as both sword and shield in dysfunctional academic settings.

    In addition, the nature of our work heaps upon us this expectation to be authorities and to speak authoritatively. No room for equivocation or uncertainty! It applies whether we’re talking about our scholarship, opining during a faculty meeting, or yammering on aimlessly about whatever crosses our mind. (Law professors — my milieu — are especially prone to the latter.)

    Yes, we all have lots to learn about these matters. Thanks again, UAH Resident, for sharing your thoughts and lessons.

  7. Does anyone have an insight into Laura’s questions about greed being a motive behind the decision to not grant tenure?

    I’m sorry to read that the academic community is as over-competitive, cruel and cutthroat as the rest. I’d hoped you were better than us.

    • I think until we learn more about what actually happened at UAH, any speculation as to why Amy Bishop was denied tenure — and “why” might include many different reasons and motivations — is exactly that, speculation.

  8. Pingback: Following up on the University of Alabama-Huntsville shootings « Minding the Workplace

  9. Pingback: Amy Bishop charged in 1986 shooting death of her brother « Minding the Workplace

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