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:
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.
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.
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.]
In the aftermath of the UAB shootings, this post was quoted in news articles and served as the catalyst for interviews about higher education, the tenure process, and mental health:
Chronicle of Higher Education roundup of commentary on UAH shootings
Chronicle article by Jennifer Ruark about mental health issues in academe
Boston Globe article by Tracy Jan about the personal impact of tenure processes
[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.”]
[September 2012 update — From the New York Times and Associated Press: “A former biology professor pleaded guilty on Tuesday to fatally shooting three colleagues and wounding three others during a faculty meeting at the University of Alabama in Huntsville in 2010, court officials said. The former professor, Amy Bishop, 47, pleaded guilty to one count of capital murder involving two or more people and three counts of attempted murder. Earlier she had pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.”]