Amy Bishop, Tenure Denial, and the University of Alabama Shootings

BlogHer Original Post

There is so much to say about Amy Bishop shooting six of her fellow faculty members during a meeting last week, killing three of them. (If you're not familiar with the incident, the National Public Radio news blog has a good summary, including information from from a faculty member present at the meeting.)

Indeed, much has already been said about the incident--and most of what's been said is just plain asinine.

Shelby Center University of Alabama Huntsville

The Shelby Center at the University of Alabama, Huntsville

I'm not going to link to all the blog posts--you can find them easily enough using Google Blog Search--that are making connections between Bishop's actions and her admiration for Obama, her left-leaning political beliefs, or her degree from Harvard. I'm not going to link to her astrological charts or the claims that if others in that faculty meeting had been packing guns there would have been fewer injuries.

Instead, I'm going to focus primarily on commentary by academics, because I think in this case those who best understand the situation are those who live the academic life, who have felt its stresses and are familiar with its rituals.

What Bishop did is inexcusable. But many of us in academia, while not prone to violence ourselves, understand the impulse to explode under the incredible stresses of the academic life. As Laura at 11D writes,

Eight years of graduate school. Seven years getting tenure. Then told to go away and don't come back. In a crappy job market. By people with less credentials than you. Oh, I can see how that could push a borderline personality over the edge.

I think Dean Dad hits just about the right note when he calls for people to stop using the incident to nourish their own pet political projects, be it gun control or abolishing the system of tenure. He writes,

I'm cringing as I imagine the ways this case will get used in other arguments.

Second-day coverage revealed that Bishop had previously shot and killed her brother in Massachusetts in the 1980's. The case was officially classified as an accident, though the paper trail is murky. For my money, any explanation of the Alabama incident needs to mention the Massachusetts one. Instead of using Bishop as somehow typical of a tenure case gone bad, let's keep in mind that this is a woman who shot a close family member in the chest. There's nothing typical about her.

Regular readers know that I consider the tenure system unethical, and that I've specifically taken it to task for the "up or out" moment of decision. That position isn't terribly popular in higher ed, but there it is.

But to use this case to argue against the tenure system strikes me as way out of bounds. This isn't about a typical, predictable consequence of the tenure system. It's about someone who has killed before, killing again.

That said, Historiann's post on the shootings does open up an interesting discussion about gun control in the workplace and particularly the academic workplace. As notorious Ph.D. commented darkly,

I missed the bit about, “Boy, I wish someone else in that meeting had been packing.” Really? Our students wish their professors had guns? Because this might solve my little texting-in-class problem…

I've said before that one of my nightmares is that a gun-toting crazy bursts into my classroom and starts firing, only to have half the students in the class draw their weapons and fire at will. Those who argue for students carrying guns to class seem to assume all students will have sniper-like accuracy while taking fire and besieged on all sides by panicky students climbing over auditorium-style chairs as they flee toward the exits. And those who think that professors should pack heat as a method of protecting their students are also in error if they think that faculty who can't figure out how to hook up a laptop to a projector's VGA cable are going to have the werewithal and dexterity to drop a shooter. Unless my experience as a graduate student was atypical, universities don't require SWAT or black ops training as prerequisites for the Ph.D.

So here's what did go wrong: an employee with anger management issues, potential mental illness, and a history of violence was apparently never recognized as a threat by the people whose responsibility it is to notice, report, and/or deal with these things--campus security, human resources, faculty and staff support services, and colleagues.

Even the most stable of us might snap in one way or another if, after 15 years incredibly grueling work, all targeted to a relatively narrow field of expertise, we were told we're not a right fit for the field and that we'd likely never work in the industry again.

There are many reasons a faculty member may be denied tenure. Among them are too few publications in peer-reviewed journals, a poor track record of securing grants to support her research, poor student evaluations of teaching, insufficient service to the department and the campus, and--here's where it gets really murky--a lack of collegiality. Janet Stemwedel of Adventures in Ethics and Science once again hits the nail on the head in her analysis of a complicated situation:

[N]o faculty member is an island. Doing the business of a department, a college, and a university frequently involves working well with others. If a tenure candidate is unwilling or unable to work well with colleagues when that's what is needed, all the big grants, impressive publications, and teaching awards in the world won't matter to the colleagues who are carrying her weight or, worse, butting heads with her.

People smart enough (in terms of both intellect and wisdom) that you'd want to be colleagues with them for 20 or 30 years are not going to happily grant tenure to someone who is an absolute pain in the ass, who shirks shared responsibility, or who poisons morale in your department.

Of course, establishing concrete criteria for this kind of baseline collegiality is tricky. Then again, it's not always easy to discern from written tenure criteria exactly what level of research or teaching prowess will put you "above the line" either. And, I fully understand worries that to squishy a notion of collegiality might be misused so as not to tenure candidates who are "not our kind, dear" (or to tenure those who are better at schmoozing than at teaching or publishing).

What are your thoughts? Is this just another tragic workplace shooting, or does its context make it worthy of more than the usual level of analysis?

Leslie Madsen-Brooks develops learning experiences for K-12, university, and museum clients. She blogs at The Clutter Museum, Museum Blogging, and The Multicultural Toybox and is the founder of Eager Mondays, a consultancy providing unconventional professional development.

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