In Huntsville, a Dull Afternoon Meeting Turns Deadly

Accused killer sat in meeting for nearly an hour before shooting began

Butch Dill, AP Images

Lauren Breeden writes a note on a sidewalk at the U. of Alabama at Huntsville, where three professors were killed at a faculty meeting on Friday. Amy Bishop, a Harvard-educated biology professor who felt she had unfairly been denied tenure, was taken into custody shortly after the shooting.
February 15, 2010

For nearly an hour, it was a normal faculty meeting. The professors discussed what professors always discuss: who was going to teach what and how they were going to handle an increase in undergraduate enrollment. There was no mention of tenure. No angry words were exchanged. It was, as one professor in the room put it, boring. Then, he said, Amy Bishop opened fire.

Ms. Bishop, a professor of biology at the University of Alabama at Huntsville, is accused of killing or wounding half of the dozen people in the room. Three professors died, another professor and staff member were critically injured, and another was treated and released.

Robert O. Lawton was one of the professors in that faculty meeting. He was also the chairman of the departmental committee that recommended against Ms. Bishop's tenure bid. According to those who know Ms. Bishop, she had been upset about her tenure denial and had hired a lawyer to challenge the university's decision. But what specifically prompted Ms. Bishop to bring a gun to the meeting that day and kill three of her colleagues remains unclear.

Throughout part of the meeting, Mr. Lawton was working on a manuscript, half-listening to the proceedings. He was eager for it to end because he had to meet with a technical-support person. According to Mr. Lawton, there were no warning signs of what was to come. "There was none. Zip," he said.

A Call to Her Husband

After the killings, Ms. Bishop left the room on the third floor of the Shelby Center for Science and Technology and called her husband, James Anderson, to come and pick her up. In an interview with The Chronicle, Mr. Anderson said he had dropped his wife off at the meeting at around 3 p.m. He didn't know she had a gun with her. He wasn't even aware that she had a gun at all, he said.

The couple, who met as undergraduates at Northeastern University more than two decades before, were planning to go out for coffee after the faculty meeting. It was to be a date, a chance to spend time together away from their four children. But before he could pick her up, she was apprehended by campus police officers, less than 15 minutes after the shootings.

Mr. Anderson talked to The Chronicle outside his home Sunday morning as he and his four children prepared to leave for church. He said his wife believed that her tenure denial had been caused, at least in part, by a miscommunication over whether two papers had been published in time to count toward her tenure bid. While some colleagues have said that she didn't get along well with other professors, Mr. Anderson called her "very personable." There had been no threats or hints of violence, he said.

The dean of the chemistry department, William N. Setzer, described Ms. Bishop as smart but weird. As for why she had been turned down for tenure, Mr. Setzer said he had heard that her publication record was thin and that she hadn't secured enough grants. Also, there were concerns about her personality, he said. In meetings, Mr. Setzer remembered, she would go off on "bizarre" rambles about topics not related to tasks at hand—"left-field kind of stuff," he said.

Mr. Lawton said he'd known stranger scientists. "She's very bright and perfectly willing to wander off on a tangent," he said. "She's extraordinarily extroverted. If it came in her mind, she said it." She could be tone-deaf, he said, and had been involved in an effort by the Faculty Senate to censure the president over a decision to require freshmen and sophomores to live in dormitories­—not, perhaps, the safest move for an untenured professor.

Perhaps, Mr. Lawton said, Ms. Bishop hadn't always received the best advice from others in the department. Because each of the professors had very different specialties­—Mr. Lawton studies trees, Ms. Bishop is a neuroscientist­—developing a mentor relationship was difficult. All of the faculty members, to some degree, worked on their own projects. "I work on trees. What kind of advice could I offer her for making grant proposals to the NIH?" he said.

In an interview at his home, Mr. Lawton was reluctant to blame what happened on the tenure process or departmental politics. The professor, who wears round-framed glasses and has a gray, bushy beard, said a tenure denial is a failure for everyone involved. "It means you screwed up a hire and you screwed up a mentoring," said Mr. Lawton, who has been at the university since 1980.

Mr. Lawton declined to give details about why Ms. Bishop was denied tenure, or exactly what happened once the shooting began.

A Brave Attempt

David B. Williams, president of the university, credited a person in the room for attempting to stop the shooting and saving others "from further harm." He declined to name the person. On Sunday, Mr. Williams was at the hospital visiting the families of Joseph Leahy, an associate professor in the department, and Stephanie Monticciolo, a staff member, both of whom were critically wounded in the attack.

Nick Lawton, the son of Professor Lawton, took a class in anatomy and physiology that Ms. Bishop taught last semester. The professor's son said Ms. Bishop didn't talk about her personal situation, but "spoke about the general difficulties of women in science on more than one occasion." He called her a competent lecturer who was willing to help students who needed it. But her teaching was "not inspired," he said.

Ms. Bishop's husband, however, said she was a "loved teacher." Since the shootings, Mr. Anderson has been searching for "the trigger"—that is, what might have caused his wife to open fire on her colleagues. He wondered if perhaps an e-mail message might have upset her. Often, according to Mr. Anderson, higher-ups at the university sent "nastygrams" on Fridays. He wondered whether she had received such a message, perhaps one affirming that university officials were standing behind her denial of tenure. But so far he hasn't found anything.

Mr. Anderson said that he wanted to look through Ms. Bishop's "two-inch thick" tenure file, but that it had been confiscated. He said that his wife had hired a lawyer to help her regarding her tenure denial and that the lawyer had been making progress.

As for Ms. Bishop's state of mind following her tenure denial last year, her husband said she "didn't want to go the way of" another university scientist who had lost tenure and was now driving a shuttle bus in Huntsville. But there were reasons to be hopeful: Mr. Anderson said his wife was looking to the future and had already mentioned two leads on possible jobs. She had said she was going to check on one of the leads when she got home from the faculty meeting.

Mr. Anderson spoke to The Chronicle in the doorway of his green, wood-sided house, about 20 minutes from the campus, as a light snow fell in Huntsville. He had talked to his wife by phone earlier Sunday morning.

"I know you guys are obviously in shock," she told him, but she didn't go into detail because, she said, her call was being monitored. She wanted to know whether their children were OK and whether they'd done their homework.