Do the Faculty Shootings in Alabama Say Something About Academic Culture?

February 15, 2010

The killing of three professors on Friday at the University of Alabama at Huntsville, and the arrest of another professor, Amy Bishop, in connection with those shootings, prompted a range of reactions on our site over the weekend—both in the comments of various articles and in the forums. It produced an outpouring of sympathy from many readers, but also stirred conversations about what role tenure may have played and how higher education deals with mental illness among faculty members.

dgcamp, for example, suggests that the tenure process itself may be partly to blame:

Perhaps we need to examine the pressure we are putting on all people in academia? Increasing stress. Increasing strain. Increasing competitiveness. Productivity over quality. There is little or no life-work balance in academia nowadays. The bar to gain tenure or to get promoted has risen to nearly impossible heights. You have to teach well. You have to have a great research program. You have to bring in grants. You have to engage in community and college service. The institution just wants more and more and more. It is not psychologically, medically or spiritually healhy. Under such pressure, some people snap psychologically, start to fail medically, or begin to have a spiritual crisis. This woman obviously had some mental problems, but the pressure in academia and the presure to gain tenure, and her subsequent denial of tenure (the scarlet letter in academia) were likely contributing factors in her loss of control.

lizhud, however, thinks readers shouldn't be so quick to jump on the blame-the-tenure-process bandwagon:

[T]enure is not relevant. Divorce and child custody are not relevant when a father kills his ex-wife and kids after becoming "distraught" over the divorce. In the same way, economic inequality is not in question when an armed robber kills a bank guard in an attempted heist. Yes, we need to address problems in any of these areas where they exist. But most people who commit crimes are in some occupation or under some perceived stress. The fact that a shooter can share characteristics with anyone who at times is frustrated and overwhelmed by life's challenges (a sense of paranoia, depression or a feeling that they are not appreciated) does not and should not allow us to take our attention off of a woman who just took three lives, and put three more in jeopardy.

grizz882 writes:

"While this could become a kind of academic bumper sticker—'Guns Don't Kill People, Tenure Does'—obviously, Dr. Bishop had issues that went deeper than a denial of academic work. She took the lives of three people in anger but not the kind that suddenly boiled over. Sadly she thought this out."

Several forum posters agree.

madhatter notes that ...

Workplace violence is triggered by a lot of things — job loss, harassment, perceived injustice. People experience adverse events at all kinds of workplaces all the time. Only a small fraction resort to violence. I've personally been laid off, passed over for promotion, demoted, harassed by supervisors — none of those events led me to take violent action, though I certainly experienced emotional turmoil and very strong negative thoughts and fantasies.

While yellowtractor, another forum poster, goes a step further, suggesting that the academic and institutional culture may have been contributing factors:

I've been thinking not about "what's wrong with the tenure process," but with the academic culture that has arisen around the process, at least at the five schools I've taught at. Three of the five schools had, in recent memory at the times I taught there, experienced either a T&P-related lawsuit or the threat of a T&P-related lawsuit. The result was that once the tenure process was in its final swing, something like paranoia descended on whole departments. The thought seemed to be "anything you say can or will be held against you," at some point, by somebody, if the decision was negative.
When I arrived at SunnySLAC a tenure case had just ended negatively in, shall we say, the next department over from mine.  Even though the professor in question was still at SunnySLAC — teaching his "lame duck" year while his appeal was processed — it was difficult to find out anything at all about the case, or even about the prof. The presumption was a lawsuit or worse, and therefore anxious, protective silence.
I couldn't help but feel for the prof, not only because of his professional and practical predicament, but also because the institutional culture (predicated on fear of lawsuits etc.) served to isolate him at perhaps the moment in his career when he most needed human contact and connection. The prof effectively became a nonperson while he was still teaching at the institution. [...]
I would like to know more about just how the review process at UAH worked in this instance ... . I would like to know this not in order to assign blame, but to understand the process by which warning signs were not heeded, if warning signs there were.

history_grrrl, meanwhile, raises excellent questions:

Is tenure denial in an academic institution fundamentally different from someone being fired in any other type of workplace? And if so, why? After all, people are fired all the time in all sorts of work settings; is our situation really so unique? Figuring out what is distinctive might help us think about how the process might be handled differently, if in fact that seems necessary. [...]
I can think of a few big differences. For example, the typical person getting fired in XYZ workplace doesn't get to stick around for an additional year; usually it's a few weeks or, at most, a few months (or in very high-level positions, as with the president of the University of North Texas, the person gets paid through the end of their contract but must step down immediately). Out of sight, out of mind.
Also, a typical firing decision is made by a single boss, or perhaps a board, but one's peers are not usually involved as they are in academia. [...]
Perhaps the nature of the academic job market makes our situation unique relative to other workplaces, but I'm not sure about that; an auto worker losing her job right now doesn't have a lot of options either.

To which t_r_b replies:

I'd say the key problem here is not how to make or announce tenure decisions, but rather how to support faculty throughout (and for that matter after) the probationary period. Some places do this better than others, and I suspect it has a lot more to do with institutional culture, and the interpersonal dynamics of the individual department, than with the policies on the books. Too often, academic work can be a damned isolating endeavor. In a lot of departments, I suspect, there isn't a lot of water cooler or lunch break chatter. The effectiveness of faculty mentoring depends a great deal on the inclination and personality of the faculty mentor. And let's face it: a lot of people in this line of work really aren't very good with people.
The problem is also exacerbated by the lack of ties between colleagues outside of their academic work, and the lack of much community support when you've lived in a place for only a few years. [...] Someone who is struggling emotionally during their first few years on the tenure track can easily fall through the cracks in a way that someone working in a community where they've lived their whole life probably wouldn't. And in the case of someone with severe detached-from-reality problems that might lead to violence, it's a lot less likely that colleagues will catch on to the full extent of the problems when they've known each other just for a few years, and only in a professional setting. They're more likely to think, "what a control freak! How annoying!" and leave it at that. [...]

According to commenter janobrien, mental illness receives short shrift on many college and university campuses:

[W]e don't give mental health enough attention. I wonder if there weren't some tell-tale signs that would have warned people of her condition and could have prevented this. We all have the responsibility to watch for these signs, just as you would watch someone for signs of a stroke and get them medical attention. How do we give "first aid" for mental problems?

teacherspaddle agrees:

I believe faculty and administrators lack good information on understanding, assisting, and when necessary, disciplining mentally ill faculty who are extremely disruptive. We get trained to spot and assist troubled [students], directing them to on-campus resources, but troubled faculty are tolerated as "eccentric" and "difficult personalities."

But hildavcarpenter believes that blaming mental illness is too convenient an excuse:

Firing disabled psychologically troubled tenure candidates because they don't fit in may not be the answer. However, helping them should be. IF, and I stress If, the signs are recognizable, then helping the person just might avert a tragedy.
Oh, and the American Disabilities Act does protect mental illness, for those of you afraid to work with psychologically impaired peers. You don't really have a choice. Your school takes government money, they play by government rules.

midwesttech seconds that thought:

The incident at Huntsville is indeed catastrophic, and I feel for the families of all involved. However, we must be careful not to over react and label people who are perhaps eccentric, overwrought, under emotional pressure, etc. as "dangerous" because of what someone thinks they might do. I would much rather take the risk of being shot at a staff meeting than risk having my colleagues labeled "unstable" or "dangerous" by those who don't agree with them.
If interventions that address dangerous individuals are to be put in place, there need to be safeguards to prevent those interventions being misused in witch hunts.

Other readers note, however, that it's hard to balance the rights of a mentally-ill academic against the safety of the community. supertatie writes:

Just recently, a writer for The Chronicle described her own battle with mental illness (schizophrenia, I believe, in her case) which resulted in her hearing "voices," etc., and distorted perceptions of inferiority and being mocked and humiliated by students.
She pleaded her case for tolerance, understanding, and the contributions that people with mental illness can make as academics. I think her condition is under control now, but an event like the one at Huntsville, as well as the murder of a Yale medical student by a lab technician, makes that argument hard to hear. On the one hand, we want to help those contending with mental illness make their contributions. On the other, when something boils over, and we are forced to look at behaviors that gave clear warning of a problem, how do we justify ignoring it?

We may never know what may have motivated Ms. Bishop to allegedly murder her colleagues, but one thing's for sure, bearjimmy writes:

Yesterday's events at the University of Alabama at Huntsville are clearly a warning to all of us in the Academy. A scholar, with at least one credential from the likes of Harvard, turned killer is mind boggling, and then some. I don't own a gun, nor do I have any experience with any gun. Taking a gun to an academic meeting is unimaginable. My work is not in the realm of guns, mental health, nor police science. To that end, reading the statement the shooter reportedly made,"They are still alive." leaves me nonplussed. [...]
Having to add a faculty meeting to the list of places where I'm already afraid to be, i.e., air flights on planes loaded with enough jet fuel to fly coast to coast, or in a skyscraper in dense urban enviornment, means the places where each of us can truly feel safe shrank by one, yesterday.

 Join in the forum discussion or comment on the full story.