• September 1, 2015

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

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.


1. mvillars66 - February 15, 2010 at 08:08 am

As a full-time professor at a two-year college that has recently started offering four year degrees, there seems to be a dearth of research on many psychological issues that transpire in the world of academe. Racism has been reseached, gender bias as well. There are, unfortunately, many other ones that are so subtle and yet so flagrant at the same time that administrators and even some faculty deny or avoid their existence. There is an impotent feeling at times among faculty who are not "recognized" for their efforts. This is coupled with the egos these individuals harbor; they are after all better educated than most in this country and and more than eager to dislay their acumen. These individuals must be observed and recognized carefully by all. In addition, administration must admit and realize that the previous 20th century methods of promotion, tenure, even terminal degree and publishing requirements may no longer be the measure of a professor's worth or success. It still has remained a popularity contest, with insecure administraters fearing brilliant faculty members and keeping them in their place by any means at their disposal. If those methods don't work on said faculty member, carrots and perks are thrown at them through the use of administrtive posts at higher salaries and lower job expectations and no contact with students. There are many breaches of contracts that occur in academia, and their cloked behind obtuse rules, regulations, committees, union interference and closed-door meetings. We need to open the doors, let some air in, and re-evaluate and overhaul many of the things being done in higher education. If not I'm afraid we won't be able to do the business we were hired to do-educate, because we're so busy writing grants, going to committee meetings and engratiating ourselves with adminstrators and other colleagues instead of working towards a better educational institution. Those are my two cents.

2. malcolmx - February 15, 2010 at 08:33 am

This was murder pure and simple, nothing more nothing less. An unstable woman with a history of mental problems took out her fellow professors. This is academia's moral equivalence of a drive by shooting by a rival street gang. It was cowardly and without any kind of moral or institutional justification. As Snoop says, murder was the case. Granted that higher education is in general a degenerate institution, with cheating and crooked chancellors, vice presidents, deans, and chairs at the head, there is absolutely no justification or excuses that can be offered for her actions. Huntsville is not Harvard or Yale. If you are not successful at this lesser ranked institution then move lower on the peeking order, University of Alabama at Birmingham, or many of the other lowly ranked institions in nation.

3. ivcfmadison - February 15, 2010 at 09:09 am

While I don't mean to excuse the actions of this woman in anyway at all, it does highlight the need to do away with the entire tenure process and the existance of tenure itself. This institutionalized entitlement is outdated and counterproductive.

4. skingc - February 15, 2010 at 09:59 am

President Gorden Gee of The Ohio State University, and who has been called the most influencial College President in our country by Time Magazine,


believes it is time to change the Tenure process because it takes away from teaching and puts to much pressure on faculty to publish and obtain funding for research.


At this university in my area the faculty all turn against the dean, in the university newspaper one tenured faculty member who is African American threatened the dean with violence if he saw him in the hallways. There are lawsuites pending.


And, just recently one faculty member was denied tenure, and another faculty member told me about her husband who was denied tenure and they had to appeal it and fight to get his tenure.

While all of this is going on and I believe more across the country than we know or believe... the students that come in hungry for knowledge and education are suffering.

Faculty members are held accountable for Teaching, Service, and Research. Each of those are full time jobs. While it is said that being a faculty member is the number three "best job" to have in this country, it comes with a high price I believe in stress and where your future is dependent upon others in your faculty department who oftentimes have a vote on whether you stay or are let go. If you are let go without getting tenure it is difficult to find comparable positions because the academia world is small. All your lifes work is seen as going to the abyss never to be seen again. That is almost to difficult for anyone to imagine who has spent a life time of research.

While I in no way do I defend Professor Bishop in her actions, I do see that this is a time to turn this tragedy into a positive for academia. Maybe, President Gee has some good starting points, emphasize teaching, restructure tenure tracks, bring in seminars on diversity in the work place to campus sights, give up and coming junior faculty mentoring, help make sure junior faculty succeed in their bid for tenure, and take full professors out of the voting on junior faculty tenure bids...

While I appreciate tenure which allows for more freedoms of speech and research that may go against the grain of the individual university, at what price are we willing to protect that process. At the price of life, study learning, etc.

Another aspect, Professor Bishop from jail stated to her husband, make sure that the kids are doing their homework"... what stress does academia put on women who may be responsible for not only teaching, research and service, but their families, and how does that contribute to her stress levels.

5. cardinal5 - February 15, 2010 at 10:21 am

As a retired professor, I can too well remember the culture of ultra-competitiveness that permeates many departments. There are wonderful faculty members who work diligently to mentor new faculty members. But, there are many, many faculty members whose only concern is their own security and chance for extra funding through grants, etc. Academia is still a dog-eat-dog world.

But, what has NOT been discussed adequately is the whole issue of GUN availability in this country. Academia is a pressure cooker, and when you factor in meetings where some tenured professors have horrible social skills along with narcissitic type personalities, it is no wonder that non-tenured people will "explode". If this person has mental illness, it makes all those meetings the more contentious and dangerous.

However, would three people be dead and two others critically wounded if Dr. Bishop had not been carrying a gun? We must continue to talk about issues with tenure and mental illness, but we cannot fail to support gun control laws in this country that will no longer make guns so available and accessible. The U.S. has an unacceptable level of gun violence; it is time that academics take a stand on this issue as well.

6. lauren1 - February 15, 2010 at 10:26 am

She had four children. Very very few women in academia are able to manage four children and an academic career...most of us have less children in order to put our energy into our work. The myth that women can manage a household of 4 children (I'll grant the exceptions) has managed to produce someone like this, already a highly stressed individual, competitive, brilliant, trying to manage the lives of 4 children and compete for tenure...its a recipe for catastrophe. Since no one has noted this, I will.

7. oaachron - February 15, 2010 at 11:09 am

This exchange is productive and it reminds me that this is a bigger issue than tenure processes. Mental illness and workplace violence are not unique to academia. Such concerns exist in all walks of life - all educational, intelletual, economic, cultural, etc. groups. Most people experience stress and even depression (death of a loved one, for example) at some point in their lives. Most of us can point to imperfect processes or negative work situations that are stress generators and to burdensome home lives(actually, I am the mother of 4 hopeful children) that challenge our organizational skills and creativity. Removing the stigma around mental illness and its care is the key to avoiding tragedies such as this - and our society IS improving awareness as well as evolving more effective ways to manage daily life for temporary and chronic conditions. Let us remember to be understanding and supportive and less judgemental when our collegues are in need.

8. mitt4jp - February 15, 2010 at 11:21 am

While I am not defending Professor Bishop in her actions, the P&T process can be corrupted and unfair. It can become popularity contest. Over the years, I have seen many brilliant colleagues being denied tenure because they don't "fit in" or not "collegial" enough.

The main purpose of granting tenure is to protect academic freedom, but ironically, before an assistant professor receives his/her tenure, he/she often can't be too vocal.

9. sophox - February 15, 2010 at 11:50 am

Holy cow, people. Let's use some critical thinking skills, here. At hundreds of colleges and universities, faculty members have been granted or denied tenure since before most of us were alive.

And how many shootings have arisen as a consequence?

This incident doesn't highlight anything about anything. There is better evidence that MMR shots cause autism.

10. windspike - February 15, 2010 at 01:44 pm

repeat of my comment to the other article posted today:

To blame a de facto personnel policy for causing consternation and illicit behavior is misdirected. The woman, while innocent until proven guilty, should be held accountable for her actions. The why is less relevant.

We do have a problem in higher education, which is intractable and hard to solve. As I often say to my children, and I learned from my old High School science teacher Mr. Barns, "where is it written that life is fair?"

Really, the process of earning tenure is inverted. Those who need it, don't have it. Those who have it, don't need it. If Universities were truly places for discovery and inventiveness, those who are stretching the boundaries of what is known deserve more protection.

Instead, junior faculty members who are fresh out of their Ph.D. programs, or a smidge into an academic career are forced to bend to a "jury of their peers," to conduct research & submit articles and that will be "approved," for publication. This invariably gets us more of the same, or incremental advancement. Those who bust new ground are pushed out by the gate keepers, even if their discoveries are valuable and contribute - no matter that they don't produce a PRJ article.

I suggest we give tenure to new hires at Colleges and Universities, and give only for 7 years. Once you reach the 7 year mark, you should stand on your record. If it sucks, you get terminated. If it's good, you don't need the protections tenure offers. In that respect, it's all fair, and then you stand on your merits. How good an instructor are you? What value do you add to the field? Have you contributed to the advancement of new knowledge? If you don't excel in any of those areas and a number of others, you should be put out to do something else that you may be better at.

11. 11272784 - February 15, 2010 at 04:17 pm

I'm really not that interested in WHY it happened. In the world there are many people with many different paychological make-ups. Some of them snap. I doubt we'll ever figure out why. Life happens.

12. johntoradze - February 15, 2010 at 09:57 pm

"Huntsville is not Harvard or Yale. If you are not successful at this lesser ranked institution then move lower on the peeking order, University of Alabama at Birmingham, or many of the other lowly ranked institions in nation."

Dear me. Lowly? After traversing the hallowed halls of certain highly ranked universities, I am no longer impressed at all. I could care less. The degree of lying, intellectual theft and manipulative using of others is just disgusting. Equally disgusting is the wink-wink, nudge-nudge game of getting in bed with industry to make huge amounts of money.

There are many people who have distinguished themselves by their work at "lesser universities". I quite honestly think that a better system would be to allocate grants by lottery, without requiring an application, just give X dollars to pursue whatever you want. If you come up with something, it gets extended. If it doesn't, then you go back in the pool for the next lottery win.

13. jeanrenoir - February 16, 2010 at 12:11 am

The tendency of the American academy during the forty years I've been an English professor to place more and more obsessive emphasis on "empathy" and "sensitivity" as the central human values has gotten steadily more absurd with every passing year. Both values are wonderful, but so is justice. I don't recall academics responding to the Virginia Tech murderer with quite the same level of "empathy" they seem at times to display for this woman denied tenure. It's possible to argue that all murderers are mentally ill. But so what? Do we then simply junk the judicial system and replace it with nothing but therapy? Why does that seem problematic?

14. madamesmartypants - February 16, 2010 at 12:33 am

Re: history_grrl's post: I think the question she asks-- Is tenure denial in an academic institution fundamentally different from someone being fired in any other type of workplace?--is an important one. I'd add that tenure denial not only means you have to leave your workplace, i.e., the university. You may also have to relocate, leave the state, leave your home, or perhaps leave the field entirely. You no longer have any future in the area you spent the last two decades or so working in. You may have made considerable sacrifices--perhaps moved far from family, or drained your savings--to pursue your career. You will have to re-examine your priorities and start anew, perhaps create a new identity, for yourself in middle age. Family members and friends who do not understand the process may not be supportive; your peers are the ones who voted against you, so that leaves a pretty limited social safety net. And of course we are not even talking about financial considerations...Office jobs are comparatively numerous, interchangeable, usually located relatively near where you live right now, and didn't require you to identify yourself with your work in the first place. Being fired seems to me to be a much different experience from being denied tenure.

15. professor13 - February 17, 2010 at 03:46 am

I agree totally with madamesmartypants. I worked for 7 years at a state university. I worked on publications the entire time but was only able to actually get them published the last few years, which was held against me. I had a satisfactory number of publications for tenure. My student evaluations, on the whole, were good. I brought grant money in. There was one faculty member with whom I had had a few conflicts over the years, but who had expressed support for my tenure. Less than a month before the departmental committee meeting on my tenure, my department head got seriously ill. She called me from the hospital and asked me to carry out a task regarding a student issue. As I did what she asked, this other faculty person disagreed with how I was proceeding, at the suggestion of the university's "deputy" attorney. This other faculty member had no authority to supervise me. The dept. head's illness kept her away from the work for almost a month so this other faculty person was put in charge. She could be very persuasive. The day of the committee meeting the dept. head struggled to get to the office but was so weak she could barely walk into my office. The dept. committee voted against me, and college level and university level committees tend to go along with the dept. decision. I went through the appeal process and at the appeal hearing, the college dean spoke against me about my research agenda, which had been clearly spelled out in my yearly report, and followed for six years. Since our dept. had changed colleges the prior year, I had never met this Dean before the dept. meeting and then spoke with her for only 10 minutes. Some of the appeals committee members asked this other faculty member, now head of the dept., some good questions and expressed dismay at the inadequacies of some of her responses. Since there were some irregularities in whether tenure guidelines were followed, the appeals committee recommended that the university level committee reconsider my tenure. This recommendation went to the Chancellor who made the final decision about whether they could reconsider. I received a copy of the letter he wrote to the committee. In it, he stated that he believed I should not be tenured, and, as expected, the committee followed his recommendation. After all of this, the Provost told me that I had met all of the criteria for tenure but this one woman, now dept. head, didn't want me to stay.
One of the greatest disappointments was how nasty the other members in my department and the university attorney, with whom I had done some work, got. There was absolutely no empathy for me. This one faculty member managed to bad mouth me so much that the last year was a very difficult time. For the women out there, remember how mean 6th and 7th grade girls could be to one another. This was similar only much worse. The day I and every one else received the final letter denying me tenure, I happened to walk by a faculty member's office and my three female "colleagues" were whooping and hollering. They may have been opening a bottle of champaign at the news. (Now one could think I was being paranoid, but some paranoia in this situation is understandable.)
I tend to take any anger out on myself and get depressed rather than shooting anyone. Luckily, I was near retirement age and have done okay but this experience in academia isn't something I would wish on anyone. One suggestion by one of the posters was that a mentor be assigned to any faculty member being denied tenure to get them through their last year. I stopped going to faculty meetings that last semester which is something Amy Bishop should have done.

16. tolerantly - February 17, 2010 at 03:57 am

This has nothing to do with tenure. Nothing. You're talking about an unstable woman with a long history of violence involving the police, which makes me wonder how much violence went unreported, and how she treated her family.

A large part of the problem, though, has to do with fear of lawsuits. One professor was more than willing to speak up and say he thought she was batshit crazy and wanted to stay far away from her. Because there's no way to use such warnings, we don't. We ignore them. The same problem exists in cases of domestic violence, including spousal killings and infanticides.

Develop some way of dealing with the obviously nuts without risking big bucks, and you'll go a long way towards solving the problem. Of course, at that point there might be precious few people left in academia. If it were mine to build, the first thing I'd look for is a non-rigid sense of humor, something that isn't tied to puns and perversions. The better that sense of humor is, the more likely, i'm guessing, you are to get a sane colleague.

17. justme2010 - February 17, 2010 at 04:55 pm

sophox-WELL SAID!!!!
This has nothing to do with tenure; this flake could have just as easily snapped over a shopping cart at Walmart. Nothing more amusing than college presidents attempting to explain this as some sort of systemic failure in the tenure system...bunk! Stop looking for excuses and ways to get around the obvious, she is a nutcase and just needed a triggering event.

18. btuberville - February 18, 2010 at 12:42 pm

While there are plenty of places where blame (or at least heavily researched suspicion) could be placed in this incident, most of the reports I've read and seen indicate a woman with some long-standing emotional and/or psychological issues, issues for which academia may not be the root cause. Does the tenure system (in its current-day incarnation) need to be re-visited? Perhaps. Are there areas in which higher educational institutions can be more cognizant of and pro-active about faculty issues? Perhaps. Does this issue speak to gun-control and gun-accessibility issues? Perhaps. Ad infinitum.

In the midst of all these plaguing questions, it's frustrating to realize that we may never know the "real" reason. In our confusion, though, let us not forget those grieving and healing.

19. professor13 - February 18, 2010 at 10:57 pm

The Boston Globe has a good article in today's edition. Certainly only Bishop is to blame for what Bishop did, BUT universities should look at the academic environment and policies that contribute to conditions that increase these violent outcomes. Bishop was at UAH 7 years, the maximum number of years before tenure is required. Did her annual evaluations lead her to believe she would be tenured? If she had been let go when she was in her late 30s, her job prospects would have been better.

20. performance_expert - February 21, 2010 at 04:59 pm

#15. Wow. Just wow. Have a teaspoon of empathy. Just "wow."

21. czarevna - February 22, 2010 at 01:56 pm

The logic in this thread is rather convoluted. There are a number of issues that are getting conflated such as:

1. Can we attribute this tragedy to the tenure system?
2. Was this woman mentally unstable?
3. Is the tenure system the best system for distributing academic jobs?

I do find it fairly amusing that you can pretty much tell who out of the posters have tenure, and who doesn't. Where there isn't enough pie to go around, those who get a slice tend to see it as their well-deserved entitlement, irrespective of any unearned privilege that got them there. Such people also tend to assume that there was some problem with those who don't get any pie that justifies their denial.

22. goxewu - February 22, 2010 at 03:58 pm

1. Many, if not most, of the commenters who begin by saying, "While I in no way excuse the actions of Prof. Bishop," proceed to do just that. Saying that the tenure system, Prof. Bishop's colleagues, the university, allegedly lax mental health officials, the stress of combining family life and an academic career, etc., all contributed to the "tragedy" is to diminish the responsibility of Prof. Bishop. It's rather like those people who say, "I don't mean to criticize...," and then proceed to do just that.

2. Every nasty act that you wouldn't do isn't a sign of mental illness. There are lots of people--con artists, spouse-abusers, really aggressive drivers, lotharios, femmes fatales, martinets and, yes, murderers--who refuse to act in accordance with the customs and mores of polite society. Their actions do not make them, ipso facto, "mentally ill."

3. The tenure system in most reputable colleges and universities is, remember, a facet of faculty self-governance. The alternative to suffering the judgment of one's senior colleagues is to suffer the judgment of, as in other areas of employment, one's supervisor, or "boss." Would it be fairer or less stressful to have one's tenure fate in the hands of a single boss, e.g., the department chairman or the dean, who might or might not choose to have chats with the candidate's colleagues asking, "How's [her or] she doing?"

4. In most reputable colleges and universities, a negative tenure decision doesn't come out of the blue. Junior faculty are usually given informal evaluations after every academic year, and a formal evaluation at the (usually three-year) renewal-or-not juncture. In most negative tenure cases, the rejected candidate is not somebody who was doing just fine on all fronts right up until the decision.

5. The tenure process (department committee's decision going to the chairman, his/her concurrence or not going to a college-wide committee, that concurrence or not going to the dean, his concurrence or not going to a university-wide committee, that committee's concurrence or not going to the provost and then to the president) is far and away the most protective of an employee's rights anywhere. That's one of the reasons--especially after all that checking and double-checking, there's an appeal--it drags on for so long. If the chairman or dean made a prompt, irrevocable decision, things would go a lot quicker. Does anyone want that?

6. We should take with a grain--no, a block--of salt the first-person anecdotal accounts on this thread and others of people who claim to have suffered injustices at the hands of the tenure system and/or their colleagues. Since there's no way of checking the accounts without the storyteller's anonymity being sacrificed, we should always keep in mind that there's at least one other side to the story.

7. People who work in, for instance, big automobile manufacturing plants and get laid off often have no choice but to relocate, sometimes to another state, in order to even try to find similar work. Offhand, I'd guess that there are fewer auto assembly plants in the U.S. than there are colleges and universities. (Sometimes I understand all too well why they call academe "the ivory tower.")

8. Re #21: It seems an almost universal characteristic of people in any line or work or in any station of life that they consider anybody on the rung above them to be undeserving of it, and anybody on a rung below them to be richly deserving of it.

9. "Transparency" cuts a lot of ways. "We can't comment on that, it's a personnel matter," may be infuriating at times, and make you suspicious of a coverup, but if "transparency" is required across the board, then your personnel matters may become public, too. An interesting area of this issue is letters of recommendations for students. I know academics who won't write them unless the student checks the box relinquishing his/her right to see the letter. If you're one of those, you don't really have much room to complain about the confidentiality of tenure committee proceedings.

23. philemon1 - February 22, 2010 at 06:39 pm

I agree that the PRT (and hiring) process is very open to bias and petty corruption, and that decisions about such issues are often wildly arbitrary. Some of the comments above seem to forget that for most academics denial of tenure means having to leave the profession. There is virtually no other industry that works this way. So the auto worker comparison is not applicable. If I am denied tenure after pursuing it for twenty odd years (through graduate school, sessional jobs, and finally a tenure-track position), I can easily imagine not being able to handle the disaster and lashing out in any way possible at those responsible for making the decision.

24. goxewu - February 22, 2010 at 07:06 pm

Re #23:

The auto-worker comparison was made in reference to a commenter who implied that academics where vertiably unique in having to relocate if they lost their jobs. They're not. Watch the news.

I know personally at least a half-dozen academics who've landed a tenure-track job at school B after having not gotten tenure at school A, and I've heard of maybe twenty more who've done the same. Of course, given what I said in #22 (6.), you'll be justified in taking that statement with a few tablespoons of salt. At any rate, staying in the professoriat after once not getting tenure is not all that uncommon.

There's something lurking in the word "denied" in reference to tenure that more than hints that the "denial" was unjustified. If one spends twenty years pursuing something and doesn't get it, it could mean that one just wasn't suited for that something, e.g., being a tenured, senior faculty member, either by dint of not having worked hard enough or simply not having the talent.

Again, the tenure process is largely one of evaluation by one's colleagues, who are the same sort of people from whom one earned the Ph.D. Is it really all that common that the same people who granted one a Ph.D. in, say, political science, were meanwhile screwing over their junior colleagues for tenure? Or is it really all that common that the senior faculty at one's tenure-track job are suddenly so different and unethical about tenure? The probability is that the person who doesn't get tenure doesn't meet the standard for being a senior, tenured, until-retirement at that particular school.

This is certainly pretty hard to swallow, but so is the realization that one can't hit a major-league curveball and is suited only for AA, that one will never sing a featured role but is suited only for the chorus, that one will never make the jump from lieutenant to captain in the Navy, or sous-chef to chef, etc., etc. And many of these traumatic instances of being brought up short also occur only after a person has devoted years and years to trying.

25. goxewu - February 22, 2010 at 07:08 pm

Sorry: "were veritably unique..."

26. 22287188 - February 23, 2010 at 04:28 pm

goxewu: I'm surprised that you've heard about so many people who have been denied tenure and then got tenure-track jobs elsewhere, yet haven't heard about the numerous denials of tenure caused by professional and personal biases, and blatant double standards.

27. goxewu - February 23, 2010 at 05:54 pm

If somebody says, for instance, that there's no such thing as a brown frog, and I say that I've seen lots of them, does it follow that I've never seen a green frog? (I presume 222887188 doesn't teach Intro to Logic.)

Of course, there are green frogs, i.e., denials of tenure (there's that word "denial" again, as if tenure is a civil right) allegedly caused by biases and double standards. Here are some questions about that:

* Is there such a person as someone failing to gain tenure who says afterward, "That was a fair decision, I really didn't deserve tenure at the university?" That's something I've never heard, or heard of.

* When the unsuccessful tenure candidate was getting his or her Ph.D., were the faculty on the dissertation committee also engaging in rejecting tenure candidates because of biases and double standards? Or are biased senior faculty employed only at other schools?

* If the unsuccessful tenure candidate would have been successful, would he or she inevitably change into a biased senior member of the faculty when his or her turn came to adjudicate a tenure case? (Is Orwell's "Animal Farm" actually about tenure?")

* Exactly how do decisions based on "professional and personal biases, and blatant double standards" survive all those checks and balances in going from committee to administrator a couple of times and, often, an appeal of the whole thing? Is everybody in on the conspiracy?

* Of the negative tenure decisions each academic year, what's the percentage of cases decided by "professional and personal biases and blatant double standards"?

* Exactly what reforms should be introduced to make the tenure process fairer? (I'm not talking about the separate issue of cushioning the impact of a negative decision, which is a separate issue.) Doing away with the committee's confidentiality? Letting administrators alone make the call? Letting the candidate pick the committee? Granting tenure to practically every candidate unless the candidate does something really wrong?

* Should tenure itself be done away with, and replaced with limited-term contracts?

28. honore - February 27, 2010 at 09:35 am

Contemporary academic culture says a lot, but mostly it says that it is an "us and them" dynamic rife with nepotism, corruption, personal vendettas and bad judgment topped with a heaping pile of brutality dumped on the rejected candidate. A silly system based on centuries of elitist practice now embraced by alleged victims draped in the cloak of inclusiveness, tolerance and even more fake notions of equality and "fairness". Yes, this woman was definitely not well, but that does not make the mirk that constitutes the tenure process any more "transparent" or fair. Fire any of the tenured faculty and give them a few weeks to re-invent themselves professionally and still provide for their family's well-being and see how many come to campus packing a 6-shooter en route to the Chair's plush office. Gimme a break. She was nuts, but the system is rotten to the core so put down the academic lipstick and keep munching on those pork ribs.

29. goxewu - March 01, 2010 at 09:09 am

It's easy, and in the end rather pointless purgative to say, as #28 does, that contemporary academic culture (with, presumably, tenure being its central vice), is us-versus-them, corrupt, nepotistic, and rife with vendettas and "brutality" visited upon unsuccessful tenure candidate, without so much as a hint of how some other system of awarding tenure (or a system of no tenure at all) could change that.

The increasing scarcity of tenure-track jobs--not to mention tenure itself--has resulted in a clash of cultures. Tenure-track jobs, and especially tenure itself, are now highly competitive, especially on the research/publications front. (Much like, it should be noted, students' gaining admission to very selective colleges; a 3.5 high school GPA, a couple of extra-curriculars and maybe a year of a sport, just don't cut it anymore. Additionally these days, kids have to work in soup kitchens, intern at corporations, win a science fair or solo with the local chamber orchestra even to get wait-listed.)

But most newly minted Ph.D.'s don't want that kind of competitive life. They want to be kind of academic civil servants, high school teachers without the teaching overload; they'd like maybe a year or two "probationary" period, after which it's clear sailing unless they get caught stealing bake-sale money. When getting tenure in a college teaching job doesn't turn out to work that way, they think the system is brutal, corrupt, nepotistic us-versus-them, etc.

Again, I have never heard, nor heard of, an unsuccessful candidate for tenure saying that the decision was fair or just. Everybody who doesn't get tenure, it seems, "wuz robbed." Remarkable, isn't it, that in all the judgments of candidates' peers, the checks and balances of multiple committees and administrators, and appeals, not one fair decision ever results.

Personally, I think tenure should be abandoned in favor of increasing multi-year contacts, e.g., 3, 5, 5, 10 and to retirement, with rigorous intra-term reviews with real impact on salary. Tenure's original rationale of protecting academic freedom has been greatly superceded by tenure's actually protecting deadwood, sinecured faculty. (Don't get me started. If you think I'm severe, try listening to students who have to take courses from all those tenured faculty merely going through the motions who face no penalty for doing so.) And nobody outside academe, except priests and Federal court judges, have the kind of unreal job security that tenure at a university affords.

Those who favor keeping tenure but who think the current system of awarding it is brutal, corrupt, nepotistic, us-versus-them, etc. should propose specific reforms. Presumably, they'd want to keep the peer-review, faculty-self-governance aspect of it, In that case, how to keep their colleagues who sit in judgment from becoming brutal, corrupt, nepotistic, and us-versus them? No, Prozac in the watercooler, or simply awarding tenure to every last candidate won't work.

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