We are reacting, individually and collectively, to yet another tragic act of campus violence. On February 12, Amy Bishop, a Harvard-educated assistant professor of biological sciences, allegedly opened fire during a biology department meeting at the University of Alabama at Huntsville, killing three of her faculty colleagues and wounding two other professors and a staff member. While Bishop had been denied tenure the previous academic year, university officials have refrained from speculating on a motive for the killings.
This tragedy is unusual in two respects: the role and gender of the alleged perpetrator. Past violent actors on campuses have typically been male students, often older than their peers. Only two months ago, a 46-year-old graduate student at Binghamton University allegedly stabbed his dissertation adviser to death on that campus. In 2002, a 41-year-old male student killed three nursing professors at the University of Arizona. For an earlier violent act at a campus meeting, we can look back to 1996, when a graduate student at San Diego State University killed the three members of his thesis advisory committee. Each of those students had experienced a significant academic failure. They killed for purposes of revenge, a motive that may eventually be ascribed to the Huntsville shootings.
Does this latest tragedy suggest any lessons for those of us who work in higher education? We should draw no inference that the University of Alabama at Huntsville was deficient in any respect. The facts are sketchy and, as with any rare event, we want to avoid overreacting. This is, however, an opportune moment to examine certain campus practices. Colleges should take a fresh look at their threat-assessment procedures, mental-health resources for faculty and staff members, and assistance to candidates denied tenure. Those are key areas in which good practices might help avert other violent acts.
Threat-assessment procedures. Since the Virginia Tech tragedy in 2007, many institutions have formed campus threat-assessment teams. Such crossfunctional groups include representatives from areas including public safety, counseling, and student affairs. Many people who commit violence give warning signs in advance, which the threat-assessment team can evaluate. Yet some committees deal only with potentially disturbed students; they do not examine behaviors of faculty members, staff members, and visitors. The Huntsville tragedy provides a grim reminder that people who are not students may pose threats. If your campus threat-assessment team does not review situations involving nonstudents, consider expanding the scope of its responsibilities.
Mental-health resources. Today most faculty members are prepared to walk a student who is experiencing apparent psychological distress over to the counseling center. Most centers reserve appointment times for immediate consultations. But what of a faculty member exhibiting unusual behavior or apparent distress? Intervening and finding help are more difficult than with a student. Fewer resources are available for assistance with faculty and staff mental-health issues, and we have a high tolerance for erratic behavior.
The shootings last year at Fort Hood, a U.S. Army base in Texas, illustrate the problem of excessive tolerance. Nidal Hasan, a 39-year-old Army psychiatrist, is accused of killing 13 people and wounding 30 others in a mass shooting inside an Army building on November 5. His supervisors and fellow psychiatrists had found his past behavior unusual and unprofessional. It came to light in the aftermath of the shootings that they had never referred him for a psychiatric evaluation. In that respect, the psychiatrists may not have been providing good role models for the rest of us.
You should inquire whether your campus counseling center will consult informally about erratic behavior of faculty and staff members. Public-safety staff often have experience with assessing potential threats of violence. An institution may have an employee-assistance program that can suggest other resources. As a general matter, you should keep the focus on the person's behavior and its impact on his or her professional performance and avoid speculating about the causes of erratic behavior or medical diagnoses. When you become seriously troubled about a colleague's behavior, trust your instincts and consult with appropriate professionals.
While rarely used in higher education, one option can be a "fitness for duty" medical examination for the person. The college may select the medical professional to conduct the examination, and it defrays the costs. Check with legal counsel on the requirements of disability-rights laws, which do allow for that type of examination.
Assistance to candidates denied tenure. What happens to faculty members whose tenure applications are denied? The minimalist approach is to send a letter thanking them for past service, offering them a terminal one-year appointment, and wishing them well in their future endeavors. That does little, however, to ease the profound disappointment. Institutions can take many positive steps to help the person transition to a position elsewhere. Consider, for example, these options:
- A meeting with the provost as soon as possible after the tenure decision. The provost can outline for a departing faculty member the resources available to assist with career planning and placement.
- Networking by the department chair and other senior faculty members to learn about positions available elsewhere and to recommend the person for those other jobs.
- Support for conference attendance, travel, subscriptions, photocopying, and other expenses helpful in finding positions. That is a good investment, even in an era of declining resources.
- Release time, if the candidate desires it. Document that the arrangement is by mutual consent, lest the person later contend that the reduction in duties was unfair.
- Portable research support. Occasionally institutions make grants to faculty members who are denied tenure that they can take to their next positions. Such financial support shows the value the institution placed on the person and enhances her attractiveness for a new position.
Discuss with departing faculty members what types of assistance would best fit their circumstances. There is no "one size fits all" in facilitating the transition. Work to show them that you care about their well-being.
Finally, continue to make honest and prompt professional judgments about colleagues. Provide candid evaluations, including suggestions for needed improvement. Do not sugarcoat reviews—for example, calling someone's work "good" when it is not. Once you conclude that a tenure-track professor will not satisfy your institution's standards, do not delay the inevitable. Rather than wait until the tenure decision, do not renew the appointment. Early action is fairer to both the faculty member and the institution.
While life comes with no guarantees, fortunately, campus violence remains rare. Still, it is best to be as prepared as possible and have in place the appropriate policies and procedures for dealing with tenure denial and faculty members or others who might present threats to your institution.