Professor Had Raised Concerns About Accused Shooter's Mental Health

February 16, 2010

Academe is often home to oddballs. Choosing to spend your life in a library or laboratory is, by definition, out of the ordinary.

But before she allegedly opened fire on her colleagues, killing three of them and severely injuring two more, was Amy Bishop, an assistant biology professor at the University of Alabama at Huntsville, simply another eccentric academic? Or did her behavior indicate that something was seriously wrong with her?

Her colleagues agree that she could be unusual. William Setzer, chairman of the chemistry department, recalls that she would interrupt meetings with bizarre tangents, "left field kind of stuff." Robert O. Lawton, a biology professor who was in the room during the shooting but escaped unscathed, also thought she could be strange, but said she wasn't the strangest academic he'd run across in his long career.

Another professor, however, has long been wary of Ms. Bishop. He asked The Chronicle not to use his name because, considering recent events, he is worried about his own safety. The professor, who was a member of Ms. Bishop's tenure-review committee, said he first became concerned about Ms. Bishop's mental health "about five minutes after I met her."

The professor said that during a meeting of the tenure-review committee, he expressed his opinion that Ms. Bishop was "crazy." Word of what he said made it back to Ms. Bishop. In September, after her tenure denial, she filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging gender discrimination. The professor's remark was going to be used as possible evidence in that case.

It was then, the professor said, that the associate provost of the university, John Severn, came to him and asked whether he truly believed what he had said about Ms. Bishop. (Reached by phone, Mr. Severn declined to comment.) The professor was given the opportunity to back off the claim, or to say it was a flippant remark. But he didn't. "I said she was crazy multiple times and I stand by that," the professor said. "This woman has a pattern of erratic behavior. She did things that weren't normal."

No one incident stands out, the professor said, but a series of interactions caused him to think she was "out of touch with reality." Once, he said, she "went ballistic" when a grant application being filed on her behalf was turned in late. The professor said he avoided Ms. Bishop whenever he saw her, on or off the campus. When he spotted her not long ago at a Barnes & Noble bookstore, he made sure he was out of sight until she had left the store. He even skipped a faculty retreat because he knew she would be there.

To be clear, it wasn't as if the professor told the university that he thought Ms. Bishop was potentially violent. And, at the time, the university was narrowly focused on the legal fallout from a possible lawsuit by Ms. Bishop, he said.

Word of the professor's opinion about Ms. Bishop's mental health did not make it to the university's president, David B. Williams. The president said a reporter's account was the first he'd heard of it. A spokesman for the university declined to comment, citing the still-active EEOC complaint.

When the professor found out on Friday afternoon that there had been a shooting on the campus, he didn't immediately hear exactly where it happened, who was involved, or whether the shooter was a faculty member, student, or someone from outside the university. Even so, the professor said his first thought was: "Oh my God. I bet it was Amy Bishop."