• August 27, 2015

Reactions: Is Tenure a Matter of Life or Death?

A Matter of Life and Death? 1

U. of Alabama at Huntsville

The laboratory of Amy Bishop is not far from where she allegedly shot and killed three people, and injured three more, in a faculty meeting at the U. of Alabama at Huntsville. It remains locked down by police order.

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U. of Alabama at Huntsville

The laboratory of Amy Bishop is not far from where she allegedly shot and killed three people, and injured three more, in a faculty meeting at the U. of Alabama at Huntsville. It remains locked down by police order.

The shootings on February 12 at the University of Alabama at Huntsville, which left three faculty members dead and two more professors and a department assistant wounded, have sparked a good deal of soul-searching within higher education. Amy Bishop, an assistant professor of biology at the university who was recently denied tenure, was arrested at the scene and has been charged with murder and attempted murder.

Bishop's tenure denial may or may not be relevant to the shootings, but some scholars are asking what role, if any, the stresses of academic life played in the tragedy. What are the psychological effects of academic culture, particularly on rising scholars? Can or should something be done to change that culture?

The Chronicle asked a group of scholars and experts what they thought.

Cristina Nehring, writer and Ph.D. candidate in English literature at the University of California at Los Angeles:

Amy Bishop is nobody's poster girl—not even for the tragic perversity of the tenure process.

This, after all, is the woman who reportedly listed three of her children as co-authors to the most recent scholarly article she published in a scientific journal. She did not deserve tenure. Nor did tenure (or the loss of it) possess a unique ability to drive her to violence. Just a few years ago she was arrested for throwing punches at a woman whose child got the last booster seat in a pancake house. In 1986, Bishop, then 20, shot her kid brother to death in Braintree, Mass., and afterward seems to have attempted, at gunpoint, to steal a getaway car. The fact that her mother, Judy Bishop, apparently may have persuaded local authorities to deem all this an "accident" may owe less to candor than connections: The elder Ms. Bishop was a member of Braintree's town meeting at the time of the shooting.

That Professor Amy Bishop is not a tragic heroine of the tenure process doesn't mean that she's not a good opportunity to discuss it. Today's academic tenure process mostly rewards conformity over achievement, collegiality over originality, quantity over quality, and fashionability over utility or profundity. The paucity of positions in an increasingly overspecialized academic environment makes, moreover, for extremely slender job mobility; a given scholar may have only one or two positions nationwide a year for which she is truly qualified. Such hyperspecialization is a bane to public discourse as well to the general improvement of society by powerful minds.

Still, if Amy Bishop's story has something to teach us beyond the lesson of gun control, it is that postdocs are as good as postal workers at brutality, and that one of life's greatest pains is the discovery that one's own concept of oneself and the world's are visibly at odds.

How poignant are the details of Bishop's Pancake House Attack: She reportedly flung herself at her victim with cries of "I am Dr. Amy Bishop" (italics mine). Bishop's unpublished autobiographical novels apparently bristle with allusions to her Harvard pedigree. She is related, distantly, to the novelist John Irving, a fact she mentioned with exasperating regularity. In her own mind, Bishop was far too good for the world she inhabited­—and yet here was that world giving her the boot.

It was Bishop's last semester at the University of Alabama. Her husband said she was looking for a new career. Members of her writing group say that she has been reworking her prose for many years and that she recently began sending out manuscripts to friends and mentors. It is said that Amy Bishop was obsessed with Sylvia Plath. I would not put it past her to have committed this crime in some desperate part to win attention for her unpublished autobiographical "literature." In the scheme of human vice, hubris ranks high. It can sometimes even trump fear of death—one's own (think Plath), and, chillingly, that of others.

John C. Cavanaugh, chancellor of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education:

The tragic murders in Huntsville should serve as a wake-up call and a mirror for our collective self-reflection. Academe has joined the ranks of other employment settings in which people kill their colleagues. We may never know the true underlying issues that caused this tragedy, so let's avoid the irresponsible armchair psychoanalyses. Yet there is one responsible thing we can do. As much as it may be uncomfortable for us to admit and discuss it, we in academe need to confront the psychological and physiological effects of our culture on our rising scholars.

We have done an overall poor job of providing the support and mentoring appropriate for such major, stressful, career make-or-break situations as dissertation defenses and tenure votes, despite the fact that we have considerable (faculty) expertise and a burgeoning research literature about individual differences in coping with stress. It is time to end any tolerance for the notion that "we eat our young" and that such intellectual brutality is somehow an indicator of rigor.

How? First, we must not use the notion that "we have to uphold our standards of excellence" as a thinly veiled code for professional hazing.

Second, we need to do a reality check regarding the criteria for "passing." If a majority of those voting on a tenure case, for example, would not meet the criteria in play, then a serious review of the criteria is in order. How many times do we hear colleagues admit their relief that it is not them on the docket because they "would not make it"?

Third, if rising scholars need to give up any semblance of a normal life to obtain a doctorate or tenure, then that program's values are out of alignment. I, for one, do not want institutions full of people who sold their souls for a degree or for tenure. I want balanced, well-rounded scholars. Funny thing about that—isn't that exactly what we say in our marketing materials: that we want to produce in our undergraduate programs well-rounded, educated graduates?

Fourth, we need to become as good at providing career and emotional support as we are at criticizing performance (a very highly honed skill in most academics). However, research and experience show that the ability to cope with failure varies a great deal across people and situations. Let's tap our colleagues' expertise in understanding what people need and how to provide support and teach mentors how to give it effectively.

Finally, let's reward our young scholars for having the good sense and insight to ask for support and mentorship in the first place, rather than viewing it as a sign of weakness. We may not be able to prevent another situation like what occurred in Huntsville, especially given the freedom to carry weapons in most states. But we can certainly learn from it and do our best to help those who are overly stressed. Someday they will take our place. Let's give them the best chance for success.

Daniel W. Drezner, professor of international politics in the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University:

In my last month as a Ph.D. student, a fire alarm went off in my department—and it was not a drill. As I made my way out of the building, clutching my laptop, I made a brief, silent plea to God: "Please, I understand if I don't make it—but my dissertation must live on!"

People who lament the peer pressure in American high schools have never matriculated for a Ph.D. Students enter doctoral programs for many different reasons—a love of learning, a fear of the "real world," a desire to make a contribution to scholarship, an enthusiasm for teaching, or the misguided belief that academe provides a bounty of free time. People exit doctoral programs with a single goal—becoming a tenured professor at a research institution. Those heretics who stray from that goal risk becoming nonpersons in their fields.

With that kind of belief structure, it is not surprising that the tenure decision is freighted with anxiety. It takes anywhere from 10 to 20 years from entrance into graduate school for the tenure decision to be made. By that point, in their single-minded pursuit of their personal holy grail, most academics have purged themselves of skills that might be useful for the private sector. I know from personal experience that being denied tenure is the intellectual equivalent of being gut-shot. You don't die immediately—but absent help and care from others, you will suffer debilitating pain and weakness.

Can or should anything be done to change the situation? No and yes. It would be nice if doctoral departments were more encouraging of nontraditional careers, and if Ph.D. advisers did not judge their self-worth solely by the academic placement of their students. I doubt it would have much effect on academic culture, however.

Even if entering graduate students were accurately briefed about the brutal realities of the academic job market, their aspirations won't change. Being a tenured professor at a research institution is a great job. Short of abolishing the practice of tenure—and let's face it, that's not going to happen—every graduate student will be convinced that he or she will defy the odds and reach the Promised Land. For better or worse, cockeyed optimism is a necessary condition for attending graduate school in the first place.

Michael Bérubé, professor of English at Pennsylvania State University at State College:

Amy Bishop's rampage has led some observers to call for "conceal carry" laws to be applied to universities, on the grounds that college campuses would be safer places if more people carried firearms and could stop shooting sprees in progress.

As the blogger David Codrea wrote on February 13, quoting a student at the University of Alabama at Huntsville, Gina Hammond: "I'm scared to go back to school. However, if they were to allow me to carry my pistol on campus, I would not be as scared. ... I'm sorry that nobody in that room had a pistol to save at least one person's life."

You're not the one who should be sorry, Ms. Hammond.

In response, I posted a brief reply at the group blog Crooked Timber, in which I pointed out (gently but snarkily) that student safety isn't usually a factor when one is considering whether professors should bring guns to faculty meetings. The ensuing 250-comment thread was surprisingly illuminating. I knew, after reading commentary on the tragedies at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois, that most conceal-carry advocates never envision themselves as shooting the wrong person in a firefight, or as being among the first victims of a shooter who has the presence of mind to fire first at anyone who appears to be drawing a weapon.

But I had not realized, until this week, that the defenses of conceal-carry rest partly on the belief that our fellow humans are dangerously unpredictable and potentially violent, so that we sane and reliable people need to be able to defend ourselves with firearms at all times; partly on the belief that nothing very serious will happen if everyone is packing heat, because humans are pretty reasonable folks who don't capriciously resort to violence; and partly on the belief that potential shooters will be deterred by conceal-carry laws because even the most volatile psychopaths will do the cost-benefit calculus correctly before opening fire.

Ordinarily, I do not like thinking that we can "learn something" from senseless, random violence. But I have to admit that I learned something this time around.

Kristin A. Goss, assistant professor of public policy and political science at Duke University:

I started thinking about these questions in the Raleigh-Durham airport, before my weekly 42-minute flight from my academic home to my hearth home, in a commuting relationship that my institution has kindly enabled for all of my five years there. I was working up a profound insight about how tenure conveys political power, how gun violence (to extend Clausewitz's insight) is political power by other means, and how often in the United States the denial of political power is answered with the exercise of firepower—when I ran smack into a tenured colleague with a fancy title who was sitting at Gate C20 awaiting the same flight to Washington.

Busy preparing for a Capitol Hill meeting, this Important Man Who Will Help Decide My Fate set aside his notes and asked me to sit down and catch up because, he observed, we didn't get enough chances to do that. He asked after my husband; he inquired how my semester was going; and he offered three really useful ideas for a class I'm teaching. This conversation would never make headlines, but it reflects the generous and supportive academic culture where I work.

Does being an assistant professor induce anxiety, vulnerability, and even bouts of low-level paranoia? Sure. Do we bite our tongues in faculty meetings, biding our time until our jobs are secure and we can, um, fully exercise our First Amendment rights? On occasion. Is the U.S. academic culture even half as insane as Amy Bishop's lawyer thinks it is, or any more insane than the culture inside newspapers, banks, law firms, or fast-food restaurants? I doubt it.

My sense is that most departments operate as deliberative democracies, however imperfect, where Aristotles outnumber Machiavellis. In the experience of my graduate-school friends, most institutions seem more inclined to enfranchise assistant professors than to exile them. After all, having a reputation as junior-faculty-friendly is a competitive advantage in the market for talented scholars (especially women) who are looking for assurances that they won't have to uproot their working spouses and school-aged kids seven years down the line.

On Monday morning, when I hop my flight back to work, I won't be thinking big thoughts about academic culture in an age of Amy Bishop but about how to use the really cool course ideas that I picked up from a busy senior colleague who insisted that we pause to catch up.

Laurie Essig, assistant professor of sociology and women's and gender studies at Middlebury College:

As a sociologist, I am much more interested in the structural issues involved than the psychological ones. Bishop's case should make us think more about gun control and white privilege. Why was she let go after her brother's death? How did she get a gun a second time? Why were her victims disproportionately of color?

Bishop's case might also help us think about the structure of the American university system.

Neoliberalism set universities "free" in the market to be able to charge higher tuition as students took on more debt in a deregulated banking system. Academe overproduced Ph.D.'s, often with huge loans, thereby creating a surplus of labor that is now utilized as adjunct professors. Classes became bigger, and online courses were added, making a single lecture a product that can be sold an infinite number of times. This business model of universities exists alongside the more anachronistic tenure system, whereby decisions are made without any public scrutiny, often for highly idiosyncratic reasons that have no direct relationship to the "worth" of the employee-professor.

There are two answers to these structural issues:

1. Take universities out of the market by federally financing them. Pay reasonable salaries and stipends to all, with no one—including administrators—earning a lot and no one having huge debts to pay off for education. Professors would feel less desperate about employment without student loans weighing them down. Also, making contracts based on performance would mean a professor could always move from one job to another without it being a "life or death" decision.

2. Leave universities in the market, but rationalize the production of Ph.D.'s and the system of hiring and firing so that it actually reflects the work that academics do (publications, teaching, research). Everyone should have contracts that are renewed as long as the professor is serving the customers, who are the students and alumni, not tenured faculty members (who do not pay the bills). Again, loss of a job would not mean the end of a career.

I prefer the first option, but that might require moving to a different country. Still, the second option of contracts based on performance is far preferable to the system of debt and desperation we have now.

Joseph Grim Feinberg, Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at the University of Chicago:

As a consequence of the Amy Bishop case, the public seems finally to have become aware that the academy is a workplace, with all the tensions and anxieties that plague other workplaces in the United States, and then some. This catastrophe should alert us to the fact that tenure today has largely ceased to be a bulwark against labor exploitation and instead has become a central element of a system that extracts enormous quantities of labor at every level. One doesn't need to know the true motives involved in this particular case to know that it couldn't have taken place without the tenure hearing having become a site in which years of frustration, repression, and exploitation come bubbling up.

Tenure has become academic workers' pie in the sky, for which we are willing to do almost anything. The prospect of eventual tenure can persuade us to obediently work long hours for low pay; to volunteer for innumerable administrative committees; to accept unpaid assignments on grant-review boards; and so on. Any activity that doesn't contribute to one's eventual tenure prospects—writing a novel, having children—takes time away that could be devoted to improving one's tenure chances. Usually this pain and hardship is something we inflict only on ourselves and our families, but it is not impossible to imagine it extending to our colleagues as well.

In other words, tenure itself is less the problem than the whole array of working conditions of which tenure is a part.

Robert J. Sternberg, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Tufts University:

Life is one big risk-reward trade-off game. Academic tenure provides a curious example of this. You have the unusual opportunity for lifelong job security through tenure, but in exchange you must play a complex and risky game—"Give me tenure!"—involving publication, teaching, and service. The game may or may not get you the outcome you hoped for. Moreover, the game does not always yield fair outcomes, or at least outcomes that you perceive as fair.

If you feel you are in an unfair game, you could try to play it at another college or university. And institutions could improve the game by more carefully controlling their evaluation processes. But nothing they do will ever make all players feel that the game was fair. It is definitely not a game for those who, because of mental illness or unwillingness to lose, define the game as "Give me tenure or else!"

Academe is a calling: If you do not feel called to it, find something else to do. The pay isn't great; the hours are typically long; and you never quite have a vacation. If you enter the game, you should do so accepting the rules and knowing that you may not get the outcome you desire.

For those who feel called, a tenured position is a wonderful life: You have an almost-unique freedom and flexibility. But if you feel that the game is about "publish or perish," then you probably do not have the calling and should find something else to do. Those who best succeed do so because they love what they do, not because they are externally pressured to do it: They just cannot imagine playing any other game, win or lose.

Terry L. Leap, professor of management at Clemson University:

The pressures faced by rising scholars are probably no worse than the pressures faced by rising professionals in business, law, or medicine. The fatal shootings at the University of Alabama at Huntsville were the result of one dangerous person's reaction to a disappointing life event. The tragedy had little to do with the academic culture on the Huntsville campus or the fairness of the school's tenure system. If the Huntsville shootings were caused by flaws in the culture or the system, as some have suggested, then violence in the halls of academe would probably be more commonplace.

Still, tenure denials do damage careers and breed angst, and disappointed candidates often file grievances and lawsuits.

Providing an environment for success is critical. During my time as chair of a large academic unit, we hired talented faculty members and provided them with the support they needed for success. The support included mentoring, manageable teaching loads, graduate-assistant help, financial support for travel and summers, and no committee-service responsibilities.

Managing expectations is also important. Newly hired faculty members should understand that hard work and a high level of professional commitment are the norm, and that tenure decisions are sometimes affected by uncontrollable events involving journal reviews and grant applications as well as changes in the administrative landscape. Clear promotion-and-tenure standards and candid annual evaluations should provide a realistic assessment—but no absolute guarantees—of a candidate's progress toward tenure. And it goes without saying that the tenure process should be free of unpleasant surprises or unsavory political influences—something that clear standards and annual evaluations help to achieve.

For a balanced perspective on academic life, I would suggest H.J. Zoffer's timeless essay, "The Consummate Faculty Person" (The Academy of Management Review, October 1978). It is an excellent read for both tenured and untenured faculty members.

KC Johnson, professor of history at Brooklyn College, City University of New York:

In theory, tenure serves to protect academic freedom. In practice, tenure too often functions as a club, utilized to condition untenured faculty members against challenging the status quo.

Given the ideologically and pedagogically one-sided nature of most humanities and many social-science departments, an untenured professor would have to be naïve or foolish to dissent from her senior colleagues on a matter of substance. The risks—possibly alienating the tenured majority, thereby risking her career—far outweigh the rewards. But, as Alan Charles Kors has frequently observed, how likely is it that a professor who spent seven years practicing a go-along-to-get-along philosophy will suddenly, having received tenure, turn around and embrace the principles of academic freedom?

Abolishing tenure would only make conditions worse. Blissfully assuming that at some undetermined point in the future, the majority among the contemporary professoriate will rededicate themselves to defending academic freedom across the board, rather than merely for those committed to the status quo, seems unlikely.

So the best hope remains strengthening other elements in the system. Administrators and trustees need to perform oversight and do their best to ensure that the promise of tenure isn't being used to squelch dissent on the campus. And when organizations we count on to defend academic freedom seem indifferent to the concept (as in American Association of University Professors President Cary Nelson's recent claim that it was acceptable to consider a candidate's personal or political views in the hiring process, if not the tenure process), their views need to be publicly condemned.


1. doyle_poohkeepsie - February 22, 2010 at 01:42 am

"Is the U.S. academic culture even half as insane as Amy Bishop's lawyer thinks it is, or any more insane than the culture inside newspapers, banks, law firms, or fast-food restaurants? I doubt it." I invite the staff and all contributors to The Chronicle to have a symposium at a local Popeye's to further discuss the connections between academic tenure and fast-food fried-chicken. The atmosphere can only be conductive to a very promising round-robin discussion, not to mention biskits 'n gravey galore!!!

2. doyle_poohkeepsie - February 22, 2010 at 01:44 am

"Is the U.S. academic culture even half as insane as Amy Bishop's lawyer thinks it is, or any more insane than the culture inside newspapers, banks, law firms, or fast-food restaurants? I doubt it." I invite the staff and all contributors to The Chronicle to have a symposium at a local Popeye's to further discuss the connections between academic tenure and fast-food fried-chicken. The atmosphere can only be conductive to a very promising round-robin discussion, not to mention biskits 'n gravey galore!!!

3. snwiedmann - February 22, 2010 at 07:36 am

Regarding Drezner's comments: You present the view that the only successful outcome for a doctoral student is a tenure-track position at a major research institution which will, in turn, beome a tenured position at a major research institution. I suggest you consider the proportion between major research institutions and the rest of us. Becoming a professor in order to teach, in order to affect the development of your future citizens, in order to make a contribution to a community, is not a totally unworthy cause. If all our doctoral students approach their careers and futures with your attitude, then we will surely have more Amy Bishops in the future (hopefully unarmed or self-destructive). This attitude that says major research institution or bust is not healthy, not logical, and not a necessary part of anyone's life.

4. fast_and_bulbous - February 22, 2010 at 08:16 am

It is abundantly clear to me - yeah I'll play armchair psychologist, sue me - that this woman IS NUTS and that her denial of tenure was a convenient excuse for her arrogant, Harvard educated, brilliant yet pathological, twisted psychotic self to commit this heinous act. Had she been in industry, it would have been getting laid off that wouuld have done it for her, and the Chronicle wouldn't have had a word to say about it.

As a scientist I try very hard to apply logic and reason to the world around me. I see a situation where "one of us" has lost it, and the fact that she was "one of us" is, to me, a curiousity, an anomaly, irrelevant and just as tragic as that fatal five car accident that occurred on the highway due to distraction while I was typing this. Academics do so love to make verbose indulgent mountains out of molehills. Suddenly we're supposed to re-evaluate the whole tenure process because of this? Are the same ones advocating this the same ones who bitch and moan about how stupid and arbitrary airport security is these days because some nut shoved explosives in his underwear?

Mark my word, all this hand wringing will result in absolutely no changes whatsoever to the vast majority of universities out there, and this is as it should be, because while this woman has certainly given a lot of overeducated people on the Ineterwebs fodder for verbose blathering, this was an anomaly and it shall be forgotten and we will return to our lives. It is irresponsible to let the crazy tail wag the dog. Nothing has changed, and if universities do decide to re-evaluate the tenure process, you can bet it will be a long, drawn out battle, and that any changes will take years if not decades to implement, and it won't be Amy Bishop that will serve as the catalyst.

In my ten years of academia I have run into around five people that I would consider crazy - pathological people who certainly have conditions in the DSM IV. People who derive pleasure from other people's pain. People who love a good fight. People who lord their power over others. People whose view of themselves is extremely out of touch with reality. I have been burned by some of these people but never ever did I consider taking any violent action - and I've seen people mistreted worse than I act quite maturely and nobly in the face of these crazy people. I always knew if I was denied tenure that I would have to find something else to do, and I was psychologically able to handle this possibility. People are denied tenure all the time for crying out loud and don't respond with violence! Ms Bishop was likely so full of herself, suffering from delusions of grandeur and all that, that denial simply did not register even though it sounded like she was getting very clear signals that she was not in good shape for tenure. A rational person would have braced for the inevitable. A crazy narcissistic pathological person maybe not. And here we are.

5. 11182967 - February 22, 2010 at 08:55 am

Thanks to Michael Berube for being at least one other person to mention gun control (see my isolated comments among those dozens responding to the Prof Thought She Was Crazy article last week. John Tee

6. ethan56 - February 22, 2010 at 09:14 am

I agree that tenure is a difficult and stressful process, in which the candidate is under scrutiny 24/7, and not just for scholarship. What is at stake is a *life-time* appointment to a job--something that *few* outside of academia get. No one is automatically *entitled* to this, neither to the job security nor to the prestige--because the reward at the end of the process is absolutely enormous. It is reasonable that given the reward, such a process of evaluation should be lengthy and indeed difficult.

I've gone through the process twice, first to tenure, and then to promotion to full professor. I never had any problems, But I have seen others who were treated to my mind very unjustly. It was simply awful.

But I don't think that refusals of tenure at the Department level are very common, and from my own experience I'd say that few who pass a negative judgment feel good about doing it. (In my own 30 year career I've voted against tenure once.)

KC Johnson is on the right track about the pressures to conform which I see on young people, and especially (and shockingly) the pressures to conform politically. It becomes part of being "collegial", I'm sorry to say. The situation goes further than KC Johnson says, though. As Marc Bauerlein has powerfully written in the pages of The Chronicle, political discrimination in the humanities and social sciences against anyone is not politically correct begins with the search committees, and the initial drawing up of candidates for positions in the first place. Open conservatives, and open Christians, have little chance making the short-list. There is real prejudice against them. The result is that I don't think there are a lot of oppressed secret political dissenters among the untenured faculty in the humanities and social sciences (though I know one or two). The system eliminated most of them much earlier in the process.

But all of this against gets away from the core of tragedy at UAH. The issue at UAH was *not* the tenure process, difficult as the process is--but that is comensurate with the reward. There is no indication of injustice in the tenure procedure regarding Amy Bishop at UAH. Anyone who'd assaulted someone in a restaurant while she was an assistant professor, who had letters of complaint from students registered with the administration, who was obviously fraudulent in her work (all pointed out in the main article): she didn't deserve tenure.

Bishop is not an exemplar of something wrong with the tenure process. She was insane. (The real question is how did she get hired in the first place.) Let's not yoke the terribly destructive actions of this mad woman to our personal issues and have her pull us along.

I'm reserving my sympathy for the three senior faculty-members who were killed, two of whom were African-American and one an Indian-American, and their families, who must be so terribly distraught. And I challenge most of the readers here: honestly, how many here can name the victims off-hand? Yet they were real people, with real achievements against the odds.

7. fergbutt - February 22, 2010 at 09:15 am

Tenure is no different than job security in other walks of life. You train really hard, get a shot at playing for a pro team, and your renewal is based on performance. Players who get cut are tainted and have difficulty moving to a new team. Careers are cut short. Players who get renewed contracts may not have lifetime employment, but they have lifetime respect for having made it to a certain level, and some play well beyond the average number of years. After that, they enjoy the status of success. But if everyone made it to that level, it would diminish the feat.

8. alwayslearning - February 22, 2010 at 09:53 am

It seems decidedly un-academic to base so much speculation on the information gleaned so far from the news media. How about a scholarly consideration of the facts and the relevant fields of knowledge? Everything else is just sensationalism.

9. shallot - February 22, 2010 at 09:58 am

Regarding Terry Leap's comment that, "The pressures faced by rising scholars are probably no worse than the pressures faced by rising professionals in business, law, or medicine," and that "Tenure is no different than job security in other walks of life," I profoundly disagree.

If you graduate even in the top half of your law, medical, or business school, your odds are far, far greater of getting a job within a year than if you graduate in the top half of a PhD program. And it is highly likely that you'll even be able to choose your location. You might not get your dream job, but you'll probably get a job.

Should you get fired or your job work out, it is highly likely you'll be able to find another job in your field, probably in the same location. Things have become a bit more difficult in the recession...but a comparable comparison would be if only about half of the graduates of a top 10 or 20 program in law or business could find a decent job within five years. Because that's what it's like in academia, at least in some fields.

As this article points out, should you NOT get tenure, well, there might only be two job openings in the entire country in your field (or, if you're in a big field, perhaps as many as 15). You'll compete against hundreds of qualified others for the position, and if you don't get one, you'll have to wait an entire year before positions come up again. And you'll probably have absolutely no say in where you live.

I don't think medicine, law, or business is anything like the field of academia at all. Believe me, I wish academia were like those fields.

10. drhypersonic - February 22, 2010 at 10:00 am

Amy Bishop is a self-obsessed anti-social murderer who places her needs and her desires above anyone else's...even to the point of killing them. She seemingly did the academic minimal to get ahead--witness her classroom lecturing style where she simply read from the textbook--and was less-than-adequate in her research, and unethical in her co-authorship. Tenure for her was a means of getting a guaranteed income for the rest of her life. Having been denied it, killing three people and then meekly submitting to arrest was a suitable alternative. Likely to be judged insane, she will be a burden on the American taxpayers until the day, far in the future, that she joins her victims in the beyond. Our thoughts should not be wasted on this person, but rather on what needs to be done to help and comfort those left behind. And we should resolve to be rigorously honest about responsibility and accountability--Bishop had no business being so far advanced and established within the academic community.

11. copesan - February 22, 2010 at 10:03 am

Another aspect to the Bishop saga is that in general, academia tolerates a lot of bad behavior, ranging from fairly benign poor social skills, through peculiarities, anti-social behavior, bad manners and sometimes, all the way to marginal or pathological behaviors. Academia puts very few if any limits on people's behaviors - and that is _before_ they have tenure. My questions are: Why did no one appear to notice that, if news reports are accurate, Bishop's labs were leaking graduate students fleeing her behavior? that her behavior was abusive to some in particular? Did the department wait until the tenure vote to do, under the cover of confidentiality, what they were not willing to do otherwise? or had they tried to comment on and contain her behavior before?

While the Bishop case should not be seen as judgement on all of academia, the pressure she felt in the tenure process, and the isolation she (or anyone) suffers when denied tenure must have put intolerable pressure on her fragile psychological framework - she must have been in excruciating pain. Am I justifying her act? of course not. But if we categorize her as "crazy" so we can neatly file her away and distance ourselves from this situation, we are not behaving like the people we say we are - people whose advanced education trains us, among other things, to think about and handle complicated and ambiguous situations, to tease out the moral, ethical, legal, professional, historical, cultural, social strands of this situation.

12. ethan56 - February 22, 2010 at 10:21 am


Bishop has already murdered her brother in 1986. She'd already been arrested for assault in Huntsville in 2005--and that was before she was up for tenure. Do not blame the tenure procedure for what happened here. The tenure procedure is thorough and difficult because the reward is so large if one is successful. Of course it is stressful. Life in any workplace is stressful. Universities are less stressful than most, and more humane (such as giving an unsuccessful assistant prof a whole extra year to appeal the decision, or to look for another job, before being let go. Few businesses do that.)

For numerous reasons Bishop deserved not to get tenure. The choice was correct. Don't blame "tenure stress" on her for what happened here. Look at her personal history instead. This is an exremely unusual case, and the personal tragedies Bishop inflicted upon Professors Podila, Davis and Johnson and their families, people who were totally innocent, should not be used to drag one's personal issues (like "tenure stress") along.

13. jacobfriedman - February 22, 2010 at 12:05 pm

No offense to the commentators from history, english, or sociology on this topic, but remember in the hard sciences grants are the coin of the realm and the key to getting tenure. The success rate at NIH is hovering between 10-15% of all proposals, meaning 85% failure rate. The average age of the first NIH grant is now 42 years of age. How much pressure is that when you have a family and 15 years of post-graduate education on the line?

14. schmidsj - February 22, 2010 at 12:36 pm

In response to snwiedmann:

Having been in the same graduate program as Drezner at the same time, I can testify that he is right; anyone who didn't want tenure at a research institute was, at least at that time in that place, a heretic. I was one of them, being of the belief that tenure at a liberal arts college was an acceptable goal. I was smart enough to keep my mouth shut about this goal until I accepted a position at one (shocking my committee) where I did indeed achieve tenure in due time.
The lifestyle of a professor at a research university is very different from that of a professor at a liberal arts college, even one where (like mine) research is required for tenure. I know several people who burned out at research universities who (in my judgment anyway) would have excelled at liberal arts colleges. It's a pity they were dissuaded from considering liberal arts as a career choice, but they were. One thing that would help a lot is if research university faculty would, as they did 30 or 40 years ago, view liberal arts colleges as excellent placements for top graduate students. Alas, that change is unlikely to occur.

15. mark_r_harris - February 22, 2010 at 12:41 pm

Chancellor Cavanaugh's response is thoughtful, helpful, and humane; Dean Sternberg's response, smacking of Social Darwinism, is repulsive. In any case, it would appear that one's chances of succeeding in academics nowadays are about the same as your chances of becoming the next Michael Jackson or Pete Sampras or Julia Roberts: Not good.

I can't resist sharing a post from my blog:

"I subscribe to the Daily Report email from The Chronicle of Higher Education. I am not a print subscriber so I don't have access to all the articles, but the Careers section is fully accessible. Read this daily and you will never, ever regret not getting a PhD.

It is without question the most gruesome reading of my day, just about every day. Struggling to get through doctoral programs; turning over every stone in creation to find possible tenure track jobs; being humiliated in the interviewing and selection process; settling for crappy jobs at lesser institutions; dealing with publish or perish, political correctness, departmental infighting, and a hundred other indignities; sweating through the tenure process if one should be so lucky as to get that far -- it is all there, in excruciating detail, and it should be read by every academic aspirant. Although I doubt that the folks at the Chronicle consciously intend to promote such an unflattering picture of academe, the fact is that I know of no other "official" organ of a profession that is so nightmare- and nausea-inducing. Upon sufficient exposure to the Chronicle, one would have to be a fool to think that higher education provides any sort of refuge for gentle intellectual souls from the cut-throat machinations of the corporate world.

And so I'm glad that I topped out at a master's."

16. trendisnotdestiny - February 22, 2010 at 12:46 pm

Laurie Essig makes the most compelling argument here:

My twist on her critique expresses this as central problems:

Privilege, Racism, Mass Phd Production for Profits, Tenured Track Debt used as tool of subjugation to make more malleable institutional witnesses by resisting insitutional analysis

When it is so much easier to say the obvious, point the finger at one person, and yell crazy... Neoliberal policies and these types of crazy violence episodes have a couple things in common:

1) Boom & Bust Cycles (domestic violence, divorce, theft, child neglect, child sexual abuse all rise during economic downtrends)

2) Crises beget crises (cascading effects of emotions, past narratives, life events, and feelings of powerlessness) GUY WHO FLEW A PLANE INTO THE IRS ... acts of systemic desperation not unlike taking money out of banks or stocking up on food/gas

3) Resistance is increasing more violent or volatile (markets); we stop listening and start fearing

4) The policies are designed to help a few, create division among the middle, and punish the weak under the guise that YOYO (your on your own) "take personal responsibility to lift yourself up"
conflict is engineered so as to create dependence on higher levels of the system....

As for Dr. Bishop, Dr. Essig makes an excellent point; why are so focused on her psychology; what about these structures that maintain more power over behavior than one person's insane decision to kill people of color disproportionately... When does the narrative transform from all of the Dr. Bishop's warning signs to something that can create a real change?

17. midtownlabgeek - February 22, 2010 at 02:28 pm

As far as the discussion of gun control - if one is determined to murder someone (either a particular someone or random someones), you don't need a gun. There's any number of methods: Bring poisoned cookies to the same faculty meeting. Run them down with your car. KCN + HCl as a "demo" at the start of class.

The problem wasn't the gun. It was the mind of the person holding it. And that same mind could find any number of ways to effect the same evil end.

Note to my future colleagues: I'm a well-adjusted individual who has absolutely no desire to kill anyone, regardless of hiring or tenure decisions. Promise! :)

18. marka - February 22, 2010 at 04:10 pm

More thoughtful commentary here that in related article. But I'm aghast at choice for leading opinion - Cristina Nehring, "writer and Ph.D. candidate in English literature at the University of California at Los Angeles". Why oh why does she lead off? More qualified than others? More representative? More thoughtful? So far as I can tell she's the most sensational/extreme, no, no, and no. As with comments elsewhere, I'm aghast at the jump to judgment by many: thank god we have a well-developed criminal justice system with trials - I can see many of these folks simply forming a lynch-mob.

And as to whether or not this is simply a 'nut-case' outlier, or more representative example of the current pressures, and potential unfairness of women in academia & the tenure process -- that remains to be seen. Certainly it is one example, and one worth examining beyond knee-jerk reactions, by all the 'jerks' out there ;-)

19. drcjsnider - February 22, 2010 at 04:25 pm

I love how all the people the Chronicle picked to make comments on this issue don't come from institutions at all similar to the University of Albama - Huntsville. Gee, I wonder if the situations facing faculty at places like Missouri Southern, West Georgia or Central Michigan aren't the same as the situations at Penn State, Duke, and Middlebury.

20. kyle43 - February 22, 2010 at 04:57 pm

The problem with articles like this one and all the commentators from OUTSIDE the the University in Alabama in Huntsville, is that maybe, just maybe, they are "seeing" things that are just not there based on their own experiences or experiences of others. There is NO evidence that the tenure process at UAH was unsupportive, unfair, or otherwise dysfunctional for the purpose it is intended to serve. There IS evidence that the process discovered someone who was not a skilled researcher and did not do very good work. Thus, I propose a really crazy idea, why don't we place the blame where it belongs, with Amy Bishop.

21. cslaaschair - February 22, 2010 at 05:11 pm

I note that you seem not to have asked anyone who didn't get tenure what they thought....interesting!

22. angelajones7284 - February 22, 2010 at 06:27 pm

Yes, just ask someone like me who did not get tenure. It's a miserable feeling and you feel betrayed by your peers. It's not sour grapes, you work hard and then get kicked to the curb. Not that what the professor did was acceptable by any means, but if you have ever been in the position when you work hard and your peers basically tell you that you are not up to par.....is a bad bad feeling. Yes, the college system needs to be overhauled! The process of getting tenure is not crystal clear, step on a few toes along the way (even without knowing it) and you are toast. With the job market being what it is all you can do is sit back and take it. They (the administrators) hope that you quietly go away. If you complain or appeal, they label you a trouble maker and you can really kiss your career goodbye. Yes, not getting tenure will force me to leave academia, but maybe that is for the best. Give me the real world anyday!

23. jay_dickson - February 22, 2010 at 07:11 pm

Dean Robert J. Sternberg repeatedly refers to the tenure process as "a game," and even claims that one enters this "game" simply to "win or lose." Does he really think junior faculty view it so lightly? Does he truly not realize how often the life plans and financial well-beings of faculty members and their families hang in the balance? I am grateful that when I made my own tenure bid (which was ultimately successful) at my home institution it was guided by a more sensitive and humane dean, who realized both the gravity and the tremendous stress of the process.

24. alleyoxenfree - February 22, 2010 at 10:14 pm

This is demonstrably false: "There is NO evidence that the tenure process at UAH was unsupportive, unfair, or otherwise dysfunctional for the purpose it is intended to serve."

UAH's own Faculty Senate survey contains a plethora of comments by faculty who found the process troubled, troubling, and potentially unnavigable.

It is heartening that there are many here, other than Nehring, who would like the facts to play out and some thought to be given to all the issues that might come into play in considering this disastrous incident.

25. bluesfiddle - February 22, 2010 at 11:41 pm

Add Your Comment

Add my comment?

No thanks,
there's no point in adding further comments, other than to be glad we have courts of law and let them do their work.

26. gringo_gus - February 23, 2010 at 06:07 am

Midtownlabelgeek, for the people who got killed the problem was the gun, sorry. Guns are specifically made to kill people, that is their purpose. Quickly and effectively, and at arm's (or more) length. Sure people can get poisoned by cookies, but that doesn't happen on campuses in countries where guns are controlled. People do get shot on campuses where guns are not controlled. You might argue a killer is a killer. But at least we might make it harder for those who are, and for people who are temporarily or permanently disturbed, to kill.

27. kyle43 - February 23, 2010 at 09:33 am

alleyoxenfree, no my statement was very accurate. As a member of the UAH faculty, I assure you are the one that is wrong. Amy's portfolio is weak by any standards. Outsiders who do not know this institution trying to blame anything outside of the decision making process of the individual that pulled the trigger are way off. Tenure WAS NOT the problem in this case. Outsiders like yourself trying to exploit this tragedy are dead wrong. If we blame tenure, then we are directed away from the real issue - having the courage to face inappropriate work behavior and ignoring the signs that are there that someone is not stable. SO, as we move forward blaming tenure, this event will repeat itself somewhere else down the road. That is why statements like yours are irresponsible and dead wrong.

28. frankit - February 23, 2010 at 01:20 pm

Although many say that tenure was not the problem and that Ms. Bishop's psychological state instead caused her actions, one must ask this: Would Amy Bishop have shot her colleagues had she been given tenure? It appears that Ms. Bishop was unsound, but her not receiving tenure caused her rampage. Her volatile personality together with her perceived rejection by her department triggered the violence; both played a part.

29. truthsayer - February 23, 2010 at 02:50 pm

What does tenure have anything with this rampage?

Amy Bishop has a 20 year history of violence beginning with the shooting of her own brother. She lies to get what she needs. She and her husband were accomplices in the pipebomb incident at Harvard. Most recently, she lied to the patent officer at University of Alabama about Harvard taking her back if she doesn't get tenure at Alabama. This woman is a chronic liar, head basher, abuser, cheater, and murderer.

What is the real issue? The real issue here is that law enforcement officers have treated her above the law by not charging her with murder and assault and bullying. The question is why? Is it because she is a woman that charges are dropped? Is it because she is a bully and knows how to put fear of god into law enforcement officers? What is going on with our legal system? This woman should have been charged with involuntary manslaughter for murder of her brother 20 years ago. She then has escaped the legal system and then bullied/abused her husband into supporting her illusion that she is genius. We have a sicko here.

Why did Harvard give her the PHD? Why did Harvard write "glowing letters of recommendation about this woman? Why were her violent outbursts kept hidden instead of being exposed? Why is Harvard silent? The families of the victims and University of Alabama are victims of not just Amy Bishop but law enforcement in Massachuessttes (for failing to charge her with manslaughter of her brother, and failing to file charges on pipe bomb incident), Harvard University (for failing to have her psychiatrically evaluated given her unstable behavior/violent outbursts), and Alabama Police (who dropped assault charges when she bashed the woman's head for taking the last booster chair). She has a history of entanglement with police officers and the police have been lenient on this woman. She is a liar, manipulator, murder.

One more thing, she had a record at University of Alabama as an incompetent teacher/advisor --given that her lab was a revolving door. So, Unviersity of Alabama is also at fault here for not seriously investigating her absurd/bullying/ manipulative behavior. Someone, needed to put a call to Harvard to find out what was going on there? or force her to undergo psychiatric evaluation. She falsely files charges of theft against a graduate student for stealing books which he was returning the next day. She is a manipulative, dangerous, murderer.

Can't wait to see her bullied and executed in the same cold blooded way she murdered 4 people and possibly 5th who lies in hospital fighting for her life.

30. truthsayer - February 23, 2010 at 02:59 pm

The Issue is NOT tenure process. The issue is no longer tenure but about our law enforcement being manipulated by bullies and rich influential people to release people who break the laws. This is the problem. We need to discuss how charges were dropped on her for the murder of her brother? We need to know why charges were dropped when she bashed the mother's head and shouted "I'm Amy Bishop from Harvard. This issue is Harvard? What does it mean to get a PhD from Harvard? What is the process for granting a PhD in Genetics? Did she bully and threaten her teachers or pay them off as her mother did earlier? How did she get into Harvard pHD program from a 3rd tier trade school like Northeastern University? What was her undergrad record? What courses did she take? What lies did she write in her application to Harvard? or who got her this PhD? Why did her bosses and medical doctors she worked with not report her or have her undergo psychiatric evaluation? She is a liar and a manipulator. The worst kind of cold blooded killer.

What is going on with her husband? Is he abused? Does she bash his head everyday when she wants her way? Did she rope him into the pipe bomb event? She seems to be quick to call the police on children of neighbourhood for noise. Why didn't the medical doctors do anything about him?

31. iwonder - February 23, 2010 at 06:00 pm

What if your department chair wrote this as a commentary on many things but sparked by Amy Bishop scenario? How would you feel if you were untenured?



32. dmaratto - February 23, 2010 at 07:01 pm

"Why did Harvard give her the PHD? Why did Harvard write glowing letters of recommendation about this woman?"

To get rid of her. Many places (not just academia) will 'highly recommend' the worst, craziest, most troubled, lazy, and and loathsome people they have when those people apply for outside jobs. They want nothing to do with them, so why would they write a letter saying "This person is f@#$ing nuts and will probably assault people if you hire her"? University of Alabama realized this too and probably denied her tenure as much for being a total psychopath as for anything to do with her work, which apparently sucked as well.

This is yet another incidence of the two things American society handles least well, guns and mental illness.

33. grumpygradstudent - February 23, 2010 at 07:50 pm

Excellent! Now academia is no better than any other institution that it has seen fit to criticise over the years. When the Army murder/suicides occurred right after the first rotation of troops returned from Afghanistan, academia jumped all over the Army, offering excoriations, explanations, and "helpful suggestions" to modify Army culture, techniques, and procedures. Now it's time to take a dose of our own medicine

34. neoconned - February 23, 2010 at 09:31 pm

you're telling me she could have parked her prius in the meeting room and run over her colleagues to death?
of course you can use anything to kill someone -- the blank stupidity of your comment almost did me in.

35. mrstan - February 24, 2010 at 01:14 pm

I have to laugh at the happy comment by Kristin Goss of Duke about her Dept's "deliberative democracy", how wonderful her VIP tenured prof. was - "checking in"... and her senior collegue's "really cool course ides".

Hers is a Dept associated with the 88 signatories to the Broadside condemning the Duke genrally and implying guilt of the Lacross team (as their guilt was the reason for the ad) in that whole sorry mess of a false rape accusation. They were the "independent ones" sprinting to conclusions based on their lockstep uniform worldview ahead of civil rights protections of these United States - and proven demonstrably wrong. Did they offer retraction or apology? Most pointedly not.

One wonders what "really cool" suggestions came from this august tenured VIP of an obviously narrow-minded, bigoted and arrogant Faculty...that she so treasured. He may have been among the very few who stood against the tide of academic opinion at the time - and she was there - but the probablity is against it. The reputation of social science Depts at Duke have been tainted to say the least. I wonder if she was speaking out or "biting her tongue" in meetings at the time?

Her circumstances also highlight the insulation and indulgence of academia - weekly airline commuting for 5 years enabling a personal preference seems out of step with the current difficulties and hardships of the "real world". This much we can agree on - academia lives in a separate "bubble" of a world, foreign to those outside of it and its inhabitants provincial.

36. phd_cand_in_business - March 01, 2010 at 12:21 am

Thank you Mr Stan! I agree with you 100% about Duke. It was absolutely deplorable what those boners did to the Duke Lax team and to Coach Pressler. Last I heard the accused players were still contemplating whether or not to file a civil suit. I would highly encourage them to do so. Coach has received a settlement and Bryant University is better off for Duke's royal screw up.

I find it quite disturbing how many ignorant people think that higher learning is supposedly this bastion of clear thinking where the highly educated ponder the great questions of justice and equality. Please spare me! Duke is one such case of "jumping the gun" (sorry, no pun intended). This Bishop case is just another one.

As for Amy Bishop, she is just one of many faculty members who believe they are above the law and above the great unwashed otherwise known as their students. I am getting a PhD to further my private sector consulting career. I have real issues to deal with at real companies that actually make products that people use .... not like most crappola in "academic" journals.

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