The Chronicle Review

Reactions: Is Tenure a Matter of Life or Death?

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.
February 21, 2010

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.