The Chronicle Review

Critical Mass: What Others Are Saying About the Alabama Shootings

February 16, 2010

The shootings last week at the University of Alabama at Huntsville, which left three faculty members dead and two more professors and a department assistant wounded, has transfixed the academic world. Amy Bishop, an assistant professor of biology at the university, was arrested at the scene and has been charged with murder and attempted murder. What role did the stresses of the academic life, particularly the denial of her bid for tenure, play in triggering the attack? Was race a factor? The availability of guns on campus? How universities handle mental illness? Here is what others have to say.

Clifford S. Mintz, blogger: It is extremely tragic that three people lost their lives and several others were wounded by a deeply troubled and misguided former tenure-track faculty member. It won't be surprising if certain faculty members dismiss the incident and attribute its horrific nature to a seriously disturbed and deranged person. After all, who in their right mind would do such an awful thing? However, I am certain that the humiliation, outrage, and psychological pain experienced by Bishop are fairly common among individuals who are denied tenure. Rather than turn her rage inward, she decided to take it out on the people who she thought had destroyed her life. Maybe this incident will induce graduate programs to consider implementing career-development programs that showcase alternate careers beyond the traditional tenure-track career path. (BioJobBlog)

Daniel Kaufmann, senior fellow, the Brookings Institution: It is as if such ease of access to guns, and ability to carry them undetected (or detected?), even by a high-powered scientist professor on a university campus, is simply taken for granted nowadays in the United States. This is in sharp contrast to other industrialized (and many emerging) countries around the world today. (The Kaufmann Governance Post)

David C. Yamada, professor of law and director of the New Workplace Institute, Suffolk University: In recent years, several well-publicized acts of violence by unstable students have caused colleges and universities to beef up their emergency-response protocols and to take student mental-health issues more seriously.

But frankly, there has been very, very little attention devoted to faculty mental health, much less the risks of personal violence committed by fellow faculty members. In fact, I fear that the increasingly bizarre details surrounding Bishop's life history (how she killed her brother in 1986, perhaps accidentally; being a suspect in a mail bomb investigation in 1993) will allow us to dodge these matters, instead of using this as a wake-up call. ...

More often than not, professors are deeply drawn to their work and bring to their academic appointments a track record of high achievement as students. They are invested in the value system of academe and take its judgments seriously. Their social skills vary greatly. Some may be the life of the party, but more frequently, terms such as "intense," "eclectic," and "quirky" apply. ...

Decisions over who is invited to become a permanent member of a faculty go to the core of academic life. Indeed, it is my belief that once a school's tenure process is perceived to have lost its base integrity, everything else is up for grabs. (Minding the Workplace: The New Workplace Institute Blog)

Laurie Essig, assistant professor of sociology and women's and gender studies at Middlebury College: People will say that this is the result of a crazy woman. ... But it is also the result of a crazy system, one that is by definition unfair, secretive, and not directly related to the quality of research, writing, or teaching. ...

I'm not suggesting that people should feel sorry for academics. I am suggesting, however, that this shooting might move universities to take a long hard look at how many Ph.D.'s they're producing, how much adjunct labor they're using, and what the costs and benefits of tenure are.

Given that universities have been set "free" in the market to make a profit (or at least amass as large an endowment as possible), it might be time to "rationalize" the system. That might mean doing away with tenure and actually giving us long-term contracts that are based on clearly stated performance expectations. I would rather be judged on my publications, research, and ability to teach than the intangible and unknowable judgments of a committee that doesn't have to tell me why they're making the decision they're making. (True/Slant)

Prudence Gourguechon, president, American Psychoanalytic Association: Every story in the media I've seen so far mentions the fact that she was recently denied tenure. This is an experience likely to lead to feelings of anger, humiliation, shame, and resentment in any human being. ...

These feelings, these life events, do not lead to mass murder.

This has become a habitual approach for the media in stories of this type. When Major Hasan killed 13 fellow service people at Fort Hood last November, the media reports focused obsessively on the stress of working with veterans returning from combat, Dr. Hasan's imminent deployment to Iraq and his opposition to the war, and burnout among military mental-health professionals. ...

Getting it wrong in the media does us all a disservice. If true but irrelevant facts are continually referenced, we start to think these things (e.g., stress) are relevant and truly causal, as opposed to possible triggers. And, the media rarely or never mention the factors that are more important to consider: Delusions. Paranoia. Major mental illness. Schizophrenia. Psychosis. The vast majority of human beings who suffer from these symptoms or disorders are not violent or dangerous and can do very well with appropriate treatment. But these might be the things that lead a few human beings pick up a gun and shoot their colleagues. That, plus easy availability of firearms.

Why have we substituted "stress" for psychosis as a causal concept? Why have we confused triggers for causes? What is the consequence for our society? One consequence I fear is that there will be a continually diminished tendency to consider and diagnose and treat psychosis and major mental illness, and therefore there will continue to be undiagnosed and untreated disordered minds picking up guns and going to a meeting to kill. (Psychoanalytic Excavation, Psychology Today)

Paul Myers, associate professor of biology at the University of Minnesota at Morris: Tenure reviews are extremely stressful: Imagine a job evaluation in which you may be told that you've been doing a fine job, you're doing interesting work, but you aren't quite as dazzling as your employer would like ... so you're fired. And then, because academic jobs in your specialty are scattered very thin on the ground, you get to spend a year struggling to find a new position (with the same horror-show finale possible), and pack up and move to a completely different part of the country, uprooting all your connections that you may have built up over the last five or six years. What makes it even worse is how much you lose, since if your tenure committee approves you, you get a secure job for the rest of your life.

The stresses do not excuse Amy Bishop. ...

I've sat at tables with my fellow faculty lined up around them, and never before thought how easy we'd be as targets for one mad person to fire upon. The ease of access to handguns is a great social evil, one that too easily simplifies the conversion of disagreement into lethal combat. (Pharyngula)

Jeff Rybak, author: I do not for an instant want to excuse this woman's actions or to paint them as understandable. Most of us, in life, absorb blows to our egos and to our ambitions and respond with varying degrees of resiliency but under no circumstances do we react with violence. I would never excuse that. But when we talk about your "typical" campus shooter—some overstressed kid who was just kicked out and can't face up to the failure—we do address the subject with some degree of comprehension. We know, at least, why he snapped. And in that same sense, I think it's important to know why this woman snapped.

Academia is vicious. Harvard or not, there are unemployed academics all over the place. I mean "unemployed" in the sense that they are utterly unable to secure the sorts of jobs their training and expectations revolve around. Of course they can work at Starbucks just as foreign-trained doctors can drive taxicabs. Call them terminally marginalized as employees, if you prefer. But by any definition their situation sucks. And as we relate to students and the pressures they face—as explanation if not as excuse for their actions—I think we need to extend the same to academics. (On Campus, Maclean'ss)

Abel Pharmboy, pseudonym of a state-university educator and cancer researcher: I recently had the opportunity to lead an effort to draft from scratch a reappointment, promotion, and tenure document for a newly established department. With a committee of deans and department chairs, the final document pretty much included your typical quantitative requirements for teaching, research, and service. But one dean strongly suggested to me that we include a section on collegiality, defined loosely as the ability to interact constructively with individuals for the greater good of the department and the university. While wording to that effect was included, it was not explicitly defined as an evaluative criterion.

In academia, we often tolerate a great deal of destructive and defiant behavior that disrupts the organization in the name of "genius," perceived external stature, and, perhaps most importantly, grant dollars (which generate indirect cost dollars for the institution). When describing some situations I've encountered to my colleagues in other nonacademic businesses, their conclusion was that some of these people would often be let go if such behavior occurred in their workplaces. ...

The questions for you, dear academic reader, are:

1. Do you think that lack of collegiality is grounds for denial of tenure for a candidate that otherwise meets the basic quantitative criteria outlined in university guidelines?

2. Do you feel that collegiality—or whatever you want to call it: teamwork, cooperation—should be an important factor in making academic tenure decisions? (Terra Sigillata)

Christopher Newfield, professor of English at the University of California at Santa Barbara: The department of biological sciences at the University of Alabama at Huntsville lists 14 faculty members on its Web site. Five of them were faculty of color. Bishop apparently killed three of the five, and tried to kill a fourth. Joseph D. Ng, an Asian-American, is one of two surviving faculty of color in the department, and the only one who was unharmed.

Much of the coverage is skeptical about the explanation of revenge for a tenure denial, and this skepticism is fueled by Bishop's apparent murder of her lead supporter, the department chair. Although two surviving victims, Leahy and Monticciolo, are white, it is worth asking whether this might have been a racial hate crime. (Crime Log)

Zennie Abraham, blogger: Amy Bishop joined the UAH faculty in 2003. With her husband, Jim Anderson, Bishop created a portable cell incubator called "InQ," which won the couple an award in a state competition and won $25,000 of seed money in a business competition, money they could use to start a company around the invention. ...

Amy Bishop was reportedly denied tenure. What happened after that, a hypothesis, may be that Bishop went off when she perceived the university as trying to take and profit off of an idea she developed, just as they were getting rid of her. At that point, Bishop may have went berserk. (City Brights, San Francisco Chronicle)

— Compiled by Evan R. Goldstein, Susannah Tully, and Karen J. Winkler