Letters to the Editor

Huntsville Killings Suggest Tenure Process Should Be Changed

February 28, 2010

To the Editor:

The account of Amy Bishop's recent alleged killing and maiming of departmental faculty at the University of Alabama has left me, an English professor for nearly 40 years, speechless ("In Huntsville, a Dull Afternoon Meeting Turns Deadly," The Chronicle, February 15). Having been a chair of an English department and a senior faculty member over many years, I have always been sensitive to the potential for extreme violence by someone who has been rejected for tenure or promotion—though sensitive to it, until now, only as a notion. Violent episodes at Virginia Tech, Columbine High School, and other institutions of learning have always been in the background of my consciousness, but those were grounded in situations different from the Bishop debacle. The Huntsville incident cries out for a revision of the process by which appointments, tenure, and promotions are awarded.

The period of seven years in which an assistant professor remains on tenure track before being evaluated for tenure is unconscionable. Over that time, some applicants who equip themselves well through research may evoke the personal dislike of those who are responsible for decisions regarding their futures. I am not saying that this was the case with those at Huntsville who allegedly denied Ms. Bishop tenure, but if it was, it is horrific and detestable that they should have been killed and/or maimed for it.

My comments relate to the overall tenure-track experience as I have been aware of it from both sides during my years in the academy. Putting aside the expense and time spent acquiring a doctorate, I cannot think of other professions where higher-level employees have to wait seven years for promotion. Also, the seven-year path to tenure is strewn with political minefields: "Outspokenness," "lack of collegiality," "single-mindedness," and "nonconformity" are all terms I have heard used in an effort to justify an otherwise qualified applicant's being declared "not a good fit for the department." Few have examined the psychological implications of having someone go through—even in the friendliest of academic environments—the seven-year anxiety of wondering whether his or her scholarly efforts would be justly rewarded by job stability in the end. The whole process is a serious discouragement to younger academics who hope to make a career of scholarship, and it should be shortened.

The decision whether or not to award tenure should not be made by a group, some members of which may not be as qualified as the applicant being evaluated. The human potential for spitefulness and pettiness sometimes assumes surprising vitality in a group, particularly one whose discussions are assumed to be confidential. The decision for or against tenure should be made by the department chair, who would have observed and closely mentored the applicant, in close consultation with the dean of the school or college. I am not saying that such a change will end violently deranged outbursts of applicants who feel that they have been unfairly dealt with. Unfortunately, it seems that such people will always walk among us. These changes, though, will certainly render the whole process more humane and perhaps elicit a corresponding humane response from those who go through it.

Brenda DoHarris
Professor of English
Department of English and Modern Languages
Bowie State University
Bowie, Md.

It was a very sad day when I heard of the recent shooting at the University of Alabama at Huntsville, and my heart goes out to the families who are grieving for their loved ones. Yet, as a college professor, I am extremely offended by "Professor Had Raised Concerns About Accused Shooter's Mental Health" (The Chronicle, February 16), and especially this sentence: "Academe is often home to oddballs. Choosing to spend your life in a library or laboratory is, by definition, out of the ordinary."

Does this mean that we are all to be afraid of the weirdos teaching at the college down the street? I am so tired of defending academia. From Sarah Palin's idiotic anti-intellectualism to writers like yours who assume that professors as a whole are odd and not ordinary people. This smacks of Ms. Palin's remark pitting "pro-America" parts of the country against areas that are presumably filled with subversive intellectual elites. I know I am not the only professor tired of this propaganda.

College professors go to our children's Little League games, attend rock concerts, support the local PTA. We teach people how to teach science, history, English. We teach future doctors, lawyers, stockbrokers. We are the lowest-paid people on earth with terminal degrees; and we are the engine behind much of the job creation in this country. We are fundamentally a service profession. To believe that a life spent in libraries or labs conducting research is "odd" is beyond my comprehension. That same research helps us to discover best practices in our classrooms, new cures for disease, and assistive technologies for disabled children. When a person snaps and harms someone, it has nothing to do with academia, but with mental illness—no matter what profession.

Clair Berube
Assistant Professor of Science Education
Hampton University
Hampton, Va.