Commentary

Tenure and the Workplace Avenger

February 14, 2010

For millions of Americans, last Friday's mass shooting at the University of Alabama at Huntsville, in which three faculty members were killed and two others and one staff member were injured, has conjured up frightful memories of massacres at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University. And in its wake, concerns are being raised yet again about campus safety and emergency response.

Some people are speculating about whether the death toll from such an episode would be lessened were properly licensed students and faculty members permitted to carry concealed weapons on campuses. Others are questioning whether college officials were adequately prepared to respond swiftly and effectively to an active shooter situation.

There is, however, very little about the Huntsville killings that resembles the tragedies at Virginia Tech and elsewhere, except for the mere fact that the setting happened to be a college campus. Friday's armed assault during a late-afternoon faculty meeting was nothing like an active shooter episode, but was very much like workplace murder.

According to reports, Amy Bishop, an assistant professor of biology who was upset over a denial of tenure, showed up at the faculty conference armed with a 9-millimeter handgun. After sitting quietly in the meeting for a short period of time, she purportedly stood and started suddenly blasting away at her stunned colleagues—human targets who may have been implicated, at least in her mind, in her failed tenure bid.

If Bishop is indeed like other workplace avengers—generally middle-aged employees (and former employees) who consider failure as absolutely catastrophic—this would not have been a random act by someone who suddenly snapped and went berserk, but a methodical attempt to punish selectively those deemed to be responsible for an injustice. These cases typically involve a perpetrator who acts with cool and considered deliberation, who sees the final affront as a one-way ticket to nowhere, and chooses to execute those accountable for the intolerable and unfair outcome.

It clearly would be inappropriate for me to challenge the fairness of Bishop's tenure review. Her case may very well have been handled carefully, respectfully, and consistent with due process. And, of course, no matter if or how seriously the process was flawed, that would not justify violence.

The alleged assailant, a Harvard-trained neurobiologist, had achieved a more-than-respectable record of grants and scholarly publication, including several papers in leading peer-reviewed journals within her field, three of which were published or accepted in 2009. In recent years, she had distinguished herself as one of the inventors of InQ, an incubator for human cell growth. Her teaching, though not stellar, was more than acceptable, at least based on available student evaluations.

Professor Bishop, known on the campus as an outspoken critic of the university's administration, had learned last year of her failed tenure application. She subsequently appealed the decision but did not prevail. According to several people around the campus quoted in news reports, Bishop was quite bitter and vocal about her plight, as the end of her terminal contract year approached.

Unlike many Americans who may interpret employment-related failures as an indication of their own inadequacies, workplace avengers typically externalize blame. Their failures and disappointments, they believe, reflect nothing more than mistreatment by others who, perhaps undeservedly, hold unbridled power over their fate. Might Professor Bishop, as a noted scholar with an Ivy League pedigree, have questioned the legitimacy of the tenure process or those who were in the position to judge her record of achievement?

With reports of Bishop's quirky demeanor and social awkwardness, it would be all too easy to dismiss this violent episode as just some "nut" who couldn't handle the pressure of publish or perish. Indeed, that seems to be the prevailing view of the hundreds who have posted online comments in the days since the shooting. But to define this tragedy as just a case of psychopathology would discourage a closer look at contributing forces.

Rather than dismiss the killings as just another act of insanity or treating it as fodder for escalating the debate over concealed weapons on campuses or for justifying tighter security measures, let it serve as a vehicle for evaluating the antiquated tenure process of modern-day academe. I am not suggesting a referendum on the role and purpose of tenure but consideration of how the process could be enhanced to reduce the risk of violence and other less extreme but still undesirable responses to negative outcomes. That should include appropriate support systems and mentor programs during the uniquely awkward terminal contract year following tenure denial.

Exacerbating the problem, of course, is that with today's economic climate, in which academic budgets are shrinking and tenure lines evaporating, tenure denial—for good reason or bad—can indeed be catastrophic. For highly trained scholars of tenure-track misfortune, the alternative opportunities can be rather slim. As Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, told The Huntsville Times, "The most likely result of being denied tenure in this nonexistent job market is that you will not be able to continue teaching. ... You probably can't get another job."

It is a dirty, not-so-secret truth that tenure review often involves personalities and politics neatly disguised as dispassionate assessment of scholarship—a process shrouded in secrecy and protected by confidentiality. On occasion, faculty reviewers, whose own tenure may have been awarded decades earlier under standards far less stringent, are positioned to make weighty judgments about colleagues, sometimes with limited appreciation for the potentially devastating ramifications. In the corporate world, by contrast, managers empowered to promote or terminate subordinates must at least put their names and reputations on the line.

In our cloistered academic settings, we tacitly assume that senior faculty members, after having survived the tenure grind, magically come to possess the necessary expertise and talent to carry out this awesome task with humanity and respect, not to mention fairness. Even if Professor Bishop's tenure case was processed fairly and appropriately, tragedies like Friday's shooting in Huntsville should encourage us to examine these assumptions.


James Alan Fox is a professor of criminology, law, and public policy at Northeastern University. His book Violence and Security on Campus: From Preschool Through College will be published by Praeger in April.