Friday, February 12, 2010

The Shooting in Alabama

By now, everyone knows that there was a campus shooting at the University of Alabama, Huntsville, on Friday. Reports say that Amy Bishop, an Assistant Professor of Biology, found out Friday morning that she had been denied tenure. Friday afternoon, she came to the department faculty meeting with a gun, killing three of her colleagues and wounding 3 more.

Bishop reportedly trained at Harvard as a neuroscientist. Her research interest was in nitric oxide (NO) effects on neural cells. Her publication output from UAH was slim, and although she managed two papers last year, I couldn’t find anything for several years previous to that. That’s a weak publication record for a tenure dossier at any research university, as surely she must have known.

Tenure is the biggest step for any academic. For most, it comes about 6-7 years into your faculty position, between the assistant and associate professor ranks. It’s up or out: if you don’t make tenure, you get a terminal 1 (maybe 2) year contract, and then you are gone. The decision (in the sciences) is based on your publication and teaching record, your success in obtaining grant funding, and on letters from outside academics in your field, who assess your contributions to the field. Most universities expect that you are known and making a recognized contribution, building a “national reputation”; hence the term “publish or perish”.

Once you get tenure, you gain your voice and academic freedom. It’s an enormous burden lifted, and if you change jobs, you will essentially move with it. Getting tenure made a huge difference in my outlook, and my ability to deal with setbacks and challenges. It was the sword of Damocles, lifted.

On the other hand, failure to get tenure means that you are “down-ranked” to lesser universities, if you can get one to hire you, and you have to go through the process again. A negative decision is, simply, devastating. For an academic scientist, it’s a stinging rejection of everything you have dedicated your life to—long hours in the lab, sacrificing most measures of “normal” life. Once you mix in the inevitable academic politics, of course, anything can happen. I’ve seen incredibly talented, indeed brilliant scientists, turned down because they weren’t “connected” or sufficiently “political” to cultivate the right people. So it’s important to remember it ain’t a meritocracy, despite its claims.

It will not surprise you to learn that scientists tend to be a little odd, a little withdrawn, a little unreal; the fraction of Asperger’s Syndrome diagnoses in scientists is pretty high. People who function at a high level in technical fields are often lacking in social skills. They don’t handle failure well, and they may be missing family resources and realistic perspectives. When you put your entire life and sense of self-worth into your research, which we do, every rejection is painful; denying tenure is absolutely crushing.

There are many tragedies here. The greatest, of course, is the savage loss of life, and deep injury to innocent people. Nothing can justify or excuse that. But any time a person finds no recourse but violence, that is a tragedy too.


Göran Koch-Swahne said...

Yes, a tragedy for all!

it's margaret said...

This is a very sad situation, indeed. Early this morning (Sunday) there was a report on CBS stating that she had shot and killed her brother in the chest many years ago, but the records are now missing. If this is true, it would seem she has many problems.

JCF said...

And to think I've never gotten far enough in this Fatal Game to get that sort of rejection! O_o

May the departed rest in peace, and grant comfort to the bereaved---inc. Dr Bishop.

Grandmère Mimi said...

The tenure process sometimes seems more like harassment than a process to move a qualified employee from a temporary position to a secure position, just as the discernment process for clergy can often seem like harassment, rather than true discernment.

Of course, that the process sometimes goes wrong, gives no one an excuse to commit violent acts.

IT said...

The year I was up, was the worst of my life. It's incredibly stressful, and in some institutions worse than others depending on how they are structured and what their history is.

That said, news updates suggest that her tenure was denied a year ago, that the appeal was already denied, and that she was filing a complaint with the trustees. So this was not a sudden shock, but a long festering wound.

A tragedy.

Counterlight said...

From what I've read, Dr. Bishop had lots of other problems beyond the usual eccentricities of scientists. According to accounts from colleagues and students, she was not a good teacher. She read from the textbook rather than lecture and gave tests that didn't always reflect what was covered in class. She seemed to have an up and coming career in the corporate world outside of academia, so a tenure rejection would have been a bad blow, but not the end of the world.

I sometimes wonder if tenure is something obsolete. It was a creation of the Cold War to protect faculty and insure their independence. Since colleges and their faculties now have so many ties to corporate and government contracts, I wonder if a standard professional contract would be more constructive.

I'm just starting out on this process myself. It's perhaps not quite the pressure of a big university, since I'm in a small community college in a poor county (Bronx), but it is still pressure. For art faculty, it means an exhibition record, and it's very hard to get exhibited these days. I've actually done well recently, but it's still very hard. I have yet to show in an "official" art venue (i.e. recognized academic and museum settings). All of my shows have been in commercial galleries, artists' collectives, art societies, churches, and gay community organizations. That makes a legitimate exhibition record, but that "official" stamp of approval from what ever it is that constitutes the art establishment would really help my career.

NancyP said...

Committing significant violence against others requires an attitude of entitlement and/or an extreme need for vindication and power over others (ie, reaction formation to feelings of powerlessness). Most of us just indulge in schadenfreude or gossip or voodoo dolls. I'd venture to say that the rate of workplace-related violence among academic scientists is less than the rate of domestic violence against a spouse. I think that the intense emotional investment in a scientific "career" (calling) can equal the investment in an intimate spousal (or fantasized spousal) relationship. Scientists, despite the large percentage of oddballs, are not a particularly violent group.

Being denied tenure, or similar loss, may also push people over the edge to disabling depression with or without attempted or completed suicide. The demands of academic science, especially in the early years, are such that it is all too easy to identify 100% with the career and 0% as a human. The environment of social isolation from the outside world and the association with obsessed people who frequently Do Not Play Well With Others (head games, gossip, treating public resources as private possessions, etc) is a challenge for "normal" people, and can easily derail the Asperger's Syndrome personality types. Lack of social skills, lack of thick skin, failure to properly "read" other people's motives and behavior, lack of strategy with regards to balancing rights and obligations and to department politics, all of these can contribute in an incremental fashion to failure, and the Asperger-ish person may have zero insight into a painful situation.

Yes, I am ok. Sadder but wiser.

IT said...


Academic politics sucks, and the casual cruelty and victimization of weaker junior people by self-satisfied careerists can be brutal. I spent many years being miserable in such an environment. The ivory tower can be an abusive cloister.

Getting a Real Life with BP was so important to my well being and surviving that experience, relatively intact.

In the Alabama case, this isn't just a struggling vaguely-Aspergerish scientist. Amy Bishop had real Life, and considerable success outside of the academy. but she clearly had major issues well beyond typical tin-ear of many scientists.

Apparently in addition to killing her brother, she also got arrested for assault a few years ago, in a fight in a resataurant over a baby chair, hitting another woman and shrieking "I am Dr Amy Bishop!"

It is a tragedy for many that she never got the help she evidently needed--or the self-awareness that she needed it.

NancyP said...

Over the past few weeks, the for-profit conference email ads have included an audio-conference on "lab violence" - naturally they glommed onto this tragedy.

Directors and faculty of medical residency programs are occasionally at risk of harassment or serious physical threat by trainees. Fifteen years ago, a well-known pathology clinical chairman, considered one of the top 5 GI pathologists, was shot to death in his office by a resident. Six years ago we had to fire a resident for combined dishonesty and incompetence, and he was sufficiently odd in affect that we had a consultation with a security expert as well as the university and hospital security department before firing him. He went on to a non-university program in town, got fired from that program, and shortly thereafter he was in court over violating a protection order covering his ex-girlfriend. He threatened the judge! Needless to say, the guy ended up in jail.