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It will not surprise you to learn that scientists tend to be a little odd, a little withdrawn, a little unreal; the fraction of Asperger’s Syndrome diagnoses in scientists is pretty high.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.