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Assessing the Threat

February 15, 2010

Tod W. Burke likes to use examples from current events to illustrate points in his courses. On Thursday, the criminal justice professor at Radford University discussed with students the arrest of a Tennessee teacher who has been charged with the attempted murder, in school, of his principal and assistant principal.

It was "only a matter of time," he told his students, until a shooting at a college would involve a professor as shooter, not victim.

Burke, who was a police officer before becoming an academic and who writes about workplace violence, said his sadly prescient point wasn't that professors are more likely than others to be killers -- he doesn't believe that to be the case. But he said the issues associated with workplace violence can't be ruled out in an academic environment. "We tend to forget as college professors that we are in a workplace, even if our institutions are very different from an assembly line or another kind of business," he said.

That take on the murder of three biology professors at the University of Alabama at Huntsville, apparently by Amy Bishop, another faculty member, is similar to those of a number of experts on campus security and workplace violence.

They stressed that there is no epidemic of such incidents on campuses, and generally dismissed the idea that the shootings could be blamed on a recent tenure denial. But they said that the news does point to the need for colleges to be aware that their faculty members and other employees may be unstable. And they said that the same types of procedures that many colleges adopted in the wake of the Virginia Tech killings -- such as creating threat assessment teams to consider whether students could pose a threat -- need to include faculty members as well.

Many people in Huntsville and elsewhere have been quoted as saying that they are shocked that a professor would be a killer. But Marisa R. Randozzo, founder of Threat Assessment Resources International, said she was not, because she doesn't assume any one characteristic is or isn't associated with a campus or workplace killer. "Campus violence can be carried out by anyone," she said. "What this underscores is that we have no accurate profile of campus attackers."

In fact, she said that too much emphasis on a few characteristics of a killer -- as is often the case with murder in educational settings -- can distract from the real task of assuring safety. "After Virginia Tech, we saw lots of worry about angry Asian students, and after Columbine, we saw lots of focus on goth," she noted. Focusing on such characteristics -- just like assuming there is a danger from biology professors or professors denied tenure -- is not the way to go.

Profiling may not work, she said, but threat assessment teams "are the single best tool we have" to identify people who may pose a risk and to intervene if necessary. Randazzo formerly was chief research psychologist for the U.S. Secret Service and has worked extensively on school shootings for the Secret Service and the U.S. Education Department. She is also co-author of The Handbook for Campus Threat Assessment and Management Teams.

The experts on a team -- which at many campuses would include experts on student affairs, mental health, safety and legal issues -- are together able to get a much better handle on a situation than could any single individual, she said.

Many colleges are of course places where some professors regularly say critical (and sometimes rude) things about their colleagues or administrators all the time. A recent case at Ohio University, where some colleagues filed complaints about a faculty member who'd been denied tenure, based on comments he made in anger after that denial, may illustrate the trickiness of the situation.

While university administrators appear to have taken those complaints seriously, the professor says he is being demonized for no good reason -- and his students (and a number of colleagues) are lining up to say he could never pose any threat and that they are outraged that he is being denied tenure.

The nature of academe -- in which lots of critical comments are made all the time -- is precisely why threat assessment teams are needed, Randazzo said. Plenty of people are angry at their academic employer "and some of them have legitimate grievances," she said. What a team can figure out is which of these people with grievances pose a real danger. "They tend to alarm a lot of people in different parts of their lives," she said of those who go on to kill colleagues. As a result, a team can figure out whether a person has just made one angry comment at a meeting or is giving off danger signals in lots of settings. "They tend to unravel visibly," she said.

Ann H. Franke, who consults with colleges nationally on issues of risk management, said that "fortunately this is a very rare event," but she agreed that threat assessment teams are key to minimizing future incidents. Colleges should determine whether their teams have the authority and ability to consider possible threats by faculty and staff members as well as campus visitors, and should adjust plans if they don't, Franke said.

While the Virginia Tech killings led many colleges to be more willing to intervene with students who may face mental health issues, Franke said that academics may be more reluctant to face a problem with a peer. "There is less opportunity to march them over to a counseling center," she said. "The power equality makes that much more difficult."

Franke said that, in some ways, the Alabama murders reminded her of the recent killings at Fort Hood, where there were signs that the highly educated professional who is the alleged shooter had become unstable, but people didn't take action to get him help or protect others until it was too late.

Fortunately, killings of professors on campus are rare, and when they occur at all, they tend to be by students, not colleagues. In December, Richard Antoun, an anthropology professor at the State University of New York at Binghamton, was stabbed to death in his office, and a graduate student is charged in the murder. The same month a student fired a rifle at an instructor at Northern Virginia Community College during class and no one was injured. Several of the better known examples of incidents in which multiple professors were murdered on campus -- at San Diego State University in 1996 or at the University of Iowa in 1991 -- involved current or former graduate students as the perpetrators.

Christian Kiewitz, associate professor of management at the University of Dayton, who teaches and writes about workplace violence, said it was important not to exaggerate the extent of the problem -- however terrible even one incident may be. "This is very, very rare," he said. But because workplace violence is so personally unnerving to many people, "the mass media has done a good job of scaring us into believing that these kinds of things happen often."

Kiewitz said it was important to remember that one does not hear about cases of professors killing colleagues. "Going postal just doesn't happen that often," he said. "Everyone is under the impression that colleagues are killing themselves and others left and right, but it's not taking place."

Others note that it's important for colleges to remember that workplace violence doesn't just mean professors or students as victims, but staff members as well. Edward D. Rice wrote his doctoral dissertation on workplace violence in higher education -- and all of his examples were either of students killing professors, or of non-academic employees killing non-academic employees. (A summary of his findings appeared in Facilities Manager Magazine.) While these cases are not epidemic, he said that colleges are going to have them just like the rest of society.

Rice, associate vice president for facilities at Kansas State University, said the key for colleges is training employees to recognize danger signs that need to be reported. Shortly after his division (which includes about one-tenth of Kansas State's 5,000 employees) received training, several employees came forward and reported on threats they had received from another employee.

While Rice said he couldn't discuss specifics, he said that the complaints were turned over to a threat assessment team, which determined that the threats were serious and the employee (a non-faculty member) was dismissed. Until they received training, his employees "didn't realize that they were being threatened and that there was a policy" for them to report such concerns, Rice said.

The Tenure Factor

Almost as soon as word of the Alabama murders spread came the news that Bishop, who has been charged in the killings, had been denied tenure and that an appeal of the denial had been rejected. This news prompted some media speculation that tenure stress may have led to the killings. The Christian Science Monitor ran with this theme, prompting criticism from academic bloggers (including one on Inside Higher Ed) who note that people are rejected for tenure all the time and don't kill anyone. Indeed cases of professors suffering significantly after losing a tenure bid aren't unheard of, but typically do not involve violence.

When experts talk about the common factors in workplace violence, they talk about factors that sound (in part) like a description of someone who has lost a tenure bid.

Burke, of Radford, said that workplace killers tend to "feel they were denied a promotion or some benefit they thought they deserved," and feel that this loss is going to have a huge negative impact on their lives, and that some person or persons mistreated them. While that may sound like those denied tenure, Burke said that in almost all of these cases (and perhaps in the Bishop case, considering the news that she had killed her brother), there are underlying mental health issues as well.

"Almost always these are people with serious issues," he said, and it's important for faculty colleagues to remember that they may not know those mental health issues.

Kiewitz of Dayton agreed. "If you look into these cases" of workplace violence, "there is usually a history." And that's part of why he and other experts said it was important to have trained teams to analyze problems. As an individual colleague, "you have to be careful because you don't know exactly what is going on."

Some, however, say that the Huntsville murders may still be an appropriate time to reflect on the tenure process. An anonymous blogger called Dead Professor (he writes about post-academic life, having lost two bids for tenure) writes that "of course, a bad event like a tenure denial doesn't lead a normal person to homicide. In these pathological multiple murder cases that is never the point. You need a confluence of multiple events to make them happen."

But the blogger goes on: "[I]t can't be denied that a tenure denial is a huge stressor.... The length of time involved in the process -- usually at least six years -- and the fact that it is presented to the candidate as a deep, careful, reasoned judgment from one's peers, this makes it not like other common stress events in one's life, like death of a loved one, or losing a job or having a business fail. All those other events have elements of outside randomness to them. You can rationalize that there was (at least partially) nothing that could have been done about the situation.

"But I have been through two denials and I know that the committees always make their absolute best effort to present it to you as a careful, dispassionate, expert judgment of your entire career. And you are found wanting. The ENTIRE thing is all you, all your fault. I don't mean that that IS true, but that is how the administrators and faculty members make it out to you. In such a situation, it takes an incredible force of will and personality to NOT have fleeting thoughts of (at least) suicide, if not homicide. Of course -- of course! -- normal people do not act on such thoughts. But in my entire life, given all the events which have come down on me, it was only during the denials that these kinds of thoughts came to the fore in a way sufficient enough that I clearly remembered it happening."

Burke said it was important for academics viewing the Bishop case to be thoughtful about where to focus. "It's not that we should be afraid to deny tenure," he said. But he said he found himself wondering about how tenure is denied, and whether those losing a tenure bid -- almost all of whom will never commit a violent act -- could be treated better.

Franke said that the case brought to mind "one of the chronic issues in higher education of people waiting until the tenure decision to give hard messages to colleagues." She said it is best for departments and junior professors if concerns about performance are frank and are raised early -- so that problems could be addressed or people can move elsewhere. "There is too much of a tendency to delay or not give those harder messages," she said.

But Franke noted that when she gives this advice to colleges, it hasn't been so much about avoiding murders, but as a way to avoid lawsuits.

 

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