James Aune’s apparent suicide this week at Texas A&M University stunned the campus and the broader academic community – especially rhetoricians, among whom he was a leading scholar.
Since Tuesday, when 59-year-old Aune died after jumping from a campus parking garage, students and colleagues have remembered him on social networking pages and in news accounts as a dedicated teacher and mentor possessing both a vibrant personality and mastery of written and oral language, not someone who outwardly demonstrated mental health issues.
"My favorite of many great professors in the [communications department] at TAMU, Jim was always an inspiration through his wit, candor, curiosity, and generosity," reads one post on a memorial website. "As a grad student, I knew I wanted to think and teach like him; he taught me so much. At the bottom of one paper I turned in, he wrote: 'Thanks. I learned a lot.' I've never seen such a kind comment on an essay, and I'll never forget it. Nor Jim."
Moreover, Aune was a tenured faculty member and chair of the department of communications – that is, someone obviously accomplished and removed from many of the stressors associated with a younger professor’s career trajectory.
“Scholars seek to understand things, but we are coming up against something that finally eludes explanation,” said Frederick Antczak, a longtime friend of Aune’s who serves as the executive director of the Rhetoric Society of America. The two worked together decades ago at the University of Virginia and more recently through the rhetoric society, for which Aune blogged. Antczak is now dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. “Rhetoricians in particular seek to understand people, and it’s disturbing to reach the point where even someone we thought we knew well and loved must remain fundamentally mysterious in his passing.”
Aune's death and those of professors this year at Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of Texas at Arlington and California State University at Fullerton raise important questions about suicide among professors.
Suicide remains something of an enigma among behavioral health researchers, and data on professors' suicides don't seem to exist. Faculty groups don't track such deaths. But the suicides of professors receive prominent local press coverage the way the deaths of others might not.
Researchers say it’s hard for a variety of reasons to determine the statistical significance of professor suicides. The little research that exists on suicides in relation to occupation does not suggest that academics take their lives at higher rates than the general population, said John L. McIntosh, associate vice chancellor for academic affairs and professor of psychology at Indiana University at South Bend and past president of the American Association of Suicidology. “I’ve never seen anything on university faculty [in any study] that would imply high risk,” he said. “Rather, there’s a set of protective factors associated with it,” such as high levels of education, which have been indirectly shown to reduce suicide risk. But whether other factors typically associated with lower psychological distress – low-key lives and flexibility to spend one’s time on pleasurable activities – apply to academe depend on “whether one wants to look at the almost romantic ideas [of it] or the realities.”
Because suicidology is work mostly done in retrospect, after someone has taken his or her own life, it’s nearly impossible to isolate the causes of suicide. But correlations may be made between lifestyle and suicide, and the changing nature of academe, such as decreased available funding for research, fewer tenure-track positions and increased pressure to publish, can cause psychological distress, said Mark Kaplan, a professor of community health at Portland State University who has studied suicide extensively, particularly among military personnel. (Of course, many people face those and numerous other stress situations without taking their lives.)
“I think academic life is overlooked as a major stressor,” particularly among younger faculty members, Kaplan said. Standardizing mentoring programs for new professors – and finding money to fund them – should be a priority for colleges and universities, he said.
And as the Army has attempted to do, institutions should also work to lessen the stigma of seeking out mental health services, even for senior faculty such as department chairs, Kaplan added; although suicide rates aren’t elevated among professors, it’s important to note that one suicide represents about 25 suicide attempts, or “the tip of the iceberg.”
Texas A&M is not yet back in session, but Aune’s death surely will be marked by formal and informal remembrances of his life and work, said Margaret Soltan, a professor of English at George Washington University who has blogged extensively about the issue of suicide (and who blogs for Inside Higher Ed). In the case of relatively young professors in particular, she said, "there’s a terrible sense of wasted talent, an oppressive sense of what they might have done,” she said (Antczak estimated Aune would have continued to work for at least another 10 years).
Students can be most affected, Soltan said, and formal counselors commonly invited to campuses following such events “can only do so much. One needs time to accept that one could not have done anything, to accept that even people who you admire and who seem very together can do that.”