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  • Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Long Distance Mom: Guns in Meetings
February 24, 2010 - 9:49pm

I hesitated to write on this topic because of the pain all of the affected families feel right now, including Amy Bishop’s. Unlike Libby Gruner’s reaction to the Bishop case -- “how unusual…for a woman on the tenure-track to have that many children” (perhaps my second thought…) -- my first reaction came after hearing that Bishop had shot her chair as well as other faculty members at a department meeting. (I’ve served as department chair at two universities for over a decade). I appreciated Dean Dad’s observation of the event, “there but for the grace of God…”

I agree with Dean Dad’s request that we should not hold Bishop’s example up as an argument against academic tenure and promotion, and that finally, like other mass murders, this is a case about access to weapons and mental health assistance. But I believe that a discussion surrounding the psychological stresses in the tenure system may be warranted here. Just as department chairs at my university were assembled to discuss safety issues and how to better assess student mental problems following the Virginia Tech tragedy, Bishop’s case may deserve a second look by university administrators.

Anyone who has been through the tenure system understands the psychological pressures involved with the process — the grueling self-examination over whether or not you’re “good enough,” you’ve published enough in the right places, or you’ve brought in enough grant money to be retained permanently as a tenured faculty. If you are rejected, learning how to accept this negative appraisal from your peers while still working with them for another six months is the next challenge. As department chair you offer counsel, an open ear and advice to your dismissed tenure track faculty while remaining within legal, and, just as importantly, moral boundaries.

Too often speculations are made about who voted which way or confidential discussions of the T & P committee are whispered about in hallways. Similar confidentiality cracks may be found in yearly evaluations, post-tenure evaluations and promotion requests. Academics are professional critics and the anger that they feel at being judged critically may not always match what a manager feels to be a fair assessment of performance.

Faculty can express anger in inappropriate ways about more than just tenure and promotion issues. A female chair once told me of having been kicked by an outraged faculty member in a hallway, apparently insulted by something she had said to him. I should have given her the link to Fred Pryor’s Career Track Seminar — How to Deal with Difficult People. (I believe a former dean put me on the mailing list…)

Do academic relationships become more frayed and spiked with unethical behavior as compared to other professions? Is it because the stakes are so high (job security until retirement, seven figure grant numbers)? Or because they are so low ($300 annual raises, no travel money)?

It should be remembered that faculty do not always express their anger or stress outwards. Just as tragically, they sometimes harm themselves. As Dead Professor (former academic denied tenure at two institutions) suggests in his blog, “There is not much that can be done to help the tenure system; it is what it is, but from my point of view, [after being denied tenure] I would have appreciated some access to confidential, free, ‘independent’ counseling.”

A good recommendation, I believe. Tenure is a big psychological ordeal for those going through it. Human Resources staff or perhaps a university chaplain should help us treat it that way…


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