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February 13, 2010 - 4:01pm



Amy Bishop, a Harvard PhD, a wife and mother, a successful biology researcher, a University of Alabama professor whose students seem to admire her, took out a gun during a biology department meeting on the Huntsville campus yesterday, and shot everyone in sight.

She killed three of her colleagues, including the department chair, and left three people (two professors, one administrator) in critical condition.

Police arrived within seconds and took her into custody within minutes. Within hours, her apparent motive emerged: Denial of tenure.


There are, unfortunately, quite a few workplace rage murders in America every year. When they take place where they usually take place -- business offices, semi-industrial settings -- they get a couple of days attention. When they take place on university campuses, and when the shooter is a woman and a professor killing other professors, it gets far more attention. Why?

It's incredibly rare for shooters in these sorts of incidents to be women, for starters. And it's virtually unprecedented for professors to murder their colleagues. Professors who murder almost always murder in domestic contexts -- George Zinkhan, Rafael Robb, and quite a few others in the last decade or so, kill their wives.

Indeed, just last year, at the very university where Amy Bishop taught, a jury convicted a physics professor, Andrew Pakhomov, of killing his wife.

On a deeper level, this is a big and shocking story because most cultures regard university campuses as places distinguished by their pursuit of reason in a context of civility. Professors may be ridiculed (Sarah Palin, on the speaking trail, is currently getting a lot of mileage out of merely calling Barack Obama a professor), but for many people professors continue to embody intellectual dispassion, a judicious consideration of the world. The eruption of rage and slaughter among professors -- the emergence of a mass killer from the professoriate -- is indeed absolutely shocking.


But to go back to Bishop's motive. Predictably, articles are already being written about publish or perish, the brutal world of tenure, and how it... How it what? Turns nice ladies with doctorates into bullet-blasting madwomen?

Let's consider one silly example of this breed of article, in the Christian Science Monitor.

... Whatever Prof. Bishop’s motives, experts say that academic pressures are increasing as the recession and other dynamics takes their toll on tenured positions. Politics can be rife in the Ivory Tower, as well. Witness the James Sherley case at MIT. Prof. Sherley, who is black, went on a hunger strike after declaring he had been turned down for tenure because of his race.

This fails to mention any of the details of the Sherley case, which very much complicate any straightforward publish or perish reading of it.

Tenure and tenure-track positions declined from more than 50 percent of all teaching positions to less than 40 percent between 1997 and 2007, according to the American Federation of Teachers. In the 1960s, 75 percent of college teachers were tenured.

“You are expected to produce, and produce more quickly, and the road [to tenure] has gotten steeper and steeper,” North Carolina State University professor Richard Felder told Prism Magazine in 2007. “It’s a killer environment. I’d imagine the stress levels are through the roof.”

The class divide between tenured and non-tenured can be pernicious, as well.

“While many adjuncts are talented teachers with the same degrees as tenured professors, they’re treated as second-class citizens on most campuses, and that affects students,” Samantha Stainburn wrote recently in a New York Times piece titled “The Case of the Vanishing Full-Time Professor.”

This moves matters from silly to irresponsible. Bishop was not an adjunct being treated as a second-class citizen. She had a tenure-track position.

And as for stress levels -- Bishop was a highly regarded and productive scientist, as far as I can tell. Her Rate My Professors page is okay. She probably should have gotten tenure at Huntsville, and it will certainly be worth finding out why she was turned down. But if she had stress levels so high that she was driven to spray bullets about the conference room, that was about her, and not about the tenure track. Unlike humanities professors, Bishop might well have been able to move reasonably easily to a job in the private sector if it came to that.

So it's irresponsible, in this murderous context, for the CSM to quote someone calling the tenure-track environment "a killer." In the context of the article, the statement comes close to suggesting that under these appalling conditions, anyone might freak out and murder people.


This is a big, shocking story precisely because it doesn't correlate with any of the social stuff the CSM lazily cites. Bishop's motive was not denial of tenure. UD's pretty confident that her trial will show she was driven by a long-simmering insanity which finally found an event to ignite it.

UPDATE: From World Now:

University spokesman Ray Garner said Saturday that the professor had been informed months ago that she would not be granted tenure.

He said the faculty meeting where she is accused of gunning down colleagues was not called to discuss tenure.

At a news conference Saturday, authorities declined to comment on a possible motive. But family members of victims say they understood that the shooting involved Bishop's tenure.


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