I have a good friend from my time in Berlin who teaches at the University of Alabama-Huntsville. When I was pregnant for the first time, she helped instigate a baby shower for me. Last fall, she had a baby of her own.
When I heard about the murders at UA-Huntsville yesterday, I was nauseated with fear for her. I checked her Facebook. She’s okay. Never thought I’d be so grateful for Facebook.
But six other people are not okay. A biology professor, Harvard-trained Amy Bishop, is charged with murder after opening fire at a faculty meeting in her department. Three of her colleagues are dead, including her chair. Of the survivors, two others are in critical condition, and one is hospitalized in fair condition. My thoughts are very much with them today, and with their grieving and frightened families and friends.
Two aspects of this atrocity are unusual (and really, it’s sick that we should be so accustomed to shootings that there are actually norms for them, however twisted). Unlike most other university or school killings, the shooter was female. At Montreal’s Polytechnique, Virginia Tech, and Northern Illinois, the perpetrators were all men (and in Montreal, the motives were explicitly misogynist). As far as I could tell from Wikipedia’s information on school shootings, there are two less famous cases – at Penn State and Louisiana Technical College – where the shooters were female students.
Prior to release of the suspect’s name, many media reports referred to a “female shooter” or “female faculty member.” They don’t as often discuss “male shooters” because anyone armed with a gun is presumed to be male. Historically, that’s proven to be a pretty sound presumption. But it wouldn’t be bad if the term “male shooter” were commonly used; it could underscore that in most cases, the perp is a man or boy. Current practice generally erases the gender of the shooter, except when she’s female, thus obscuring how gender functions in most of these mass murders.
The second, more surprising oddity in the Huntsville atrocity is that Bishop is a faculty member. I don’t know of other instances where a faculty member of either gender has opened fire at work (though there are cases of professors committing murder, for sure). [Addition, 2/14/10: I got schooled in comments! Jennifer E. points out that back in 1992, a (male) engineering prof at Concordia University shot and killed fellow co-workers over workplace issues.]
Why could push a professor over the edge? Academia has lots of weird pressures, but one of the harshest is the race to earn tenure. Before much news was out, I was already wondering if tenure was part of the mess. And sure enough, Bishop allegedly had just learned that she’d been denied tenure, according to the New York Times:
The shootings opened a window into the pressure-cooker world of biotechnology start-ups, where scientists often depend on their association with academia for a leg up. Ms. Bishop was part of a startup that had won an early round of funding in a highly competitive environment, but people who knew her said she had learned shortly before the shooting that she had been denied tenure at the university.
On Friday, Ms. Bishop presided over her regular class before going to a biology faculty meeting where she sat quietly for about 30 or 40 minutes, said one University of Alabama faculty member who had spoken to people that were in the room. Then, she pulled out a gun and began shooting, firing several rounds before her gun either jammed or ran out of bullets, the faculty member said.
Why was Bishop denied tenure? Her scientific credentials seem to be sound. She was involved in creating an award-winning new mobile cell-culturing system that was being marketed through a start-up. Her university would almost certainly have been a beneficiary of the patent. Usually a scientifically productive professor doesn’t need stellar teaching evaluations to gain tenure. Oddly, her page is still up at RateMyProfessor.com. The scores at this site likely skew toward malcontents who are motivated to get some revenge, the sample is definitely not representative. For what it’s worth, her ratings were mostly bifurcated between enthusastic students and those who advised avoiding Professor Bishop. I don’t see any red flags for truly abysmal teaching.
So the question remains: why was Bishop refused tenure? This is obviously speculative, but I wonder if “collegiality” was a factor. Some departments allow collegiality to enter into decisions; it covers everything from being a good team player to, well, not being a danger to one’s colleagues. In light of her apparent psychotic break (she has made statements denying that anyone is really dead), it seems likely that Bishop was already displaying erratic behavior before the shooting.
My friend wrote on Facebook:
I cannot mourn yet, but knowing who did this, and knowing how incredibly unsurprising it is, makes me want to vomit and scream both. I cannot move past rage right now to any kind of grief.
Clarification from my friend via email, 2/14/10, 5:30 p.m.:
I would never have expected her to be violent. Yet, discovering that there had been an act of violence on that floor of that building, my thoughts immediately went to her. So, by unsurprised, I did not mean that I or anybody else had expected or feared violence from her, just that she was “off” enough and obsessed enough with her tenure case that it wasn’t hard to make the mental leap once one heard violence was underway.
So there appears to have been warnings, and yet no one realized the full extent of the threat.
Like any workplace, academia has its share of unstable people. While most people denied tenure find ways to rebuild their lives, it’s not uncommon for tenure battles to get ugly. From grad school onward, young professors make huge sacrifices of time, foregone income (compared to other fields), and often family and personal life. Junior people are frequently saddled with unreasonable workloads and impossible expectations. It’s devastating to anyone when that investment doesn’t yield the reward of tenure. Denial of tenure – which often means the end of a career – comes as an existential threat. If someone is already losing their grip on sanity, violence might well feel like self-defense.
Seen from that angle, it’s not so surprising that a faculty member went postal. The surprise is that it hasn’t happened until now.
Here in Ohio, there’s virtually nothing to stop a determined shooter. No registration of weapons. No permit required. No license. Down you go to Wal-Mart, where you can buy a handgun on the spot! The law does require a permit for concealed-carry, and it bans guns from college campuses. Oh, and it prohibits shooting a gun off in a cemetery. In other words, if someone loses their grip on reality, the state of Ohio will happily hand them a firearm.
It’s hard not to feel a little jittery at the possibility of copycat shootings.
We need, instead, to be aware. To realize it can happen here, no matter how idyllic the campus. To trust our instincts. In Bishop’s case, someone might have been able to see a red flag the size of a stadium, had it not been hushed up two decades ago. When she was 20, Bishop shot and killed her younger brother, aged 18. The current police chief is suggesting that procedural rules were unconscionably broken in the aftermath of this killing. Bishop was released to her mother without being fully booked. The case file went missing. The matter was quietly dropped
Whatever the truth about that incident in 1987, this much seems clear: Bishop has not just allegedly killed three (and maybe more) innocent people. She has left her four children motherless (if she’s convicted). She has squandered her scientific talents, including her research on ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease, and Alzheimer’s. She has left the families of her victims bereft and grieving. She has deprived the world of her colleagues’ gifts. Remember, these were research scientists in biology! They studied life! What a cruel irony that in pursuing the secrets of life, they became vulnerable to a violent and early death. I’m praying, in my own odd agnostic way, that the survivors of this atrocity will find peace and healing.
Update, 2/14/10, 5:45 p.m.: My friend in Huntsville keeps sending links.
Eric Seemann, a psych professor at UAH, has given an interview (against the wishes of the university) that confirms my speculations about why Bishop lost her tenure case:
Despite her excellent research ability, Seemann was not surprised she struggled to obtain tenure.
“Amy was kind of hard to get along with,” he said. “I’ve talked to people who said, ‘Wow, she can be really arrogant,’ or be really headstrong. I knew that to be true. But at the same time she was brilliant. She was really one of UAH’s rising research stars. People I know in biological sciences would say, ‘She’s a great researcher, but she’s lousy to work with.’ ”
She was brilliant and she knew it.
“At one meeting I was with Amy, she was complaining to a group of us. She said she was denied tenure not because she was a lousy researcher — she’s not, quite the opposite — and not because she didn’t have good classes, she believed she did — I think some might say otherwise — but because she was accused of being arrogant, aloof and superior. And she said, ‘I am.’
“She said, ‘I am arrogant, I am aloof and I am superior in my attitude. But it doesn’t mean I don’t want to get along with people.’ “
Obviously academia is home to lots of arrogant assholes. Most of them never inflict more than psychological misery.
The difference here? A long-standing propensity for violence. It’s not just her killing her brother (though that would be quite enough). Back in 1993, while still a grad student, Bishop was suspected in an attempt to mail-bomb a Harvard prof with supervisory authority over her dissertation. Wow. I’m astonished that her husband didn’t wonder more about her stability. Well, maybe he did, but just kept his worries to himself. Publicly, he is saying that he had no inkling.