Dial H

Jonathan Bellman

As in Huntsville and Horrific.  At this moment, details are still unclear about the appalling shooting at the University of Alabama at Huntsville, where one Amy Bishop, to all indications a rising superstar in the Biology Department, was denied tenure.  Much of her stuff (personal webpage, for example) has been yanked off the web and replaced by the university’s emergency alert message, but certain fragmentary details are emerging in the news coverage: Harvard-trained, a truckload of publications, a potentially profitable invention that would cut costs in her area of research, predictably mixed reviews on ratemyprofessors.com (smart students loved her; whiners resented her), and so on.  As is always the case with campus shootings, we all flail about, trying to reckon the cause and, worse (but impossible to deny), the blame.

I’m aware that my irregular blogposts here are tending more and more toward Dial A for Academia than Dial M for Musicology; the job will do that to you, and it is hard for me to post anything worthwhile on practicing (“well, reviewed my fingering on the coda of the third movement of the “Emperor”), my research (“finally through a rough draft of my Poland paper; still have to get going on musical examples while I recast my self-indulgent prose”), or the progress of the search committee I’m chairing (“[censored for reasons of confidentiality]”).  The job will do that to you.  A campus shooting is, however, on a different seismic scale and invariably a horror, and since a professor seems to be responsible for this one I feel a responsibility to offer something beyond mere hand-wringing. 

There is no justification for such an action.  Whether it is a student with personal issues (family pressures, inability to succeed academically, a disastrous love live, or some mental illness beyond all of the above), an angry staff member with a workplace grievance, or (much rarer) a member of the academic faculty, there is no excuse or mitigating circumstance for a massacre. 

We have no dependable knowledge of the motivations of the individual involved; she looks like a star and could very well be one, so it is easy to leap to a conclusion of unfair denial of tenure.  The husband of one of the victims said in a brief phone conversation that his wife, also a faculty member of the biology department, had opined that Bishop “was not as good as she thought she was” and not able to “deal with reality.”  Such observations may or may not be true, but as relevant information for the public at large they amount to nothing, the ubiquitous sotto voce murmurings of academia, contingent on the perspective of the person commenting.  So, what I proclaim to be adherence to my rigorous standards might be righteous and principled, it might be quixotic and questionable, and it might be delusional and destructive, depending on a wide variety of factors (kind of institution, level of student pre-college preparation, and so on).  Such comments as those quoted about Bishop, therefore, might be completely justified, or rankest envy, or (most likely) some mixture of the two.

Those in the media are, predictably and probably rightfully given the job they’re trying to do, grasping at whatever straws of information they can find.  So they go to ratemyprofessors.com for information about Bishop’s teaching.  But by its very nature that site makes Wikipedia look like a repository of Sinaitic Truth; it is an archive of student comments, often complaints written (obviously) in the immediate heat of resentment.  Faculty are used to seeing this kind of thing on teaching evaluations; a trusted and respected colleague just showed me one that simply read “What a bitch!”, saying “I wanted you to see this so you could be proud of me.”  I am not going opine as to whether such a site should exist or not—free-speech issues and all that—I’ll simply say that the variables inherent in the collection of this kind of information (various student personalities, propensity to resentment, heat of the moment etc.) make it entirely suspect and effectively useless for gleaning any worthwhile information. 

The key point to the entire American academic world, or perhaps all of humanity, is that there are always more options than you think there are.  Let’s say Bishop was wrongfully denied tenure and the university was nefariously trying to profit from her and her husband’s invention.  Given her record, she had a demonstrable grievance, a wrongful-termination case, and it seems to me that with the proper legal help she could have given the university a righteous bollocking.  The president, the colleagues, everyone.  (And no, I’m not talking about the AAUP, the American Association of University Professors; I belong, but they most often strike me as self-important blowhards invested in us-and-them models.)  The fact that she came to the meeting armed indicates that the walls were already closing in, psychologically, and that solutions (even longer-term ones) were not being sought.

Frankly, I would welcome some sunlight regarding the decision process.  Procedures and criteria are prescribed in University codification documents, usually, and so the relevant considerations can be measured against those.  It is a fact that professors have a wide variety of responsibilities: yes good teaching, yes  professional activity and publications, but also being good citizens.  Personalities do rightfully come into play here; reflect on how athletes with divisive, lightning-rod personalities, regardless of the level of talent, often find themselves without any job stability.  (The name of the supremely gifted wide receiver Terrell Owens comes to mind here.)  Tenure can effectively lock in both the positive and negative characteristics of a faculty member on a long-term academic team, and there is no firm rule on which outweigh the other.  Procedural regulations often require strictest confidentiality in tenure cases, not least to minimize the blackballing of the candidate for future employment elsewhere, but some solid information would go a long way toward defusing some of the groundless speculations.  Of those who are using this tragic event to argue for the rights of all students (no student was present, by the way) to bear arms to class, I will not even waste the energy to vent abuse.  One can only imagine the body count had a random Untouchables-type shoot-out transpired.

Meanwhile: nothing but grief for the victims and their families.  I have neither solutions nor a clear view of what led up to this, and therefore no idea about what might profitably be changed.  The one thing I am sure of is that this is not a simple case.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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14 Responses to Dial H

  1. Robin Wallace says:

    Amen to the comments about students wanting to bring guns to class. We have an active contingent of that group in Texas, and they very nearly succeeded in making “concealed carry” legal at all state-funded universities. The state senator from our district was the main sponsor. I wish I could say the issue is now dead, but I know better.

  2. Jonathan – wise, as always. It would not surprise me if this individual had some legitimate grievances about her situation; I have certainly witnessed enough problematic behavior, especially toward young and talented and ambitious female faculty members who were perceived as “uppity” by — especially — older and less extraordinary academics, whether male or female. The only thing I can be sure of is my sorrow for the victims of the shooting — and for the availability of weapons that would give even a legitimately desperate person the tools to inflict this kind of irrevocable punishment.

  3. M Lipson says:

    I think the center of this posting is this, in a nutshell: No reason suffices. But because of where it happened, we (you in academia) will need to look at possible reasons.
    In short, if I understand you, this case must inevitably become a cause for reviewing the crucible that is the tenure process.
    And I agree with that. No excuses, no blame, can be any help in moving forward. Understanding, and a means of improving similar future situations, might be.

  4. Lisa Hirsch says:

    The Globe and Times are reporting that Amy Bishop fatally shot her brother in 1986, in what was at the time considered an accident. Brrrr.

  5. jonathan says:

    @Lisa: Exactly, and that’s the operative factor here–there is something very wrong with this person (including her repeatedly murmuring, when she was being taken into custody, that they were all still alive). Frankly, I’m sick to death of both standard tropes on tenure:
    1) It’s destructive useless and elitist and awful and universities should be more like businesses and only eminent emeriti or embittered part-timers like whoever is writing the NYT piece of the moment should choose who is important enough to teach in higher education, if higher education itself is of any value anymore, and
    2) Those poor professors who are put through such unfair hoops and it’s all unfair and capricious and it’s all about jealousy and oy-vey-iz-mir you can’t blame the poor dears for going postal and administrators are all cruel and manipulative and this publish-or-perish thing is needlessly cruel when they should just be able to teach like they did in some unspecified golden age of higher ed . . .
    It is all abject crap, and I may have to rear up on my hind legs and defend tenure, and the tenure process, from both idiotically extremist positions. Yes, injustices occur; in that respect higher ed. is like the real world. Indeed, I’ve never made the distinction between the two that glib commentators do. But is has a function, and faculty themselves are the primary controllers of the process.

  6. Lisa Hirsch says:

    Yeah, of course there are dysfunctional decisions, in both academia and business. There may well be ways to improve the tenure process.
    Prof. Bishop is clearly a disturbed individual. Not getting tenure IS a big deal for someone who has an academic career, but there are what I will call useful and adult responses to not getting tenure. Shooting your fellow faculty members? Criminal act. I blame people for going postal, you bet.
    Oh, and about that gun accident with her brother? The latest I heard (on the radio? in the Times?) indicated that the brother was hit three times, which does not sound much like an accident to me.

  7. M Lipson says:

    So this story /is/ going to turn into a referendum on tenure process, instead of a tragic episode of a deeply disturbed individual who exploded in her workplace, you think?

  8. jonathan says:

    For my part, I don’t think so any longer. To be honest, I was most ticked off by chat from some other academics I ran across (facebook threads and that sort of thing) that amounted to empathetic head-wagging at, y’know, what going for tenure does to people. That is, the immediate assumption was that the process was to blame, not this sick nutbar. To repeat: I do not deny that tenure decisions and processes sometimes go wrong and capricious, but from what I last read Bishop had initiated an appeal, which is the right way to go about such things. Then there was the business with the brother. Now there’s the business with the mail-bombs to her Harvard prof–nothing proven, but she was the focus of an investigation.
    As those who know me will attest, I have a strong, mostly unrestrained, and sometimes awkward personality–and it wasn’t smooth sailing all the way, but by tenure time I was WAY out of danger, I think. It’s not a secret: you seek prove your ongoing value to your department, your value as a permanent member of the team, in a variety of ways, and you’d better start by acknowledging to yourself that you’ll have to do some things you don’t really like as part of your job (maybe that’s teaching certain classes, or doing certain kinds of service or whatever). You’ll also have to find ways to get along with people very different from you in a variety of ways.
    Yeah. Awful. Don’t know how one could ever stand it. Certainly the indignities of academia are so great that no one wants to do it, as can be seen on the job market. Much better to be unemployed or at risk in the middle east.
    [N.B. The previous paragraph was sarcasm.]
    I guess what really astounds me is the amount of bitterness out there, including among people from and at really elite universities, the like of which I do NOT work at. I can’t help but think, how effing bad *is* it, ultimately, that you should nurture such feelings of resentment, with your tenure at Elite U.? My father (also not at Elite U.) got very bitter, as his career went on, and I know that there are lots of variables, but I was not very sympathetic and always took his bleak outlook as a caution: Don’t. Get. Like. That. Take control of your own happiness and fulfillment in academia and don’t give in to bitterness and resentment: that’s a one-way street.
    Meanwhile there are bodies in Huntsville. The story could very well begin to focus on what the hell kind of background check they did. (And then we get to the question of what state institutions are given, by way of resources, to hire people to adequately fulfill the responsibilities for which the institutions are charged. But that’s another rant.) What the muck-shovelers amongst the commenting class make of this all, actually, is nothing I can control–I was primarily annoyed with certain responses amongst those of my own caste.

  9. Robin Wallace says:

    I think we can all agree that, no matter what kind of indignities she was subjected to, there is absolutely no excuse for what this woman did. It appears increasingly likely that she had at least one screw loose, but technically, I believe, insanity is a defense, not an excuse.
    So the only question I ask about this is whether there is any possibility that our country will ever revisit our collective attitudes that make it ridiculously easy for people with multiple screws loose to get their hands on incredibly powerful weapons. And from where I sit in Texas, I very much fear that the answer is “No chance whatsoever.” None, zip, zero. It will never happen, and so we will keep witnessing things like this for years to come.
    It’s hard not to get cynical, but I try to keep reminding myself that I’m actually a lot more likely to be killed in an earthquake, even here in Texas.

  10. Lisa Hirsch says:

    Today the Times has photos of the shooting victims, and I must say that now I wonder whether there was a racial component in who exactly she shot, because four of the six were people of color: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/16/us/16alabama.html?ref=us

  11. Jonathan says:

    The account I read (I think by Joseph Ng) stated that she just went methodically down the row. The department seems to have been quite diverse, but that doesn’t mean there was a racial component to her act. Most of them were men, too; shall we posit an anti-male component? I mean, her younger brother was a male, too, and so was Prof. Rosenberg, her former superior who mysteriously had pipe-bombs mailed to him when it was time for her evaluation . . .
    IF you see my point.

  12. Lisa Hirsch says:

    Well, I see your point, but nothing you say eliminates the possibility of a racial motive, or, for that matter, of an anti-male motive if she was carrying a grudge.
    Oh, wait: we can safely posit that she was carrying a grudge.

  13. Lisa Hirsch says:

    Today’s Times on line has a few more articles making it completely clear that she has been an unbalanced individual for a long, long time. And also that she’s not a brilliant scholar, no matter how smart she claims she and her husband are.

  14. jonathan says:

    Thanks for the tip. Ultimately nothing to do with race, or men, or tenure, or anything. She was crazy, and dangerous. Period.

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