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.