Crimes of Violence

Analysis of high-profile crimes of violence of psychological significance

Amy Bishop and the Trauma of Tenure Denial

The tenure process can be toxic: The Amy Bishop Shootings

Workplace shootings by women are extremely rare and, until now, seemingly non existent. The same is true of shootings by graduate students of their professors who denied them their degrees. Because men are so identified with work and also more prone to violence, they are almost singularly the perpetrators of these kinds of outbursts. But now a woman professor has been arrested for the mass killings of her colleagues on a college campus, and we need to come up with some explanation.

Two elements stand out in this case that can help us make sense of this tragedy. One is the personality factor, and there is a lot about Amy Bishop that is striking and indicative of a propensity for violence. The other factor, which is more meaningful to me personally, is the gripping emotional pain that is often attached to university tenure decisions.

The facts that are emerging about the personal life and behavior of Amy Bishop is that she is a very gifted, extremely hard working woman who has borne the guilt since she was 20 years old of having been her brother's killer. Although the reports coming from police accounts are mixed, the facts of the situation-that three shots were fired are more indicative of deliberate intent than of an accidental firing of the weapon into her brother's chest as was claimed. Another accusation made against this woman was that as a student she sent an explosive device to the home of a professor who was causing her problems. The police questioned her, but no charges were filed. The fact that Bishop was accused twice of inflicting violence is now suddenly of special significance in light of Bishop's reported mass shootings of her colleagues at the University of Alabama-Huntsville.

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According to one report by a friend, Bishop carried a deep sense of guilt about the death of her brother and planned to make it up by becoming a prominent scientist. This fact is significant for two reasons: (1) she is one who can not be said to be anti-social or psychopathic to the extent that she was haunted by what she had done, and (2), she felt compelled to try to make up for an act that few could live with. Work to her was thereby primary in her life.

Despite the heavy weight of this past, there is every indication that Professor Bishop was achieved success in the classroom and as a scholar. My analysis of her "Rate My Professor" responses indicates that many students were appreciative of her efforts in the classroom and of her brilliance. One student commented that she was destined to win a Nobel Prize. Indeed there is every indication that this Harvard-educated scientist was gifted and innovative in her work. Some of her fellow faculty described her personality as awkward and stated that she did not get along well with people. She saw herself as superior to her colleagues.

Just as the school shootings that have occurred over the past decade have turned our attention to school bullying and the shootings as revenge killings, this slaughter on the college campus should cause us to reflect on the volatile nature of the tenure process itself, a process that sometimes brings out the worst in people on all sides. The tenure process is cruel because there is so much at stake, and the power to decide one's future is invested in one's peers, including one's friends and enemies. Whole departments are often torn apart by tenure decisions that are divided with some voting for and some against. The awarding of tenure means a secure job for life and the freedom to speak one's mind; denial means the end of the road. To appreciate the magnitude of such denial consider the words of Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, as quoted in The Huntsville Times, "The most likely result of being denied tenure in this nonexistent job market is that you will not be able to continue teaching. ... You probably can't get another job."

As one who was denied tenure at a previous university, I would describe the denial of tenure as an end to one's career, to one's livelihood, sense of personal disgrace, loss of home, friendships, and community. Especially if your academic performance has been noteworthy, being denied tenure, in effect, fired by your peers is the ultimate rejection of the person. Uniquely, in academia the fired professor stays on for a "terminal" year, attending faculty meetings with the same people that have struck these final blows. If there are appeal processes going on as was true in my, like Bishop's case, relationships are extremely adversarial.

Another fact about the tenure process is that it comes after five years of apparently successful reviews of one's work. Personal investment in the job and friendships that have developed, therefore, are quite strong. Also consider the fact that academics are usually highly specialized and only qualified for university teaching and research. Because of the stigma of being terminated from an academic job, faculty who do not anticipate receiving tenure typically leave after several years. At this time, they can still get good references and leave without hard feelings. Those who expect to get tenure as I did must endure a grueling process that includes submitting lengthy documents including student evaluations, proof of university service, and research accomplishments. Then behind closed doors, one's tenured colleagues, who often have less qualifications themselves as they were tenured when standards were lower, decide whether or not to accept the candidate to membership.

Although a pacifist, when I heard the news of the shootings, I instinctively grasped the pain that had driven this apparently violence-prone woman to take her revenge. I could imagine how she felt sitting in meetings as her colleagues drew up plans for future teaching assignments. A recent interview with one of the victims confirms that the discussion leading up to the shootings indeed concerned departmental plans for the next year. I can well identify with the rage and sense of rejection that would consume someone whose future was so methodically taken away. In my case, I took my anger out by doing everything I was advised not to do: filing formal complaints, organizing students, and going to the press. Finally, when every avenue was closed, I returned to graduate school and started over in a related discipline.

Given the strong emotions related to tenure denial, one question is why does it lead to homicide so rarely? (I do know of several cases of assault.) Perhaps the reason workplace shootings among faculty are so rare is because academic faculty tend to be well controlled, introverted, and disciplined people. More impulsive types would have been weeded out in the lengthy educational process involved in obtaining a Ph.D. Additionally, the need to obtain excellent student evaluations eliminates many others with personality problems along the way. The only case I could locate of murder over a tenure dispute occurred in 1992 when a male faculty member at Concordia University in Montreal killed four of his colleagues over a tenure dispute. Other somewhat similar situations involved graduate students with academic difficulties who killed their professors.

There is every likelihood that Amy Bishop, if found guilty of these horrific crimes, will face the possibility of the death penalty. She may even be sufficiently suicidal to want to be executed. My hope is that those who decide her fate will take into account the circumstances and try to understand what made her crack.

Evidence exist that Amy Bishop Amy Bishop was academic fraud

Hello and thank you for your well thought out article. However, I wonder if your opinion would change if you knew that Amy Bishop was more of an academic fraud than a brilliant scientist?

Link to an article by an attorney that shows Amy Bishop was an academic fraud

I believe this well researched article (not by me!) that present pervasive evidence UAH was on solid ground when Bishop was denied tenure.

I may be out of the loop as to current publication practices but the fact that the woman listed a fictional lab and offered her underage children as co-writers is suspicious.

why I think Bishop's work was geinuine

Here is what I read in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

The alleged assailant, a Harvard-trained neurobiologist, had achieved a more-than-respectable record of grants and scholarly publication, including several papers in leading peer-reviewed journals within her field, three of which were published or accepted in 2009. In recent years, she had distinguished herself as one of the inventors of InQ, an incubator for human cell growth. Her teaching, though not stellar, was more than acceptable, at least based on available student evaluations.

I just read the article critically evaluating her work and it does appear she sort of inflated her work. But the fact that she appeared to have worked hard and thought she deserved tenure is what counts--her sense of having been treated unfairly. I think it was her personality that was the reason for the denial.

OMG - It just keeps coming, doesn"t it?

In Massachusetts, where I live and which was Amy Bishop's home for most of her life, all sorts of people are coming forward with stories of run-ins with Bishop which indicate serious problems and also, the lack of prosecution of real attacks on others, included an attempted carjacking following the shooting of her brother. Why was she a strong suspect in a pipe bomb case that was never solved? Why was she not prosecuted for hitting another mother in a diner over the woman's prior taking of booster seat for one of her toddlers? Bishop also called the police to stop an ice cream truck for coming to the neighborhood because her own children were, she said, lactose intolerant. The entitlement is fantastic, bizarre. Her parents seem to be rich and influential in the community. Lucky for them she didn't do a Lizzie Borden on them, but given sufficient motivation (not the usual threshold for most of us), she might have done such a thing. Her personality is her best contribution to science. Let us dissect away!

I think that blog post you've

I think that blog post you've linked to is very confused. Bishop's not a fraud, academically. The poster might be an attorney, but knows nothing about academic publishing.

Do your underage children write your research papers?

The elephant in the living room that everyone is avoiding is the evidence that Amy Bishop was not qualified for tenure.

Is it common place in academia for people on the tenure track to create fictional labs and claim that their underage children are "employees" and "co-authors" of vanity press published papers?

If that is how the system works and you all are just delighted to accept Bishop's level of incompetence so that you can turn this murderous and violent woman into some kind of martyr, so be it.

Let the record so speak.

I agree. That attorney did a

I agree. That attorney did a wonderful job of uncovering interesting evidence, but she doesn't understand the publication process in science. She noticed that one of Bishop's papers was in vanity-press-type, online-only journal, which is a valid point. However, two other 2009 papers by Bishop were published in a legitimate journal. But because the lawyer found out that this legit journal also has an online presence, she was quick to conlcude that it was also worthless.

The attorney is relatively open-minded and made corrections in her blog based on readers' feedback, but only up to a point. For a long time she insisted that the three papers above were published in a junk journal, and were therefore, evidence of fraud. That's not fraud! Bishop's peers can tell what journal is decent and what journal isn't. You'd think an attorney would know what 'fraud' is...

The attorney then went on to find a conference presentation by Bishop on NO (nitric oxide) as a weapon. When a scientist pointed out to her that the presentation's title was probably meant tongue-in-cheek, she responded very aggressively. A Bishop-type kind of reaction, so to speak.

Not a fraud at all. The

Not a fraud at all. The attorney knows nothing about academic publishing. Bishop is crazy, but the attorney is an academic idiot.

I will not go that far that

I will not go that far that she was an academic fraud, but my impressions are that she could not do her work and publishing without her husband and supprot of certain academic circles outside this university. Therefore she was not a scientist capable of independent work and this university practically did not need her.
If she published with people outside the department and her group and PhD students, then why did not she work with those people with whom she publsihed?

Re: Evidence exist that Amy Bishop Amy Bishop was academic fraud

The lawyer you cite is a very strange one !

I cite here word for word her own statement:

"I have zero neurobiology or scientific expertise and I can add to that I have zero psychiatry/psychology expertise."

you may wish to check it here:

Moreover, she doesn't seem to be worrying about finding the professional consultant to correctly investigate the case.

My criticism has been estimated by her as a personal attack ...

Rubbish. Poppycock. She was a

Rubbish. Poppycock. She was a brilliant scientist, Nobel Prize material who as denied tenure by a band of mobbing academics who probably contributed to their own demise, like those at Columbine. You push people too far and they break. Anyone with a brain and a sense of compassion and empathy knows that. Those in Amy's department who did, paid for their Mistakes, as many others do. By the way, the decision to reverse the Mistake in Denying Amy Bishop was not overturned by the University President. I have known other Brilliant Scientists who have had TERRIBLE Tenure committees make terrible Tenure denials, which WERE OVERTURNED after the candidate did what Amy did, appeal and the University President OVERTURNED the WRONGFUL tenure denial. By the way the then tenured Professor, applied to a much higher ranked university, one of top 100 in the World, higher than any university in the state of Alabama, and is now Chairman of the Department at that University and also of Nobel Prize quality, like Amy Bishop. That is why the USA will probably not put Amy Bishop to death. But if they do, then they will join the former Soviet Union in also putting Nobel Prize scientists to death, Hellman, from the Hellman-Feymann theorem in Quantum Mechanics. Hellman's wife was a Jew, so she and her husband fled to Russia to escape the Nazis, only to be accused of being spies by the Russian Communist scientist in Russia, who were well below Hellman in scientific achievements and intellect. They had Hellman tried as a spy and he was executed. Amy was not being executed by here academic colleagues, but she was having her career destroyed by them. Amy's actions prevented anyone else from being so treated by the academic mafia, which exits at many small low rated universities like UAH, UAB, UA, ... Sad but true. Like mobbing stopping in high schools after Columbine, hopefully academic mobbing will stop with the Amy Bishop affair. And hopefully University Presidents will solicit independent international evaluations on disputed tenure decisions, and not leave such decisions to be decided by local academics who have achieved much less, are less internationally renowned and are intellectually, socially, morally and ethically challenged, like those in Russia who had Hellman killed/murdered on their trumped up charges. Academics are as nasty as the Nazis in many cases, and some need to be cleaned up. Whether those who Amy took out were bad or good, will hopefully come out at her trial and subsequent appeals. The Truth sets the world free. But many do not want to the Truth, the Full Truth and Nothing but the Truth from coming out. Would be nice to see the complete CV and academic records and student and international evaluations of not only Amy, but all of those on the tenured committee who voted and how they voted, either for her or against her. Like Bush says, either or against. So did she only take out those who were against her, and for their own gain, and personal reasons. Or were they justified. Show the whole world the complete academics records and the notes taken during the tenure meetings and the subsequent international evaluation from Nobel Prize Laureates, and not the local mafia.

Tenure the end of a life? C'mon. Professors are lame.

No person who has been a grad student and professor can possibly feel a sense of loss when they are denied tenure. There are numerous other ways to make as much money through more fun and more interesting methods. People "say" they only want to teach and work as a professor because that is required for the job interview, but hte realityis that many people would be happy doing other jobs. They would work less for more money. Tenure is only important because Daddy tells you it's important, but if you don't take Dadday's ideas nat face value then it's not important.

I'm sorry you feel that way

Speaking as a university professor, I feel a deep sense of joy and satisfaction in helping my students learn. I truly love to watch a student who started class with little/no knowledge of the subject (and no idea how to start learning it) develop into a knowledgeable, skilled individual in just 15 weeks. Knowing that I helped them learn, and especially knowing that I gave them the tools to be able to *continue* learning after the semester, is the most delightful feeling in the world.

I have spoken with senior faculty members in my department and other departments around campus, and I've been told that feeling never goes away.

Denying someone tenure is the end of that feeling. It *is* devastating.

End of that feeling?

At least half of the people I know who were denied tenure are still teaching. They simply moved to another institution and tried again. So, certainly, tenure denial doesn't have to be the end of the world. And if your love of teaching young people is so strong, you can always go to a smaller college, even community college or high school to teach.

I couldn't get a tenure-track position, so I got jobs in other research-type institutions. Now I'm in a corporation, but I still have opportunities to teach ("training" it is called), publish, speak at scientific conferences, etc. Denial of tenure at one school doesn't have to be, in fact is not, the end of your teacher career.

Glad to hear that!

I've just begun my teaching career, so I'm still learning about what the future holds as part of the P&T process. I'm glad to hear that tenure is not an all-or-nothing process overall. It would be a shame and disappointment to put in years of effort at a school only to be passed over for tenure. The article seemed to indicate that not getting tenure was The End, Game Over for profs. I'm glad to hear that's not necessarily the case! It certainly reduces my anxiety about the future and lets me concentrate my attentional resources on teaching!

It really is the end of the world

As someone who was denied tenure at a major university, and who can't get another academic job because of the stigma, I want to emphasize that it truly is the end of the world. Your comment is deeply offensive and hurtful.

finding a way out

Dear Vladmir,
I don't know what your degree is in but if it's in the social and behavioral sciences you might consider doing what I did and getting an MSW and then becoming a social worker and then teaching social work. This is one field that still has job openings. Tenure is much harder to get at a major university, a fact that would be taken into account.

Vladimir's most recent comment

Dear Vladimir,

... and if you are in the natural/engineering sciences, then try to look around and find something in the industry. The crisis is still there but the job market is slowly resurrecting. Do not be concentrated on the USA - try it in Europe/Japan/South Korea/Singapore.

If you are physicist/chemist/biologist - just click on my nick to get to my ELSEVIER site, then write me an E-mail - we may discuss everything in more detail.

Respectfully yours,

Different interpretation...

I interpret this another way. She is a privileged white woman from a wealthy family who got away with killing her brother. Her race and gender no doubt helped her escape punishment for trying to harm the Harvard professor she sent a bomb to. She lost her tenure appeal ON REVIEW and couldn't accept it. After a lifetime of entitlement and having her way, hearing 'no' was probably too much for her and she acted in the murderous way she did, killing three innocent people of color.

You'll see her white / female privilege save her from the death penalty as well.


Agree - if this were a white male or black male, he would probably get the death penalty. More questionable if he were a male with children. But a female with 4 children is not going to get the death penalty...for the sake of the children...

The children are between 10

The children are between 10 and 18. She will not be able to take care of them soon while in prison.
And what if she got mad at her children? Would she have shot them as well?
Seems interesting to know more about her children - their behavior and performance in the past.

She's hardly wealthy--her

She's hardly wealthy--her father (who sounds like a depressive himself) was a prof. at Northeastern. Don't believe everything you read in a blog post.

Agree completely with Dr. van

Agree completely with Dr. van Wormer. As a female faculty going up for tenure, and a mother of three, all I hope is that the process of tenure will be modified in the short term. One of my major challenges when I lecture and in my mentoring role is to successfully encourage young female students to pursue a career in academia. It has become clearly obvious to their eyes that the system makes it almost impossible to succeed if one has to juggle family life and competitive science. Being Wonder Woman is something that my parents expected of me, and probably of Dr. Bishop too. I naively believed that it was possible.

Amy Bishop is one of many

Amy Bishop is one of many people who react to real or perceived unfairness by shooting other people

Life isn't fair. Life is hard. Sometimes you face challenges and disappointments. Sometimes people even lose jobs and careers. It's stupid to call that "trauma."

The word trauma is overused. People need to grow up.


Trauma is what the victims of violence feel. The perp can be traumatized, sure, by getting caught and having to explain the trail of destruction that led to capture. Her dissociation at the arrest proves she does not intend to experience the real pain which true insight would force her to feel. She is mentally drugging herself with delusions so as to evade the reality that on balance, her life has been a negative to the world.

RE: Amy Bishop is one of many

Not everybody reacts to unfairness with killing others.

Any killing cannot be ever justified !

But this tragic - and at the same time ugly - story has two definite traits, which must be clearly disentangled:

1. The unspeakable, horrible tragedy of those killed, their families and colleagues. Our thoughts and prayers are with them !

2. The deficiency, inconsistency of the modern academic system, which is essentially built upon "research grants", "tenures", "tenure-tracks", "quota hires" etc.

Those who were never involved into this devastating system may not readily understand what happens in the soul of a scientist - it is not bad, it is quite natural.

What is, however, important - we, the scientists, greatly appreciate your, non-colleagues', good will: your trying to properly understand us !

I'm theoretical biophysicist with 27 years of professional experience and have recently VOLUNTARILY left the official academia, am working in industry and enjoying my research as a nice hobby.

Just before the horrible tragedy at UAH took place, I had posted a blog, where I am trying to analyze the dreadful polarization between the True Scientists, who are fully involved into the very research - and the "academic schmuck", who are busy solely with gaining their own social success at any price ...

Here is the URL address of my blog:

Finally, I would like to cite word for word a very apt, timely and insightful comment by Victor Vyssotsky:

"As a retired director of research and development in large high-tech corporations, I see the issue not as the collegiality or lack thereof of any particular professional, but rather as the question of what the administration or management does to minimize and correct disruption due to personality differences and clashes. I spent a large fraction of my time for 29 years dealing with the personnel issues that arise with "difficult people", which some of the best scientists are. In rare cases, someone's behavior was so antisocial that I had to remove the person from my payroll. But in the great majority of cases of "difficult people", even including a few who were suffering from clinical psychiatric disorders, as well as a number of people suffering from various addictions, I found that thoughtful counseling of that person and others, sometimes by me and sometimes by psychologists and/or medical professionals, reduced conflict to negligible levels and kept the person productive. It is my belief that most administrators and managers of scientists, in academia, in industry, and in government, do not exercise the skill to do this properly. Doing it requires recognition that scientists, like everyone else, are human beings with flaws, and that to get the best contribution from them requires attention not only to their work and work products, but to their strengths and weaknesses as human beings. In the extreme, I did deal with people who were angry enough to portend violence, including a specific threat to shoot me. In only one of those cases did I find it necessary to remove someone from the payroll; in the others I worked with the individuals to address the causes of their anger, and kept them as productive employees. The Amy Bishop case seems to me a failure on the part of those who should have acted either to help Bishop or to get her off the premises immediately."

This and many other interesting comments from the scientists you may wish to find here:

Therefore, a significant part of the guilt remains on the UAH administration ! The careful police investigation must determine the exact portion of their guilt.

If you wish to learn who Amy Bishop was in reality, please check the comments by user ZOREAN - she knows Amy Bishop and her family personally - since many years ! Just go here:

To my mind, there must be an open, public discussion about the state of affairs in the modern academy - we must try to prevent the possible avalanche of similar tragedies all over the world !!!

Tenure track is a very

Tenure track is a very stressful proposition, as is indeed a PhD track at any decent university. People who choose to follow that path better be aware of the difficult road ahead.

The problem is that some of the people who choose the academic path are, well, fragile emotionally (and that is putting it mildly).

Should Amy Bishop be executed? Maybe not. I think she is insane and should be put away for life.

But what if if the jury of her peers decides that she should get the needle?

I am pretty OK with that, too. I don't care either way as long as she is neutralized.

Amy Bishop

I am glad Dr. van Wormer shared her own experiences and feelings so candidly. Designed to protect academic freedom, tenure also allows established academics to control who gets into the club. Interesting point about how the humiliated and rejected professor is supposed to hang around for a year, attending meetings and working with those who rejected him/her. In most workplaces, it is standard practice to get a fired employee off the premises immediately because of the inherent danger of keeping a disgruntled employee around. The good news, Dr. van Wormer, is that there is a whole world out there beyond academia, full of opportunities, many more satisfying. It is hard to recognize at first when so much of your life has been spent with one goal in mind. Joyce Carol Oates believes she would never have become a successful author had she not been denied tenure at the University of Wisconsin. Only part of this piece I can't agree with is the idea of considering all of trauma surrounding tenure as a mitigating factor for mass murder. If we all responded to injustice by shooting, no one would be left standing.

mitigating factor

In no way would I consider her slaughter of fellow faculty members a mitigating factor in their murder. But when it comes to the death penalty, that is different. And we need to understand the psychology here in order to prevent such things happening in the future.

She has used to get away, one

She has used to get away, one thing.
She needs to have it her way, second thing.
She needs to know that she is the best.
There is no guarantee she would not do it in future.

And for her mom, had she been more honest with her daughter and herslef, this could be prevented. But some people from a specific group need to be always protected, go unpunished, be superior.
Her parents could advise her to go councelling, talking, overcoming any ego problems, learning to be just ordinary person, not a genius. Sometimes being ordinary and human is more difficult.
But how could she talk to someone about her brother's murder?

Amy Bishop

Can we have some sanity on this topic, please? I am married to a woman who has been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. She hasn't shot me yet but she has done all matter of crazy violence with no end in sight. Meds are helping her curb the violence, but not the underlying problem. To her, feelings equal reality. And the normal boundary lines of acceptable behavior just don't apply when she is on a BPD rage. Her memory of each event is vague. When Amy Bishop said when being pushed into the police car that those people were all alive, I thought "geez, that sure looks like dissociation." I've come to know it well. There are tons of similarities I am seeing to BPD. I'm a corporate attorney, so I can't diagnose that awful woman with a personality disorder. But, hey, why can't you all from the professional world comment on that?

In my professional career, I've had successes and disappointmens. The failures were always where I learned the most. That is how normal people respond to disappointment. They cry, grieve, then get back up and take another swing at the next pitch. It has never occurred to me that I should go shoot a room full of people when I was treated far worse than this woman was treated by the university.

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Katherine van Wormer, M.S.S.W., Ph.D., is the author or co-author of 14 books on various aspects of human behavior.


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