Katherine S. van Wormer M.S.S.W., Ph.D.

Crimes of Violence

Amy Bishop and the Trauma of Tenure Denial

The tenure process can be toxic: The Amy Bishop Shootings

Posted Feb 16, 2010

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.

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.