Posted in Rants on February 15th, 2010 by Ed

The overwhelming majority of Americans don't understand academia. That's OK. There is little reason that anyone outside of it should. It's unfortunate that people like to assume they understand it whenever they feel like ranting about "the ivory tower" and those summabitchin' liberal professors with their fancy book learnin'. It's a basic misconception, for example, that tenure means someone cannot be fired. False. Tenure means that faculty can't be terminated without cause. In other words, their employment is no longer at-will. Tenured faculty can also be terminated if a department is disbanded (which happens more often than you'd think, and will probably happen a lot more with the sterling economy).

The academic world is buzzing over the Amy Bishop case at University of Alabama-Huntsville. If you managed to miss it, a faculty member denied tenure shot six colleagues. Three died. It has since come to light that she murdered her brother in 1986 and used her father's influence over the affairs of her small town to have it written up as "an accident." She was also the prime suspect in the 1993 mail bombing of a superior at Harvard with whom she quarreled. We may rightfully question what kind of background checks UAH purported to do on this person before hiring her, but to understand the whole picture of this tragedy I think it is important to understand a few things about academia.

This post gets lengthy, but the point is brief: the only shocking thing is that this doesn't happen more often.

By the time a career academic goes up for tenure, she is likely between 35 and 40. She has spent her entire professional life (and half of her life overall) feverishly pursuing the singular goal of getting tenure. In many fields this person in her late thirties has so fully committed to academia that she is unemployable outside of it, although this is not quite the case in Bishop's field (biology). She has given up the prime years of her career – years that could have been spent getting a professional degree or breaking into/establishing herself in a line of work – to make $11,000 per annum in grad school for six or eight years. My point is simply that being denied tenure is a crushing blow to an academic and easily as traumatic of a life event as divorce, bankruptcy, or the death of a loved one. Anyone denied tenure is going to be in a precarious emotional state. For an individual who has pre-existing issues with, well, being crazy it is easy to see how a tenure denial could push him or her over the edge.

We are not all ticking time bombs on the verge of going on Whitman-esque shooting rampages, but tenure denial is serious enough that some forethought by administrators should go into handling these situations. In my view some very simple changes could reduce the odds of this kind of tragedy to near zero.

1. No one should ever, ever be present at his own tenure hearing. At any level of the process. It just should not happen. Prepare your tenure file, submit it, and wait. No one should be permitted to attend the meetings, and in fact many departments forbid it. There is no good whatsoever that can come of having the untenured professor present when the decision is made.

2. Colleges need to be much more aggressive about eliminating the subjectivity in the tenuring process. Academics have been griping about this for a century, but it's true: one powerful enemy with a grudge can sink a tenure case. Kissinger once said the fights in academia are so vicious because the stakes are so small. Tenure isn't small, though. It's someone's career. And a bitter old faculty member smoldering over some imagined slight or sign of disrespect 10 years ago can, in some instances, effectively prevent someone from getting tenure. Standards for research productivity, grants, and teaching effectiveness should be clear and transparent, and denials for reasons outside of that ("collegiality", i.e. not being a complete asshole/psychopath) should be clearly documented from multiple sources. The situation has improved over the years but there remains too large of a subjective element in the tenure process. A lot of people come out of the process feeling like it was unfair; in some cases they are right.

3. The signaling process should make people who are unlikely to get tenure aware of that fact well in advance. This happens quite a bit. People who are in denial or simply not getting it might press on anyway, but department chairs and tenured faculty need to be persistent until the message is received: "You are not going to get tenure. It is in your interests to move on."

4. University administrators are usually a parade of the lame, the halt, and the ugly. Usually failed academics with enormous egos and no interpersonal skills. Well, someone in the administration must be responsible for telling tenure rejectees, "We want to help you find a good position at a smaller school where you can get tenure" and meaning it. Even if the rejectee is universally loathed, someone in this bureaucratic, back-stabbing world that has rejected him must extend the olive branch. Every effort must be made to downplay the message "You are not good enough" and emphasize "Look, it didn't work out here but you have options and we will support you."

5. University-provided psychiatric support should contact tenure candidates throughout the process to offer assistance. Do not rely on emotionally strained people to be proactive and seek help.

6. Most departments have one or two unreasonable, antisocial, violent, or delusional people. And we can all spot them from a mile away. We know who the potential spree killers are. My first year in graduate school, one of my fellow newbies was perhaps the most obviously disturbed person I've ever met outside of a courtroom or institution. A former cop (we could only assume that he was "asked to leave" that line of work) who dabbled in the world of private military contracting, my alarm was going off the first time I shook the guy's hand. After a predictably bad year in the program he emailed a rambling 120-page manifesto to the entire department listserv and quit. The chair of the department awarded him a master's degree, mostly, I suspect, to prevent him from coming back and shooting everyone. My point is that everyone in the department knew this guy was a little off (or worse). Fortunately my department chair was on top of the situation. But let's say the chair or the university was clueless. It would be my responsibility as a faculty member to contact the police on my own and demand that the situation be addressed. When institutions fail, individuals have to act. Pick up the phone. Start a letter-writing campaign to the local paper. Make the university recognize that you have a legitimate and documented reason to believe that a colleague poses a threat.

I'm not implying that tragedies like this can be eliminated; the bomber will always get through, after all. Someone who is a stone-cold lunatic can commit acts of violence despite the best preventive measures. That said, a better understanding of the stakes and potential flash points can reduce the odds significantly. Tenure denial is psychologically and professionally devastating. Combine that with the tendency of academics to be a little weird and antisocial to begin with and the recipe for disaster exists. Yet taking the basic, low-cost steps I've described here could make the process so much smoother. Like a death or divorce, tenure denial might feel like the end of the world to an academic, so every reasonable effort must be taken to emphasize that life, not to mention one's career, can go on. If UAH recognized that Amy Bishop was a problem – and certainly some of her colleagues must have come to that conclusion – it is in all of our interest, professionally and personally, to create a system that deals with such problems before they reach this point.