THERE BUT FOR THE GRACE OF GOD…

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.

25 thoughts on “THERE BUT FOR THE GRACE OF GOD…”

  • Thank you for writing this. I see many parallels between this and my world where one's life hinges on first passing the Bar Exam (no small feat in and of itself) then putting in years of back-breaking work at a firm only to be then told, "sorry, you're not going to make partner." Too many careers take away your prime wage-earning years with no support network available, and people should talk about it.

  • Couple of things:

    1) At my Gigantic State School, a popular and excellent professor was about to be denied tenure. The reasons weren't clear, something like "well, not everyone should get it!" or perhaps some personal grudge somewhere up the chain of command. And by any measure, this professor is a fantastic colleague, teacher, author, pedagogue, and person easily deserving of tenure.

    So we staged an uprising. I don't know about the faculty, but we students (largely but by no means exclusively graduate students) wrote a letter to the relevant parties (deans &c) expressing our surprise and dismay. (Fortunately I was not asked to draft the document, as I am unable to suppress my love of fucking emphatic profanity,)

    MUCH to my surprise: it worked! The decision was reviewed and overturned. The system worked! Who knew?

    2) Q: Does this mean I should re-evaluate my choice of career path as Fine Arts Academic?

    A: Yes, but too fucking late. I'll soon be under-employable!

  • Hmm. So I guess I should have ratcheted up the crazy, rather than just leave my grad program because it wasn't for me. I could've gotten the prophylactic Master's.

  • These are wise guidelines to improve the HR environment for a denial. I wonder, though, whether academia is rare or unique in having a long buildup with a "jackpot" payoff…

    [I also note that, in the two fields I studied—Engineering & Business—professors tended to be people who enjoyed learning nuances, and who wanted to make boatloads of money on outside consulting gigs in which they rarely had to *implement*. I do not say this as a criticism—such a job (no implementation) would be unpleasant for me. But for those interested folks, it was lucrative. Perhaps the key was that we were applied subjects?]

    Also, a the start of the article, I had planned to begin my reply with "Hey Ed, where you goin' with that gun in your hand" and apologize for anything you though I did to slight you. But by the end, that comment made no sense. Still it seems a shame for me to give up on the comment. Maybe there's a parallel here.

  • Yeah R. Silver, this is nothing at all like passing a bar exam. A bar exam is only required to practice law in a court – you can still sell your ability to give legal advice without it.

    Also, it's a bare minimum test – most half decent schools have a >90% -first time- pass rate. Far fewer people actually end up with tenure compared to how many would like it.

    As for not making partner – there's still money to be made in the law without it, you just don't get to take advantage of the profit sharing aspect of it. Hell, you can go out and start your own practice. Academics can't go out and start their own college.

  • When I came back to academia for graduate school, I was amazed at how fickle the process of hiring and getting tenure turned out to be. Having spent my adult life in the military to that point, I expected academia to be a lot more efficient at allowing the cream of a given crop to rise up and be recognized, but that has turned out to not be the case at all. I've seen horrible instructors and advisors be given tenure, primarily due to their ability to piggyback onto the grants and publications of others. I've also seen talented researchers and instructors pushed out of positions at teaching hospitals because they failed to bring in enough grant money over the course of a given period of time. Often in the biomedical sciences, the grant process, itself, is just as subjective and given that your job security relies on your ability to bring in funding, this mirrors the tenure process to a large degree. It's all soured me on the idea of staying in academia in any way other than as a post-doc. The thought of placing my future in the hands of short-sighted bureaucrats appalls me.

  • I see the bar exam parallels. True, one's career can continue after failing the bar OR after being denied tenure, but in both cases the returns are significantly diminished and the loss of esteem (self- and professional) is considerable.

    That said, you can take the bar over and over again. You get one big crack at tenure and that's it. You can move to a lesser institution and take one more shot, but that's it.

    In the end both fields are like our society as a whole. There's no measured progress or slow accumulation of the payoff – it's a chaotic, every-man-for-himself struggle followed by a Lotto jackpot at the end for a select few.

  • Grumpygradstudent says:

    Academia is flat out fucked up. The longer you're in it, the harder it is to leave. And the people running the show don't think anything's wrong, cause goddamnit, they made it through, so why can't you?

    What we really need is a hall of shame…some place where potential grad students can hear about everyone who didn't make it and what kinds of careers they had after they left academia. As it is now, all we hear about are the people who DID make it, which obscures the true probability of failure.

    How many college athletes scraped by academically, believing they would eventually make it to the big leagues, only to find out that they couldn't quite hack it and now had no prospects for a better career? Their universities were happy to fuel those dreams as long as the athletes were bringing in revenue. Same is true for ph.d. programs. Each grad student is several years worth of cheap labor, and they're happy to exploit your dreams and then turn you out into the cold.

    We need to do a better job imparting the following message: for fuck's sake, do not by any means go into a ph.d. program unless it is absolutely essential for you to pursue the only career you could possibly see yourself doing.

  • Anonymous Faculty at UAHuntsville says:

    I teach at UAHuntsville, and I know Amy Bishop (as an acquaintance). The points you make about the tenure process are good ones, and since some facts are not in the news, I thought I'd provide them to give your readers some insight into which of your recommendations might have helped in Amy Bishop's case.

    Ad 1 – The meeting on 02.12.10 was not a tenure hearing. She was denied tenure last March and officially notified in late April/early May (as I vaguely recall). So far as I know, we do not know what the biology faculty were discussing when the shooting occurred–I am not aware of anyone present at the meeting giving out any information.

    Ad 2 – A colleague of mine was reported in the Decatur Daily to say that "personality issues" were a factor in the biology department's tenure decision for Amy Bishop. So far as I know, that colleague was not present during tenure deliberations, nor was he close friends with anyone in the biology department. (His department is on the other side of campus.) My colleague knew Amy Bishop primarily through their both being on the Faculty Senate, and it is likely that his information about the personality issues is second-hand from Amy Bishop herself, rather than from anyone actually involved in her tenure decision.

    Ad 3 – In any case, the tenure review process at UAHuntsville is this: every year, each tenure-track faculty submits a dossier, detailing their accomplishments, goals, etc. This binder is reviewed by the faculty member's department, chair, and dean. Each of these groups then writes a letter, explaining their current attitude toward the tenure candidate's progress, acknowledging accomplishments, and giving advice about areas of improvement. Upon receipt of this letter, there is a mandatory meeting between the candidate and their chair, for discussing and explaining each letter's content.

    Ad 4 – I do not know about the biology department, but my department is quite friendly toward people seeking to obtain a job at a different university, with the chair and dean offering to write letters of support.

    Ad 5 – UAHuntsville provides free, on-campus counseling services for students, faculty, and staff. Counseling is not required, however.

    I intend this only to shed some light on causes, and I'm posting it here because I enjoy reading your blog. I am not mentioning my department or actual name, to prevent unwanted backlash from media outlets or university administrators (not that it is likely, but one cannot be too careful).

  • Small college science prof says:

    Ed, you write, "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."

    You should know that a big-school assistant prof who's been denied tenure is unlikely to get picked up by a smaller school, which is why no administrator would ever be able to have this conversation honestly. Folks at R1 universities seem to assume that big schools are better than small schools, and thus that rejected profs from this presumed top tier would easily be able to get jobs in lower tier schools. But faculty and administrators at small schools, unsurprisingly, don't share that set of assumptions.

    Faculty and administration at small colleges believe that small colleges require a radically different (but not lesser) skill set than do big universities. For instance, in the sciences, small college folks are unimpressed with an applicant's previously-funded grants, because those grants (a) imply that the applicant's primary interest is in research, not teaching; and (b) would not be continued at a small college, anyway, as small colleges do not offer the infrastructure that the NIH or NSF requires of their grantees. However, applying for and obtaining such grants is essential for science faculty at big universities. So exactly the kinds of things that one would do to succeed at a big state university would make one less attractive as a job candidate at a small liberal arts college.

    Small colleges also are looking for effective teachers to a small number of students per class, but with many separate classes taught in a single semester. This, again, is a very different skill set than being an effective lecturer to a single very large class each semester, the more common experience for assistant professors in the sciences at a big state university.

    The point being, folks denied tenure at big state schools don't have some magical small college cushion to fall back on. This is especially true if ex-big school profs enter into the small college job pool believing their own hype that R1 universities are the big leagues, and that the farm league world of the small liberal arts college would be lucky to have them. If tenure rejectees from big universities are to have any hope of picking up a tenure-track gig at a small college, they have to learn to see small colleges as small colleges see themselves–and not as they're looked down upon by those at big state schools.

  • Junior faculty member says:

    Great post Ed. I saw this in the news Saturday morning and I am glad you picked it up, I was particularly shocked by the news as I had been offered a position at UAH in a different department, I can't even imagine what that first day back to class will be like for a prof in any department.
    I will only add a few points, in pursuit of tenure, many sacrifice not just other forms of career success but personal fulfillment as well. This is particularly true of women in the hard sciences. You are expected to be fully committed to succeeding academically during 5 years of grad school, followed by 2-4 years of a post doc, then 6 years getting tenure. Taking time for your personal life and family is often regarded as a dangerous and a risky distraction. This means that by the time a woman has actually achieved tenure (or not) and earned the right for balance in her life, she may have missed her own biological shot at fertility.
    This isn't just an issue for women and the situation is improving, more institutions are willing to "stop the tenure clock" for men and women that choose to have a family along the way, but men do have a much larger window of opportunity on that front.
    Second, I had the opportunity this year to sit on the P&T committees at my institution on a couple of different levels. As someone who will face this process myself in a few short years, I found the experience to be tremendously useful. The process was much more thoughtful, transparent, and rational than I had expected. The decisions were pretty clear cut and everyone on the committees worked to be objective and consistent. It gave me greater faith in the process at my institution and also gave me a much greater sense of confidence by clearly marking the hurdle I need to cross rather than just telling me to jump as high as I can and hope I make it. I understand that not everyone would have this opportunity, but if junior faculty members do, I would certainly recommend they take it.

  • Ed, you skipped one of the dirty little secrets of any academic department: the so-called "tenure track" assistant professor slot that's actually a revolving door. Bring someone in at the lowest point on the pay scale, use him or her for 3 years, give them the hearty handshake and bad news, watch that person leave, repeat as necessary as a budget control measure.

  • Glad to see a reasoned treatment of this tragedy. I'm not quite sure why, but the wingnuts are all over this event as proof of – I haven't the slightest idea what.

    IMO the bar exam analogy is misguided. Passage of a bar exam is a condition precedent to the ability to practice law (not just appear in court, btw). Where the academia / law analogy does succeed is in regard to the similarity between becoming a "tenured professor" and being made "partner."

    In writing that last sentence it just occurred to me that in common parlance, one doesn't earn a partnership, they are rather "made" partner. This speaks directly to why I turned my back on big firm practice after only three miserable years (but didn't kill anyone in the process). I graduated top ten in my law school class, passed three bar exams, before earning a spot in an old, respected large regional firm. By the end of my first year of practice (and 90 hour weeks) my partner told me that I would be expected to bring in so much business in order to remain on "partnership track." I stuck it out for another two years before calling it quits over billing issues: I was regularly told to bill certain clients (who could pay) for work done for other clients (who didn't always pony up on time). My options? Blow the whistle on my partner or walk away. I walked.

    I now perform legal research for a news org for about a tenth of what I'd be pulling down at the firm. Guess it beats teaching, though!!

  • Forgive me for not reading the entire post. It is likely I know what's there, having retired in 08 after many years in the trenches at Lawrence Technological University. Because the subject is a worthy one, and because those outside academe are often ill-informed, I'm sorry you didn't make your post into a series, so it would be more manageable for readers.

    Regarding tenure: academic freedom–protection against dismissal without cause–is the most widely offered explanation. But this often fails to convince skeptics, especially those of a conservative bent or with a business orientation. The other, equally important reason that tenure is a feature in education and not elsewhere is that it provides a way for universities to compete. Those who aren't part of academe need to know what chemists with PhDs at Dow and Merck earn, what a physicist with a doctorate earns at Toyota, what the average law partner makes, what people in public relations and advertising make compared to the salaries of their counterparts with equivalent credentials in the academic world. Being informed of this simple economic reality usually silences or at least slows down critics.
    Barry Knister

  • Shane, I started to talk about the whole deferred child-rearing thing, but this was long enough as it is. Suffice it to say the pursuit of tenure leads some people to forgo children and later they look back on that with no small measure of regret or bitterness.

  • I used to think that I wanted to pursue a career in academia (in the "ivory tower" sense of the word). Several of the professors under whom I studied (and whom I admired greatly) spent quite a lot of energy dissuading me from that track. I was advised not to pursue a Ph.D. ("it'll pigeon-hole you and you'll find more doors closing than opening") and was told that I would be much happier (and healthier – and more employable) if I stayed in secondary schools and community colleges. I managed to get a gig at our local state university teaching freshman-level English, but that's the extent of my foray into the world of academia.

    I think my professors were right.

  • I did this because I don't think I could have been happy in any other (realistic) line of work. But absent that, pursuing the PhD would not be a smart career choice. It simply doesn't open many doors in the non-academic job market.

    For political scientists who study a topic of interest to the government or military (terrorism, Iran, etc) there is some work outside of academia. Ditto the high-level statistics wizards. For everyone else, though, the 6-8 years spent getting a PhD are not going to produce a great return on the market.

  • Grumpygradstudent says:

    The feds hire a fair number of ph.d.'s from the social sciences for policy analysis positions. Ph.d.s generally starts out at GS-11 (one notch higher than the starting salary for people with a master's). Same is true for consulting firms (Apt Associates, Mathematica, etc). That's my backup plan, anyway.

  • I was about to make the same point that Ben — and The Chronicle — just made. I am the living product of a cynical mindset whereby managers of grad programs in humanities have been taking in way more students than the market could accommodate realistically, and now there's a glut of us under-employed pantalons fancies on a saturated market.

    I would hold them responsible, but they have no shame, despite their pretensions of superiority.

  • Georgette Orwell says:

    Her brother's death was ruled accidental, a ruling that is being reviewed. It doesn't seem intellectually honest to baldly state that it was a murder covered up thanks to family influence, even if it might look that way to the casual observer. Smacks of billboards asking "Where's the death certificate?"

  • The point being, folks denied tenure at big state schools don't have some magical small college cushion to fall back on. This is especially true if ex-big school profs enter into the small college job pool believing their own hype that R1 universities are the big leagues, and that the farm league world of the small liberal arts college would be lucky to have them. If tenure rejectees from big universities are to have any hope of picking up a tenure-track gig at a small college, they have to learn to see small colleges as small colleges see themselves–and not as they're looked down upon by those at big state schools.

    This is true. What you are missing, however, is that those who are denied tenure at good research universities can almost always get tenure-track or tenured positions at lesser quality research universities. Bishop's problem was that UAH is pretty much bottom of the barrel to begin with.

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