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Definitely don’t want to be glib about or otherwise make light of a terrible story, but there’s probably not a junior academic out there who didn’t drop an underbreath No shit… or some variant upon hearing about the murders at Alabama-Huntsville.

The shootings opened a window into the pressure-cooker world of biotechnology start-ups, where scientists often depend on their association with academia for a leg up. Ms. Bishop was part of a start-up that had won an early round of financing in a highly competitive environment, but people who knew her said she had learned shortly before the shooting that she had been denied tenure at the university.

On Friday, Ms. Bishop presided over her regular neuroscience class before going to a biology faculty meeting, where she sat quietly for about 30 or 40 minutes, said one University of Alabama faculty member who had spoken to people who were in the room. Then she pulled out a gun and began shooting, firing several rounds before her gun either jammed or ran out of bullets, the faculty member said.


Mr. Garner said Ms. Bishop was first been told last spring that she had been denied tenure. Generally, the university does not allow professors to stay on after six years if they have not been granted tenure, and this would have been the final semester of Ms. Bishop’s sixth year.

The university does have an appeals process, and people who knew Ms. Bishop said she had appealed the decision.

Ms. Bishop was quick to talk about her tenure worries, even to people she had just met. A businessman who met her at a technology open house in January, and who asked not to be named because of the close-knit nature of the science community in Huntsville, said, “She began to talk about her problems getting tenure in a very forceful and animated way, saying it was unfair.”

Believe me, I know it sucks to complain about the business when I’ve got (for now anyway) a really good job at a really good place, but the truth of the matter is that the stress only gets worse the further along you make it. Any line of work that can leave a 42-year old Harvard PhD basically completely out of the game after a six years of apparently solid teaching is bound to make people go mad. It’s clearly getting worse on the tenure front, as university administrations cynically use the “tenure hurdle” to keep costs down.

If only this story would make university administrations take pause to consider their policies on promotion. What they’ll do instead, I’m sure, is dump a ton of cash into the coffers of “career transition” consultants and campus security forces.

Written by adswithoutproducts

February 13, 2010 at 7:16 pm

Posted in academia

16 Responses

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  1. Odd way to angle it, Ads. Try as you may to source it in the administrative practices of universities, this is one trend that’s percolated upward, from working-class and blue-collar workers just as deeply disturbed by decisions concerning their livelihoods as anyone might be. A Harvard pedigree doesn’t make the screwing feel any worse, and, in either case, it’s an irrational response to stress and loss: you can’t really be concluding that if she had gotten tenure she never would have shot anyone.


    February 13, 2010 at 8:05 pm

    • I agree wholeheartedly that this has trickled upward from blue collar work into the formerly “aristocratic” domain of academia, and I certainly agree that getting fired has as hard an effect on, say, a specialized worker at an auto-parts plant in Ohio as a researcher in Alabama. I think the point to take away from the “tragic arc” of this story is a bit different than that… While we’re used to thinking of manufacturing jobs as precarious, the meritocratic myth that’s so important to our social organization is deeply troubled by stories like these. Americans accept that the poor and poorish can and will be put out of work – but when all reaches of society are in play, the basic social bargain, as untrue as it might have always been, is troubled.


      February 13, 2010 at 8:21 pm

      • This thought should be taken further: What kinds of violence, conscious or not, are opened up when all security is threatened by embedded, systemic obstructions. At this point, claims like “these kinds of people are crazy in the first place” become immaterial.


        February 13, 2010 at 8:54 pm

  2. glad to see a woman packing heat for a change!


    February 13, 2010 at 8:11 pm

  3. “…the meritocratic myth that’s so important to our social organization is deeply troubled by stories like these.”

    Agreed. But that’s been a myth in trouble for a long time now. I suspect that the real take-away is that “all reaches of society” are not in play; that there are but two — those to whom this can’t happen, and the huge majority to whom it can.

    As for extending the thought to consider the possibility (as I suspect Benoit intends) that this is a kind of political act…bullshit. Patent-holders seeking v-cap financing are neither disenfranchised nor disenchanted with the present order. They’re good old fashioned gamblers, as at home on the Fidele as they are in the industrial park. The woman is, or in the moment was, batshit.


    February 13, 2010 at 9:12 pm

    • I’m not exactly sure why people who want to just call her crazy think that’s mutually exclusive with highlighting the growing structural injustices that colluded in the act’s taking place. Notice that Ads’ is able to do both.


      February 14, 2010 at 12:12 am

  4. I’m quite surprised by the level of sympathy for this woman I’ve been reading in blogs and in the media (and I think any attempt to “understand” what she did equates to sympathy on some level). Even the NYT piece on this was followed by reader comments about the unfair tenure process, rather than focusing on the fact that this woman shot six people and killed three of them. From what I’ve read, she wasn’t necessarily a good teacher or a nice person. Given her (likely) persecution complex, paranoia and sense of entitlement as a Harvard grad, maybe that’s why she wasn’t popular in the department. Her murderous actions just confirm that she wasn’t the type of person you’d want to keep around.


    February 14, 2010 at 12:01 am

  5. Anglofille,

    I wouldn’t mind if everyone had the sense of entitlement to meaningful, lifelong work that Harvard grads have. Of course I’m not excusing the fact that she murdered people – it’s a thousand times easier for me to imagine myself in the place of her victims than playing out her side of the drama.

    But there’s this phrase that I keep distributing to students, this week apropos of Dickens’s Bleak House, other times for other things. It’s Franco Moretti from the fantastic essay on detective fiction in Signs Taken for Wonders: “Detective fiction […] exists expressly to dispel the doubt that guilt might be impersonal, and therefore collective and social.” It’s an intricately worded sentence, and I have a sense that “doubt” should be “suspicion,” but on the other hand, it’s not just detective fiction that does that, but culture as a whole and incessantly.


    February 14, 2010 at 3:36 am

    • I used to work at Harvard, so I have some “issues” with Harvard folks and their entitlement. [But that’s just me, I suppose.]

      Interesting quote from Moretti and thanks for sharing it. I’m sure you heard the news last night that Amy Bishop murdered her brother when she was a teenager (oh wait, it was an “accident”). I just think she’s the murdering type and I don’t feel the need to read anything else into her actions.


      February 14, 2010 at 2:27 pm

      • Anglofille,

        Again, no one is celebrating what she’s done. But the need to say repeatedly “there’s nothing at all to this than that she was crazy – absolutely nothing” is the sort of gesture that Moretti is talking about. Behavior is complicated – we all know that. But it is always informed, and quite deeply, by the social structures at play.

        Or to put it another way: you have a sense of what is at stake for me in making the claims that I am making. But what is at stake for you in holding off the possibility that this probably had something to do with the tenure denial? What does it do for you to think of actions occurring as the result of something like motiveless evil or simple unframed psychopathology?


        February 14, 2010 at 2:41 pm

  6. Jute,

    I don’t think anyone is arguing that this is a political act. I do think Benoit and I are holding open the thought that this is politically / economically symptomatic though, yes.


    February 14, 2010 at 3:39 am

  7. I don’t think Amy Bishop is crazy. I fully acknowledge that the tenure denial prompted her actions. She obviously planned this out, otherwise she wouldn’t have been carrying a gun with her to the meeting. She clearly aimed at the individuals she had a grudge against. So no, I don’t see her as a madwoman spraying bullets into a crowd of anonymous people, which sets her apart from other recent mass shootings (the Ft. Hood guy, etc.). She had a “reason” for doing what she did, but to me that makes no difference.

    While the social structures at play here may be oppressive, Amy Bishop is not the only person affected by these issues, yet she’s one of the few people who has committed mass murder as a result of it. She has killed before (her own brother, no less) so perhaps she is comfortable turning to violence.

    To portray Amy Bishop’s actions as symptomatic of a larger issue within academia or the workplace at large, you’d have to believe that Amy Bishop was deserving of tenure but was simply screwed over by the system. It would be very difficult to make that case. It’s quite possible that the people in her department could tell she was troubled and wanted to get rid of her. Maybe she didn’t deserve tenure? Maybe in this case, the system worked? I think it’s a leap to portray her as a victim, given what we know.


    February 14, 2010 at 6:27 pm

  8. I agree that it’s both politically and economically symptomatic. I disagree with the idea that something special inheres in the awarding of a Harvard PhD to someone that somehow makes her directing murderous rage at people — and, ok, by extension institutions — she believes have deprived her somehow “understandable,” even as a symptom. There’s an assumption of class privilege there that makes me a little uncomfortable. Should a “Harvard grad” have more of an expectation of lifelong employment than, say, a UAW worker in 1975? Harvard’s prestige is almost entirely a matter of the magical thinking that allows one to believe that “something” is going to rub off. Certainly if we’re talking of the actual inherent value of the education and training, then Ann Arbor grads and UC-Berkeley grads should have the same expectation. (Parenthetically, the rate of unemployment among my friends who attended Harvard, other Ivies, Seven Sisters, etc., is pretty much the same as that of my friends who attended lesser colleges.)

    With regard to her “craziness” and/or violent tendencies, I don’t know if the news that broke this weekend that she shot her brother to death in 1986 has altered anyone’s opinions in this regard…


    February 15, 2010 at 5:46 pm

  9. “I’m not exactly sure why people who want to just call her crazy think that’s mutually exclusive with highlighting the growing structural injustices that colluded in the act’s taking place. Notice that Ads’ is able to do both.”

    Yeah, it’s called “class-angling” it, although it’s worth noting (again) that those “growing” structural injustices have been pretty much enormous for a long time, for most people. If you want to implicate the tenure-granting process in the epidemic of murder-by-gunfire in the U.S., go ahead.


    February 15, 2010 at 6:55 pm

  10. I’ve never read such an unimportant post. The issue of tenure is purely self-serving, and you even know it, but did it anyway. It is purely tangential that ‘tenure’ is even involved. It could have been any other ‘inconvenience’, but you only wrote it up because it had to do with something you identify with personally–and that’s even very reached-for.

    “If only this story would make university administrations take pause to consider their policies on promotion.’

    Yeah, I agree that’s the essential issue. I think this story will make all the universities rethink their ‘policiec’. Roor causes, ho ho.

    ‘What they’ll do instead, I’m sure, is dump a ton of cash into the coffers of “career transition” consultants and campus security forces.’

    You’re not sure of anything, and they certainly won’t do either. ‘Campus security forces’ is just unbelievable. As if a singular sort of psycho could inspire any kind of police. This kind of person is so ‘specialized’ in psychosis that there is no such thing as developing even a small ‘communitry patrol group’ for them, much less anything ‘official’.

    You left out all the history of this murderer in order to talk about tenure. You claimed that you ‘would identify more with her victims’, but you were lying. You identify more with her.

    ray fuller

    February 15, 2010 at 11:34 pm

    • This is easily the most irresponsible post I have ever read here, and there have been many. Face it, as i asid before, you wouldn’t have even written it up if if hadn’t had to do with your own fears and worries about your career. That’s fine, but why can’t you ever be honest. And you never are. That’s the one thing that is consistent about you. You are trying to cover your own ass, but you are trying to do it by being ingratiating.

      ray fuller

      February 15, 2010 at 11:38 pm

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