• August 28, 2015

Tenure and the Workplace Avenger

For millions of Americans, last Friday's mass shooting at the University of Alabama at Huntsville, in which three faculty members were killed and two others and one staff member were injured, has conjured up frightful memories of massacres at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University. And in its wake, concerns are being raised yet again about campus safety and emergency response.

Some people are speculating about whether the death toll from such an episode would be lessened were properly licensed students and faculty members permitted to carry concealed weapons on campuses. Others are questioning whether college officials were adequately prepared to respond swiftly and effectively to an active shooter situation.

There is, however, very little about the Huntsville killings that resembles the tragedies at Virginia Tech and elsewhere, except for the mere fact that the setting happened to be a college campus. Friday's armed assault during a late-afternoon faculty meeting was nothing like an active shooter episode, but was very much like workplace murder.

According to reports, Amy Bishop, an assistant professor of biology who was upset over a denial of tenure, showed up at the faculty conference armed with a 9-millimeter handgun. After sitting quietly in the meeting for a short period of time, she purportedly stood and started suddenly blasting away at her stunned colleagues—human targets who may have been implicated, at least in her mind, in her failed tenure bid.

If Bishop is indeed like other workplace avengers—generally middle-aged employees (and former employees) who consider failure as absolutely catastrophic—this would not have been a random act by someone who suddenly snapped and went berserk, but a methodical attempt to punish selectively those deemed to be responsible for an injustice. These cases typically involve a perpetrator who acts with cool and considered deliberation, who sees the final affront as a one-way ticket to nowhere, and chooses to execute those accountable for the intolerable and unfair outcome.

It clearly would be inappropriate for me to challenge the fairness of Bishop's tenure review. Her case may very well have been handled carefully, respectfully, and consistent with due process. And, of course, no matter if or how seriously the process was flawed, that would not justify violence.

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.

Professor Bishop, known on the campus as an outspoken critic of the university's administration, had learned last year of her failed tenure application. She subsequently appealed the decision but did not prevail. According to several people around the campus quoted in news reports, Bishop was quite bitter and vocal about her plight, as the end of her terminal contract year approached.

Unlike many Americans who may interpret employment-related failures as an indication of their own inadequacies, workplace avengers typically externalize blame. Their failures and disappointments, they believe, reflect nothing more than mistreatment by others who, perhaps undeservedly, hold unbridled power over their fate. Might Professor Bishop, as a noted scholar with an Ivy League pedigree, have questioned the legitimacy of the tenure process or those who were in the position to judge her record of achievement?

With reports of Bishop's quirky demeanor and social awkwardness, it would be all too easy to dismiss this violent episode as just some "nut" who couldn't handle the pressure of publish or perish. Indeed, that seems to be the prevailing view of the hundreds who have posted online comments in the days since the shooting. But to define this tragedy as just a case of psychopathology would discourage a closer look at contributing forces.

Rather than dismiss the killings as just another act of insanity or treating it as fodder for escalating the debate over concealed weapons on campuses or for justifying tighter security measures, let it serve as a vehicle for evaluating the antiquated tenure process of modern-day academe. I am not suggesting a referendum on the role and purpose of tenure but consideration of how the process could be enhanced to reduce the risk of violence and other less extreme but still undesirable responses to negative outcomes. That should include appropriate support systems and mentor programs during the uniquely awkward terminal contract year following tenure denial.

Exacerbating the problem, of course, is that with today's economic climate, in which academic budgets are shrinking and tenure lines evaporating, tenure denial—for good reason or bad—can indeed be catastrophic. For highly trained scholars of tenure-track misfortune, the alternative opportunities can be rather slim. As Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, told 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."

It is a dirty, not-so-secret truth that tenure review often involves personalities and politics neatly disguised as dispassionate assessment of scholarship—a process shrouded in secrecy and protected by confidentiality. On occasion, faculty reviewers, whose own tenure may have been awarded decades earlier under standards far less stringent, are positioned to make weighty judgments about colleagues, sometimes with limited appreciation for the potentially devastating ramifications. In the corporate world, by contrast, managers empowered to promote or terminate subordinates must at least put their names and reputations on the line.

In our cloistered academic settings, we tacitly assume that senior faculty members, after having survived the tenure grind, magically come to possess the necessary expertise and talent to carry out this awesome task with humanity and respect, not to mention fairness. Even if Professor Bishop's tenure case was processed fairly and appropriately, tragedies like Friday's shooting in Huntsville should encourage us to examine these assumptions.

James Alan Fox is a professor of criminology, law, and public policy at Northeastern University. His book Violence and Security on Campus: From Preschool Through College will be published by Praeger in April.


1. avalongod - February 14, 2010 at 11:48 pm

This essay is well-written and thoughtful, and Dr. Fox's expertise in these matters is well known. Yet I have concerns for this link drawn between this horrific act of workplace violence and the tenure process.

In one sense Dr. Fox's suggestions...that we make the tenure process more transparent, and include counseling and mentorship as part of the terminal year...are unassailable, excellent suggestions. My concern is the implication that we should enact these sensible changes, not because they are sensible, but because we are in fear of workplace violence.

With all due respect to Dr. Fox I don't believe that these policies would, if enacted at UAH, have changed this outcome. Individuals who commit these extreme acts of workplace violence (or school shootings for that matter) tend to be highly paranoid, angry and depressed. To "soften" the blow of tenure denial might help for some, but unlikely for these individuals.

At heart I find that this essay, while certainly well-intended, drifts toward the all-to-common desire to find an explanation for these kinds of events...and an "easy fix" for how to prevent them in the future. Had this been a 16-year-old male shooter we would point the finger at video games, but because it is a 45-year-old woman that easy boogeyman is unavailable...thus the finger points at tenure. This attempt at wild finger-pointing blinds us to the differences between shooters (obviously neither video games nor the tenure system cause these events)..and blinds us to their similarities as well...depressed, psychopathic, social failures. It seems difficult to admit that a small segment of our population is capable of great evil particular, as Dr. Fox notes, when they feel wronged.

So if we revise the tenure system, make it more transparent, include "soft fall" practices for the final year, I applaud these efforts. However, these should be enacted for the right reasons...because they are the right thing to do for all professors on the tenure-track system. Not because we are quivering in fear.

2. terryleap - February 15, 2010 at 12:05 am

Professor Fox makes a number of insightful comments about the tragedy at the University of Alabama-Huntsville. This case is similar to the one that occurred in November of 1991 at the University of Iowa, where a former graduate student--angry at being denied a post-doctorate award--shot and killed four physics faculty members and an administrator. He also seriously injured a student worker before taking his own life.

Should Dr. Amy Bishop's colleagues have realized she was a ticking time bomb? According to an Associated Press story, Dr. Bishop shot her brother in 1986, although it's likely that UA-Huntsville administrators knew nothing of this incident. She was also known to be a chronic malcontent who harbored ill will toward campus administrators. But faculty members who express a dislike for their administrators--and their numbers on many campuses are not small--don't resolve their disagreements through violence. And, most importantly, Dr. Bishop was understandably distraught because her hopes for tenure had just been dashed. Yet, were these signals strong enough to indicate that she might go off the deep end? I doubt it.

Could this tragedy have been prevented? Quite possibly. I say this because terminations in academe bear little resemblance to those in most other organizations.

In the often harsh corporate world, terminated employees are informed of their dismissal, offered a severance package (usually with strings attached), escorted immediately from the office by security personnel, and given a warning not to return. The firing is over in a matter of minutes.

In the supposedly kinder and gentler world of academe, faculty members not granted tenure are placed on a terminal contract. Before that happens, however, they are subjected to a multi-stage tenure process that takes months to complete. Faculty members usually know what decisions have been made at each stage. In short, they can "see the bad news coming." Once the decision is official, a faculty member who is denied tenure may remain on campus for over a year--teaching, writing, and interacting with colleagues. During this time, their anger may mount as they contemplate their dilemma and, possibly, proceed through a lengthy grievance procedure. Tensions may increase as they continue to work around colleagues who were directly responsible for the adverse decision.

Why not give faculty who are denied tenure a one-year pay and benefit severance package that relieves them of their teaching duties, committee assignments, or attendance at faculty meetings? Such a policy might reduce the pain of a faculty member's tenure denial and it would, at the same time, prevent them from attending meetings where violence is more likely to erupt (they could still be granted access to computing and library facilities). Of course, any person who makes threats or behaves dangerously (e.g., brandishing a weapon) could be barred completely from campus.

I would like to express my condolences to the families of the UA-Huntsville victims.

Terry Leap
Author of "Tenure, Discrimination, and the Courts"

3. faculty_admin - February 15, 2010 at 02:00 am

As a trenured faculty membe/academic administrator, some observations:
1. Tenure decisions are not quick, and unexpected. New faculty have annual reviews and are notified of areas of "weakness"
2. Tenure normally relates to the "complete" package, not research & publication alone: teaching, research, service to institution, service to community
3. To Terry, above--if you see bad news coming, why take funds to use elsewhewre to pay a one year severance pay and benefits package? You are going back to to the "matter of minutes" in business.

I have had to be the dean level administrator bearer of the "review, appeal, review final decision" many times and it's usually not pleasant. Even in cases where there is departmental recommendation for promotion, other "higher" bodies can negate that decision.

All other comments regarding "human/academic" rathionals for the act should not be considered relevant - especially when reading the faculty' member actions before and after their actions in the meeting.

4. fungalgal - February 15, 2010 at 06:27 am

I would like to add my comments to this well-written essay. I left higher education as a full professor with tenure in the biological sciences to enter the corporate world as a global biotechnology manager in R and D. I left my university life, in part because of the type of unfair, unjust and less than transparent way that my university dealt with our younger assistant professors working towards tenure. I saw the bar raised higher and higher and as mentioned by others, these same people sitting in judgement could not have endured the same level of academic scrutiny.

I think there is a need for an overhaul in tenure at many schools, and for sure there is a need to clearly define the goals and achievements tenure candidates will be judged. If you are lucky enough to work for a university where fairness and transparency is the rule, then I believe you are very fortunate. I have seen some unbelievably shocking treatment of tenure track professors, and from discussions at international meetings, everyone seems to have a horror story to tell. One of the worst comments I heard from our Dean was, "Why would we want to tell tenure candidates how they would be judged, since if we did this they would all get tenure!" Transparent, indeed... I was fortunate to have read the tea leaves correctly and I had a strong mentor supporting me, but not all are so lucky.

As I have reflected on my past academic life, I wonder if faculty are too complacent or fearful to change a broken tenure system? More to the point, if we do challenge ourselves to see what is working and what is not in this tenure process, we just might be afraid that tenure might break down completely? These are the kinds of fears that paralyze us and keep organizations from evolving and improving. Worst fears, an end to tenure, is always in the back of professors minds. I have to say, I do not think keeping a broken system in place is any worse an outcome, but my perspective may be jaded. Sadly, people's lives and livlihoods have been destroyed by the flawed process of evaluation and personal biases, and I for one had seen enough. I voted with my feet.

I will say that business has been a breath of fresh air as we deal with personnel issues straight on and the matters of performance review in a more clear, quantitative and transparent way. In my company it is deemed more a failure of management if you have to fire a person, since ultimately we are held responsible for the hiring, training, motivation and mentoring of our people. People are our investments, we do not want to destroy or lose them! This is quite different than the attitudes I heard at times in academics. "Lack of collegiality" was used on numerous occasions to grind an axe, by both faculty and administration. There were a large number of full-professors who would regularly disparage their peers behind closed doors, and in my estimation it bordered on character assasination. I will not begin to portray business as a panacea, but I will say that accountability, fairness and honesty seem to be promoted as the norm where I work now.

When asked if I miss academics, I can honestly say I miss the students energy, but not the bureaucratic and political part of that job. I wish academics well as it grapples with this issue of tenure and accountability, and there are those of us on the outside cheering you on!

5. 11132507 - February 15, 2010 at 08:03 am

This incident should trigger a review of the tenure review process? If someone decided to walk down the street and shoot everyone wearing blue clothes, should we convene a summit to talk to clothing designers about their use of the color blue?

How tenure is granted and whether or not it should even exist can be debated, but this sad, pathetic story is not an example of how or why. This is a mentally unstable person who, PhD or no PhD, in the grand tradition of the misinterpreted 2nd Amendment, the NRA and all politicians who lack the backbone to stand up to lovers of violence, (twice) had an easy time getting her hands on a weapon of mass-enough destruction.

6. performance_expert - February 15, 2010 at 08:32 am

Management is a specialty field. There are foundations of good management. In US education jobs, often people not trained in management, and by that I mean "clueless" are making management decisions over other people, in hierarchical systems, this can mean lots and lots of other people. USA is badly in need of greater application and requirement of schools of government and MPA, Masters of Public Administration requirement for people who make decisions over other workers. Otherwise, it is a degraded situation with the politically connected who are "winging it" and improvising when it comes to management over very real worker realities. These improvisors can and do cause a lot of suffering. And we all know that the politcally connected are politically connected because they invest so much time and many years into the endeavor which is the exact opposite activity of attaining solid training in management of workers, which is more like knowing how to grow a garden as opposed to pointing the finger (which one, you decide) and making pronouncements and declarations like Royalty.

Anyone managing workers should have specific training and do's and don'ts regarding what is both ethical and productive. Because someone is experienced in one field does not make them capable in another, managing workers.

But it has to be say, USA after Reagan -> BushCo is a wreck.

7. performance_expert - February 15, 2010 at 08:36 am

fungalgal, Great comments. Should be put on a brass placque:

"I left my university life, in part because of the type of unfair, unjust and less than transparent way that my university dealt with our younger assistant professors working towards tenure. I saw the bar raised higher and higher and as mentioned by others, these same people sitting in judgement could not have endured the same level of academic scrutiny."

8. performance_expert - February 15, 2010 at 08:46 am

Dear faculty_admin, Reading your excellent and forthright commentary, you seem to be quite the political animal and I suspect that when the sun sets your #1 priority is carrying water for the "powers that be" above the dept. that can "also affect the process." Well, screw that. It makes me sick. I will simply focus on excellence in my field. And for many in my field, that has meant relocating outside the United States to do scholarship in a zone that is not controlled by corporatocracy. You really come across more as a butler than anyone who stands for anything. You really do walk the high wire, the tight rope. I see you up there, with the balance pole.

With Love,
Performance Expert (had to put something for the log-in)

9. performance_expert - February 15, 2010 at 08:51 am

F_A, just remember those "powers that be" are often connected to the 10% of the populace that has been getting 90% of the wealth for a couple of decades now. Until this situation of paying corporate rent is figured out, the general struggle will continue to dominate whilst informed academics and their henchman wile away the hours discussing the local particulars of how best to the get the most out of apple shavings.

10. 11119344 - February 15, 2010 at 09:19 am

The tenure process appears to be part of the story behind this tragedy, but larger, often neglected issues of faculty mental health and academic culture are at stake here as well. I tried to capture some of these dynamics in a blog post:


David Yamada
Professor of Law and Director, New Workplace Institute
Suffolk University Law School, Boston

11. marchman - February 15, 2010 at 09:23 am

The amazing thing about the UAH shootings that at this point are assumed to be related to tenure denial is not that it happened, but that acts of retribution happen as infrequently as they do. While thought of as a bastion of open-minded, tolerant scholars in pursuit of expanding knowledge, the truth is many faculty members, perhaps most, are self-centered, easily-threatened individuals often disguised by arrogance who are afraid another colleague might achieve something significant that will make "look bad" or less adequate. Tenure, as fungalgal, points out has long been misused. Involving such self-centered, easily-threatened individuals in the tenure decisions is about as arcane as having them involved on a hiring committee requiring time they are unwilling to provide to make a wise choice. Tenure as a concept is valid if applied fairly and equitably, but the number of insecure, fearful "me-first" faculty members has completely voided its validity.

12. martisco - February 15, 2010 at 09:33 am

Or you could just drive a bus for a living (which is apparently what Ms. Bishop feared would happen to her). Sounds like an easier and more rewarding livelihood.

13. nampman - February 15, 2010 at 09:59 am

The events at UAH have certainly spurred a great deal of commentary, some of which is insightful (such as Professor Fox's comments). Clearly the issue of tenure and workplace culture in general brings strong emotions to the surface for many people. None of us can be certain at this point what caused the shooting but hopefully this will serve as an opportunity to try to prevent similar acts in the future.

14. jeff1 - February 15, 2010 at 09:59 am

Well written or no, I find the leap to the tenure process rather disgusting and I am suspicious whether it might just be self serving (I wonder how many national media sources will not contact you Jamie)? Tenure is what it is, and while I agree with your suggestions, that could have been done without linking to this tragedy and providing you with an opportunity to sensationalize it within a sad context. The other thing is you have no clue about this person or UAH . . . their motivations, the system, etc.!

15. cleverclogs - February 15, 2010 at 10:00 am

I don't know enough about tenure to know if it's a good or a bad process. I will mention that every friend I have outside of academia thinks the idea of tenure is total insanity; they are immune to my arguments about academic freedom. But I do think there are strong hazing elements to the entire professorial process, starting in graduate school.

For so long, academics are in a position of no power and very little transparency. In my university, faculty and administrators actually refer to benchmarkers as "hoops," as if we're all trained dogs jumping through rings of fire. I think many academics internalize their anger, leading to depression (almost everyone I know is on antidepressants, or should be). Some people lash out. But I think they may be two sides of the same coin, both the result of a systemic problem in the way progress is made in this profession.

And fungalgal - may I say you give me hope? You took a principled stand and it paid off. And it seems to have given you a perspective academia could use more of.

16. skingc - February 15, 2010 at 10:08 am

President Gorden Gee of The Ohio State University, and who has been called the most influencial College President in our country by Time Magazine,
believes it is time to change the Tenure process because it takes away from teaching and puts to much pressure on faculty to publish and obtain funding for research.
At this university in my area the faculty all turn against the dean, in the university newspaper one tenured faculty member who is African American threatened the dean with violence if he saw him in the hallways. There are lawsuites pending.
And, just recently one faculty member was denied tenure, and another faculty member told me about her husband who was denied tenure and they had to appeal it and fight to get his tenure.
While all of this is going on and I believe more across the country than we know or believe... the students that come in hungry for knowledge and education are suffering.
Faculty members are held accountable for Teaching, Service, and Research. Each of those are full time jobs. While it is said that being a faculty member is the number three "best job" to have in this country, it comes with a high price I believe in stress and where your future is dependent upon others in your faculty department who oftentimes have a vote on whether you stay or are let go. If you are let go without getting tenure it is difficult to find comparable positions because the academia world is small. All your lifes work is seen as going to the abyss never to be seen again. That is almost to difficult for anyone to imagine who has spent a life time of research.
While I in no way do I defend Professor Bishop in her actions, I do see that this is a time to turn this tragedy into a positive for academia. Maybe, President Gee has some good starting points, emphasize teaching, restructure tenure tracks, bring in seminars on diversity in the work place to campus sights, give up and coming junior faculty mentoring, help make sure junior faculty succeed in their bid for tenure, and take full professors out of the voting on junior faculty tenure bids...
While I appreciate tenure which allows for more freedoms of speech and research that may go against the grain of the individual university, at what price are we willing to protect that process. At the price of life, study learning, etc.
Another aspect, Professor Bishop from jail stated to her husband, make sure that the kids are doing their homework"... what stress does academia put on women who may be responsible for not only teaching, research and service, but their families, and how does that contribute to her stress levels.

17. bekkajean - February 15, 2010 at 10:29 am

Academic workplace violence, like child abuse, comes in many forms but the only forms generally exposed and discussed are the most visible, such as the murders in Alabama. This was a killing for which the courts will now decide the accused murderer's guilt.

Academic organizations operate largely in secret with little recourse to those affected by the actions of colleagues or administrators with nefarious purposes in mind. It is a system in which an administrator, having risen to a position of power, can oversee a program of agression and violence against one or more of her 'underlings' and avoid having to answer for her actions. Such a person might hold this power in a system that protects and promotes the administrator's often unrecognized brand of violence.

I refer readers to Kenneth Westhues's work on academic mobbing. Bullying and mobbing are also forms of aggression and violence and should be recognized and exposed.

18. drj50 - February 15, 2010 at 10:36 am

Fox writes: "Unlike many Americans who may interpret employment-related failures as an indication of their own inadequacies, workplace avengers typically externalize blame. Their failures and disappointments, they believe, reflect nothing more than mistreatment by others who, perhaps undeservedly, hold unbridled power over their fate."

Many of the posts on reports related to this story reveal just this sort of blaming others: racism, sexism, affirmative action, corrupt administrators, dysfunctional tenure systems, etc., etc. If this pattern of blaming others is as widespread in higher ed as it is in these posts, I worry that we are likely in for a lot more killings.

19. smmdavis - February 15, 2010 at 11:47 am

Just a side note to the whole tenure conversation. I am in a system that does not use tenure. There is a committee for promotion, but that is fairly vague too. I have taught in a tenure system and now here, both have problems. If one person is responsible for continuing your contract you are at the mercy of their judgement. No system is going to be perfect without the mental and emotional support of others. I believe the Alabama situation is more indicative of mental health issues many suffer from than of the tenure process itself.

20. trendisnotdestiny - February 15, 2010 at 12:43 pm

We must not forget the context in which this event happened; an unfolding financial crisis, massive systemic joblessness combined with high internal and external expectations for success, an educational ecology trending towards privatization and ownership of research for profit (Dr. Bishop's life's work???), living in one of the most heavily armed countries in the world, and a daily battle for increasing access to dwindling resources at all levels... This context does not justify escalation and lethal violence, but makes it more predictable. All of the necessary elements for these types of interactions are sufficiently in place... it takes people to act proactively to prevent this, but in academe who really has the time.... tick tock the tenure clock; we spend so much time competing and picking apart each other than we often fail to connect with each other! For me this is another example of how professions have been de-skilled (Illich)and the players leftover fighting for the scraps are the most toxic!

Shock Doctrine ABD

21. windspike - February 15, 2010 at 12:59 pm

This is a comment I made ealier in response to a NYTimes article, but warrants repeating here.

To blame a de facto personnel policy for causing consternation and illicit behavior is misdirected. The woman, while innocent until proven guilty, should be held accountable for her actions. The why is less relevant.

We do have a problem in higher education, which is intractable and hard to solve. As I often say to my children, and I learned from my old High School science teacher Mr. Barns, "where is it written that life is fair?"

Really, the process of earning tenure is inverted. Those who need it, don't have it. Those who have it, don't need it. If Universities were truly places for discovery and inventiveness, those who are stretching the boundaries of what is known deserve more protection.

Instead, junior faculty members who are fresh out of their Ph.D. programs, or a smidge into an academic career are forced to bend to a "jury of their peers," to conduct research & submit articles and that will be "approved," for publication. This invariably gets us more of the same, or incremental advancement. Those who bust new ground are pushed out by the gate keepers, even if their discoveries are valuable and contribute - no matter that they don't produce a PRJ article.

I suggest we give tenure to new hires at Colleges and Universities, and give only for 7 years. Once you reach the 7 year mark, you should stand on your record. If it sucks, you get terminated. If it's good, you don't need the protections tenure offers. In that respect, it's all fair, and then you stand on your merits. How good an instructor are you? What value do you add to the field? Have you contributed to the advancement of new knowledge? If you don't excel in any of those areas and a number of others, you should be put out to do something else that you may be better at.

22. johntoradze - February 15, 2010 at 02:10 pm

I think that it is long past time for academia to throw out the entire system of secret ballot and shielded review. Idiotic remarks on manuscripts, particularly manuscripts breaking new ground, are very common.

All this system does is teach academics to remove their backbone and become backstabbers working in secret. The machinations on campuses are medieval, quite literally. It goes against all the values of transparency and open governance since the reformation.

23. 12074406 - February 15, 2010 at 02:54 pm

What an amazing range of conversation. Amen to fungalgal, johntoraddze, smmdavis, bekkajean, skingc, and performance_expert. I applaud Dr. Fox for his thoughtful and well written perspective on the situation. I think we're all asking for many of the same things - Reform of an antiquated system that would not be tolerated in any other part of industry.

I can only echo what a number of you have more beautifully stated than I probably could: the situation is a tragedy; the accused assailant should be presumed innocent until proven guilty; and all of us feel deeply for the UAH campus.

Whether the shooting should or should NOT be linked to tenure and more humane managerial approaches in academe, to me denies the opportunity for a more broad discussion...Hiring, Tenure & Promotion; and Academic Management.

As Fox stated, few if any in corporate America can manage or promote in such a star chamber-like fashion as the academy does. In a shrouded veil of secrecy, senior faculty members can sharp shoot their junior faculty, as one poster previously described it as verging on the point of character assassination.... And some how categorize it in "fit" or "collegiality." I've seen those categories be used in the hiring, tenure and promotions stages of the process... and coincidentally they always seem to apply to Homosexuals, single parents, outspoken, .... even though their teaching, research and service were all within standards, and in previous years could have feasibly flown through acceptance with no issues. Some universities say they VALUE diversity... but do they really if "collegiality" and "fit" are such heavy weights in the evaluation process? Are we initiating into a fraternity? Or are we seeking to attract and retain the best and brightest teachers and researchers to our schools?

I support the idea from previous authors that while perhaps the denial might, for some, not be a surprise; however the most humane thing to do might be to provide that academic support in the "outboarding" process just as many schools provide an "onboarding process" for new faculty. Provide the support help mentally and emotionally the person might be feeling -- what school doesn't have an EAP program? Remind that individual it's there and help them make the connection. Fox and the AAUP president are right - in this economic climate, not getting tenure is basically professional demise. The fraction of people who have terminal degrees did not get here by our ability to just "go with the flow." Every single one of us was an over achiever: we worked and worked HARD for everything we have. We believed our hard work would pay off - and for most of us it has. Going from that mentality of "if I work hard it will pay off" (whether in course work, dissertation or publishing) to "I published, I researched and got grants and still didn't get tenure and so I'm out"... could be a tough mental process for some. Hence, why I think support mechanisms are appropriate for all those who are laid off or don't make tenure. Consider also the oppportunity for the faculty member: in corporate, you never know if the person you just fired will be at the next conference you attend, become your next customer, or WOOPSIE be your next boss. "Keep your enemies list in pencil" I was always told. Academia could make this so much easier on the displaced if the situation were handled humanely and with support. While the person might not be a fit at YOUR school - are there other contacts you have who would love a faculty member with a more teaching oriented agenda? A need for a hard-core researcher with grant monies? As a corporate manager I used to get AMAZING recommendations from colleagues for people to be hired in my department "she didn't have enough of X experience to be in my department - but she has Y - and that's what you're department is all about" or whatever. And some of those were the best hires I ever made. Tell me a KIND department chair, mentor or colleague couldn't say "Look - you're not the best fit here; your research isn't strong enough. But let me put a call into XYZ College. I think you'd like their culture."

Second: many, many department chairs are in those roles NOT because they are good managers or leaders. And just because the person has been around a long time and has been tenured DOES NOT make him or her a good people manager. Perhaps more critical review of a department chair's abilities to MANAGE PEOPLE and communication should be examined? 360 reviews are often found in Corporate. Would not a bottom-up approach of academia be no less valuable?

Again - my heart felt sympathies to the victims and the poor children of the accused. But there are MANY postings here with absolutely valid comments that should more clearly be examined.

24. cj_doc_1 - February 15, 2010 at 03:07 pm

I, too, believe Dr. Fox raises some important considerations in his article. I fervently believe that the cloister of higher education needs to be cracked. America's colleges and universities are all too often shielded from the legal constraints and protections of fair and equitable employment practices that those in the 'civillian' workplace enjoy. Take my situation as a perfect example of what is wrong with employment practices in higher education. I am a fully tenured member of senior faculty at my institution in New Orleans. I have an excellent publication record and believed that I would retire at this university.

Last semester I filed a well founded discrimination complaint against my Chair, a man who has been sued multiple times in the past for the same behavior but whose wife is the Senior Vice Provost for Academic Affairs. I was assured by a lower Vice Provost that my due process rights would be protected and I would suffer no retaliation.

After having my office ransacked, my home nearly broken into by a 'representative' from my department, and harassment (complete with a knife) by the assistant to my Chair I have been placed on forced academic leave. I will lose my tenured position after the culmination of this spring semester for filing that fateful claim of discrimination!

I have done nothing wrong and have not violated any campus mores, laws, or cultural constraints yet my institution acts with impunity where employment law is concerned. My institution has taken active steps to fully end my academic career and has even gone so far as to deny me access to my campus US mail. My institution has been sued so many times since Hurricane Katrina some departments cannot recruit faculty as people are unwilling to risk working at the school. The AAUP has sanctioned my university but the government has done nothing to rectify the problem or uphold basic legal protections for the faculty and staff employed.

While the news media continues to voice concern over campus safety a very real facet of higher education has, thus far, been absent all discussion: That of the questionable employment practices all too often present in our occupation. The AAUP can offer sanctions against institutions, as they have done to my university. However, this organization, depsite it's best intentions has no power to enforce basic law.

By no means am I defending Amy Bishop. However, if the veil of secrecy behind academic employment decisions was removed I do believe a good deal of the problem would be solved. Tenure, dissertation defenses, grants, and promotion are more often dependent upon 'fitting' in and praising the administration than excellence in scholarship. I had no problem whatsoever fitting in or acting as a good, productive scholar. I have always believed that I had the best job in the universe. That is due to end in a couple of months due to simple vindictive academic politics. A good many occupational tragedies would be avoided if the government would climb the ivory towers of knowledge and enforce the existing employment laws.

Enforcement of law would also make campus environments safer as the stress experienced by those employed would be significantly lessened. Faculty and staff would know that they were legally protected and could not be terminated without demonstrable cause.

Just a thought...

Soon-to-be Ex Prof

25. performance_expert - February 15, 2010 at 04:36 pm

Such a mythic thread. Good luck to soon to be ex-prof. Thank you for the kind words, 12074406. I am making this post to repond to and resonate post #20., from trendisnot destiny.

I have a couple of thoughts on the current level of expectations of professors.
1. I do not believe everyone is capable of both research and being a good classroom student teacher. Some will be very good at either side of this pendulum. I see no reason why there is not room for both. The super-capable should be recognized, paid, etc. their travel paid etc., perks etc. to support their scholarship. But both of these should have some equity with basic job security. How do so many accept this idea that in a teaching job a person can not just settle in and do good work and therefore bring goodness to the student-clients? Where else it is thought that a worker can be eliminated for not performing ***excess*** performance duties? This whole mess seems like a sadistic fiction and, in fact, allows the type of top down fiction dictates from the politician managers. For example, life is good and productive and then some higher up decides to blast everyone with a "WE WILL BE in the TOP TWENTY" by such and such a date. And basically, your llife just went to hell. Even on a good day, if your job is secure, you are still inundated with propaganda and environment stress over some abstract notion that is based in depersonalized competition, like sports, not unique productivity, like production.

2. Is it not advantageous to the oppressors to keep everyone overly occupied with performance objectives? To the point that one would not ever be out from under the palm of oppression to be able to do scholarship on the oppression? It seems politically strategic to require too much and practiced by politicians who serve the corporate, not the needs of the common man/ woman.

One last thought: and it is so, so, distant to consider a remedy. The US higher education system has become an associate of the US debt machine. What happened to socialized state universities? They got gobbled up with so many other things, things that have been lost- like local post office boxes to drop off the mail, or even stamp machines in the post office lobby, got gobbled up by the corporate taxing, this mechanism that keeps wholesale removing the money from everyday experience, taking earnings through excessive health care costs, war costs, privatization schemes, security costs, protection costs, install-propaganda costs, bailout costs, cost-plus contracting costs, bird-flu costs, prison-industrial-complex costs, and even Microsoft monopoly costs. If you haven't done it, look up Operation Mockingbird to see how the coordinated wall of propaganda is done. Good Luck and God Bless.

26. 12074406 - February 15, 2010 at 06:10 pm

I am so sorry to hear about your situation Soon-to-be EX. I'm mortified at the behavior of some of our institutions of "Higher" education.

Performance_expert: I'll add to your sentiments... academe emphasizes a research agenda, almost at the exlusion at everything else. But whatever happened to practical experience? Law schools have legal aid programs; Medical Schools have free clinics or hospitals. But somehow in many, many business schools there are professors who haven't seen a "customer" or had to manage cash flow or answer to a board - ever. While I understand affiliate faculty can bring real life to the classroom, should not our "professional" schools be required to have practical experiences, and wouldn't that be JUST as important (or more so in schools with teaching missions) than theoretical research?

You are corect: the veil of secrecy, cloak and daggar, star chamber.... whatever you'd like to call it... the mentality is the same. It's a mentality that is just beyond me.

For a world of learned people, what happened to exploration? For the minority opinion? For the unpopular concepts? These panels, committees, etc seem to attempt to squelch anything that does not flow along "majority opinion" whether or not that kernel of an idea might lead to greater discoveries.

I have no doubt that there are still hallways of thriving diversity, respectful debate and discussion leading to greater innovations. But I'm starting to wonder if in some institutional instances, are we stooping to levels of mediocrity to merely "fit in" or in the spirit of "collegiality?" Since when did being an extraordinary teacher, or a brilliant researcher have anything to do with being with the "in" group?

27. jeanrenoir - February 16, 2010 at 12:22 am

The academic job market is indeed horrendous. If you don't get tenure these days, you're probably finished. But things are tough all over in the American economy, aren't they? There's no reason to wring our hands over the tenure process just because this woman cracked up over her bitter disappointment over being rejected. O.J. Simpson cracked up when he was rejected, too. But did the people who are so tortured over this Alabama case feel equal torment over his murder of his wife and her new lover? This woman was the one at fault, just like O.J. No need to re-invent the tenure wheel just because she cracked. These days, one could argue that anyone pursuing an academic career is cracked, given the realities of the job market. But people who still go to graduate school, and still pursue tenure, are the only ones responsible for defying the odds and tempting fate. It's not the system's fault that the odds are so long, and most people so disappointed by their career choice in academe, when they are rejected by it.

28. trendisnotdestiny - February 16, 2010 at 08:48 am

Performance Expert,

I agree that not everyone is capable of both (good research and teaching); the charactersitics and stereotypes of each act in may ways serve the binaried populations in higher ed... students as the receptacle of edu-tainment, teachers as the deliverer of corportized content which may or may not directly relate to the students' tuition up front costs or appliable skills, and the research academic entrepreneur of pol-grant raker- publisher....
Each of the cynical categories I refer to indicates a different type of pathology, skill set and outcome... For me you nailed with the sports analogy, I have had a dual experience over the last seven years of being doctoral student and Division 1 assistant coach in a non-revenue sport; there is no question that there is a link to mass "free agency" and perceived "value" of educators (not unlike free agent professors, adjunct role players and coaches/managers who have hung onto their jobs better than a tenured faculty member...

Your second comment reminded me of comment made by Tony Benn (British Member of Parliament for decades from the left); he pointed out that creating a population that is not healthy, confused and stressed by the requirements of living (pacing), under-educated, and segmented into categories for their individual wants and desires to magically appear----- well, he said in much fewer words: they are easier to govern and more pliable... this should be where the work of "organic" thinkers in our institutions resides (not in the money making glory of individual pursuits or the conveyor belt of consuming, and writing for the elite minds and larger pocket books);

Performance expert, thank you for your thoughtful reply. I could not agree more with the idea of the US Debt machines' co-opting higher education processes for profit...Will take a look at Operation M too.... It reminds something Chomsky once said that most calls of conspiracy are labelled crazy (using a strategy of isolating individuals from others so that comprehensive institutional analysis may not occur or may occur so slowly that the dynamics have already changed (the bailout, TARP, Stimulus etc) hence once again, why we need our educational systems to teach us how to think rather than what to think.... this is my resistance to the evidence based movements' persisting legacy...

ABD Shock Doctrine

29. cristina_munoz - February 17, 2010 at 03:27 pm

Unlike Dr. Fox, I do find the shootings during a faculty meeting at the University of Alabama, Huntsville, similar to those at Virginia Tech. In each situation, the shooter was able to kill a large number of people, who likely could have fought back if they had been prepared. I'm not talking about gun ownership, pro or con, but about other social factors.

At Virginia Tech, Dr. Liviu Librescu blocked a door and screamed at his students to jump out the window, saving 20 young people. At the Munich Olympic Summer Games, in 1972, referee Yossef Gutfreund blocked the door and screamed at his colleague, who escaped. Coach Moshe Weinberg saved several colleagues by fighting, lying, and slashing his attackers, allowing 6 team members to escape.

I imagine that, after the first faculty member was shot, one or more colleagues would have been able to jump Dr. Bishop, and transiently disable her or separate her from her weapon....if they had imagined such a scenario could ever occur, and what they would do if it did.

The responses of air travelers before and after 9/11 indicate that adults without weapons can sometimes subdue attackers, if they have thought about the possibility beforehand.

One other sad note about this awful case: all the reports I've read mention that Dr. Bishop was trained at Harvard. Certainly she had many role models at Harvard of intelligent women who were academically productive, and excellent teachers, who did not get tenure and went on to lead productive, happy lives.

30. pclo99 - February 17, 2010 at 07:13 pm

I've worked at several companies after graduate school of various sizes from small to fairly large. Although it was less so at the smallest, all three had favorites and "politics". I imagine it would be a fairly unusual company that did not, performance review program notwithstanding. That product that didn't do well-- Was the product just so-so, or did you do a good job and there was just not enough market support? How your boss perceives you or your work affects what he/she puts in the reviews; his/her clout may depend on whether you are defended or not. Upper mgmt wants cuts - oops did you just embarrass you boss recently, or make her look good?

However, I do think there is a feeling of losing it all, when one sees an acedemic endeavor go up in smoke, and the completeness of this loss is probably greater in acedemia. Leave a company, in theory you can work for a competitor doing similar things. I think it's harder to get attached to "that compressor that I was working on" than "my entire research program".

One wonders if assigning a mentor to a "terminal-year" professor to explore how he/she could continue her work (or at least her career) elsewhere would help. Of course if the professor is fighting the decision, perhaps she wouldn't be receptive to a mentor. But if she had, she could have explored where else she could have worked in her chosen field and hopefully even subspecialty.

Some decades ago I visited the depths of despair in graduate school when things weren't going well. I'm pretty much there again now, after a year of job hunting following a disputed separation from one of the companies mentioned above. I understand how desparation or pain causes someone to kill *themselves*. Suicide is usually a very poor choice, but at least there's some logic - it ends the (mental) pain and (if done right) might provide life insurance for one's partner (but along with sadness, guilt etc which must be weighed). However that's one's OWN life. There is no logic or moral basis for a revenge killing.

I'm thinking Dr. Bishop's career choices are significantly more limited now.......

31. kloos - February 19, 2010 at 06:05 pm

Here The Netherlands
Reading about tenure issues and about academic culture in USA is like going in slow motion through a horribly thriller. Thanks God such does not exists here in Holland. It would not be even thinkable that such 'ratemyprofessor' issue would be permited here, perhaps the other way around. Transparency is a requirement and freedom of expression is sacred. Democracy in first place and at all times. It sounds like academic culture and the world in it in USA is far from healthy, specially for those extroverts and to the point ones who might be declared 'insane' or 'crazy' or 'abnormal for thinking or acting different. This country would have just been the perfect one for Dr, Bishop!

32. jkherms - February 23, 2010 at 02:10 am

"The ... Harvard-trained neurobiologist[] had achieved a more-than-respectable record of ... scholarly publication...." - James Fox, Professor, Northeastern University.
Cf. Bishop, A. (1988). The effect of temperature on the recovery of sea lamprey from full spinal cord transection (Honors thesis). Northeastern University, Boston.

Recipe for an NU honors thesis:

1. Catch lamprey.

2. Cut spine.

3. Immerse in cold water for 2 hours. Watch closely and enjoy.

4. Repeat using warm water.

33. dmaratto - February 24, 2010 at 03:12 pm

The opinion/viewpoint expressed here and elsewhere that "If Cho [the VT killer] had been treated better by his professors and classmates, maybe he wouldn't have..." or "If Bishop had been awarded tenure, maybe she wouldn't have..." sound to me a lot like "If Hitler had been allowed into art school, maybe he wouldn't have..."

"A tyrant will always find a pretext for his tyranny." Cho, Bishop, and Hitler murdered not because other people were unkind or unfair to them (even if that was the case), they did it because they were psychopaths. This isn't an attempt to 'mob,' 'scapegoat' or push them away as 'the other' so we can feel better about ourselves, it's the truth. These kind of people are 'the other,' because like 98% of the world population is not vicious killers. The only mistakes made with such people are when not enough is done to either get them treatment, or, if that won't take, lock them up somewhere so they can't harm anyone. However, again, guns and mental illness ... the 2 things Western society doesn't deal with well.

34. honore - February 27, 2010 at 08:51 am

what's that saying about the fox and hen house?
yes, i'd like ketchup with my McNuggets please...get real

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