Professor charged with murder: Did tenure pressure play a role?
A neuroscience professor at the University of Alabama-Huntsville has been charged with capital murder for killing three people after opening fire at a faculty hearing. Dr. Amy Bishop reportedly had learned that her request for tenure had been denied for a second time.
Bob Gathany/Huntsville Times/AP
A Harvard-trained neuroscientist known for her strong opinions allegedly shot and killed three colleagues after hearing for the second time that she was denied tenure at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.
Police say that Dr. Amy Bishop killed three colleagues and injured three others at around 4 p.m. Friday. She’s been charged with capital murder.
Police have not suggested a motive. But friends and colleagues say Dr. Bishop had been upset about her failure to get tenure at the college, which sits in the center of Alabama’s space hub in Huntsville.
Sammie Lee Davis, the husband of slain researcher Maria Ragland Davis, a tenured professor, told the Associated Press that his wife had mentioned Bishop, describing her as “not being able to deal with reality” and “not as good as she thought she was.”
Internet reaction has been swift. “What a terrible tragedy,” Katherine from Michigan comments on the New York Times site. “If these killings were indeed prompted by stress over tenure, it seems like a cruelly literal culmination of the phrase ‘publish or perish.”
Most school shootings involve students
While most university and school shootings, such as Columbine High School in Colorado and Virginia Tech, have student perpetrators, murders involving professors and teachers do occur. Last year, University of Georgia professor George Zinkhan, who shot and killed three people at a community picnic, escaped the scene, but was later found dead in an apparent suicide. Police believe the shootings were related to trouble in Mr. Zinkhan’s marriage.
Whatever Prof. Bishop’s motives, experts say that academic pressures are increasing as the recession and other dynamics takes their toll on tenured positions. Politics can be rife in the Ivory Tower, as well. Witness the James Sherley case at MIT. Prof. Sherley, who is black, went on a hunger strike after declaring he had been turned down for tenure because of his race.
Tenure and tenure-track positions declined from more than 50 percent of all teaching positions to less than 40 percent between 1997 and 2007, according to the American Federation of Teachers. In the 1960s, 75 percent of college teachers were tenured.
“You are expected to produce, and produce more quickly, and the road [to tenure] has gotten steeper and steeper,” North Carolina State University professor Richard Felder told Prism Magazine in 2007. “It’s a killer environment. I’d imagine the stress levels are through the roof.”
The class divide between tenured and non-tenured can be pernicious, as well.
“While many adjuncts are talented teachers with the same degrees as tenured professors, they’re treated as second-class citizens on most campuses, and that affects students,” Samantha Stainburn wrote recently in a New York Times piece titled “The Case of the Vanishing Full-Time Professor.”
Competition for research funding
Research budgets are also being cut, meaning grants are harder to come by – all of which can ramp up work pressures and professional jealousies on campus, experts say. The Huntsville area prides itself on having some of the heaviest concentrations of PhDs in the country, largely because of its work with NASA. But the city is also part of the ultra-competitive arena of high- and bio-tech start-ups, where associations with universities can be a determinant for research funding.
Prof. Bishop had been working on an invention called “The Neuristor,” a kind of living computer made up of neurons. She had reportedly filed a lawsuit about her tenure case, the Decatur Daily newspaper reports.
“A person of her obvious talent and intelligence does not go around murdering someone,” writes commenter “Alabama Rooster” on the AL.com website, which represents major state papers in Alabama. “This is most bizarre and demands a lot of answers, not just about the shooting, but the climate at UAH which might lead to such a confrontation. There is something rotten here and it may be professional jealousy, which is rampant in the research and development community....egos awash with the possibility of $$$$$$.”
The Associated Press reported that Bishop was taken Friday night in handcuffs from a police precinct to the county jail and could be heard saying, “It didn’t happen. There’s no way … they are still alive.”
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