Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Amy Bishop's violence is not a comment on the tenure process

by J J Cohen

Amy Bishop shot and killed three faculty members of the department that denied her tenure. In the wake of this horrible act of violence, I am weary of hearing comments like this, which imply that the tenure process itself might be to blame for her actions:
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.
Or maybe not? When faced with a shortage of booster seats at an International House of Pancakes, Bishop demanded another mother give up her child's, swore at the woman, punched her in the head. She yelled "I am Doctor Amy Bishop" during the assault. As Margaret Soltan so well put it, the problem is that Bishop was untethered, not untenured. Just as the IHOP rage episode does not indict current booster seat allocation processes at fast food franchises, it is hard for me to see the murders in Alabama as an invitation to rethink the tenure process. They are a sad instance of workplace murder by a person who may have been mentally ill.

Don't get me wrong, the tenure system is something that should always be open to discussion ... but not because these deaths were somehow compelled by tenure being "antiquated" -- whatever that means: as opposed to the streamlined and flexible corporate world, where workplace murders are unknown in the wake of firings and layoffs?


Karl Steel said...

I had initially thought that someone who made such a simple correlation != causation error shouldn't be opining about tenure, but then I realized how much the correlation != causation error drives literary criticism (where "maybe this has to do with this" is such a common argument).

THAT SAID, before I fall down the rabbit hole of analysis, thanks, Jeffrey, for this post. So many people--especially people in the often frothy comments sections of the Chronicle and IHE--are looking for any excuse to eliminate tenure. One wonders if there's any overlap with people who want to severely restrict private gun ownership.

Steve Muhlberger said...

You have to wonder how many such incidents there were -- and how many since she arrived in Alabama. It doesn't sound like a person with whom you could have a short and pleasant discussion in the hallway about a problem of mutual interest.

I have been in charge of the tenure and promotion process of my University twice in the last decade, and I can't help but put myself in the position of the people who had to rule on her tenure application. I bet the word "collegiality" came up in the committee discussions. When we hear that someone has been denied tenure because of concerns about collegiality, it is very easy to guess that it's a matter of unjustified personal jealousy, especially since people on tenure committees can't tell you what they discussed because of confidentiality.

This case shows that there are very talented people whom you just can't work with on a reasonable basis -- to say the least. Academia is not immune to this problem, which other kinds of organizations have to deal with all the time. Not that they get it right always!

Anonymous said...

Invariably, the debate always turns to an assessment of tenure rather than the tenure process--with those who would prefer the corporatization of the academy seeing tenure as an unnecessary evil. But the tenure process itself should not be above criticism. Too often it is cold, brutal, and arbitrary. It has been, and continues to be, discriminatory, and by that I mean racist, sexist, and a host of other -ists. More often than not it fails to separate the wheat from the chaff, focusing instead on personality rather than on excellence (in scholarship, in the classroom, or even in service). I have no desire to excuse Dr. Bishop--and I wonder about the kinds of entitlements that allowed her to continue performing one violent act after another. Nevertheless, I do wonder if she was ever able to understand the process that denied her tenure. Was she presented with any kind of empirical evidence of her failures? Or was she just told to go away, that she didn't fit in, that she wasn't liked (by her students and/or her colleagues)? I deeply believe in the tenure system. I also know that many schools need a better process.

- Marty Shichtman (posted by KS because something's not working on Marty's end)

Joseph P. Fisher said...

I guess I'll be the Devil's Advocate, or a stick in the mud, or a pain in the neck, or whatever, but I'm finding all of this armchair analysis of Bishop a bit tedious. For starters, I can't believe that anyone would use this incident as a way to contextualize criticism of anything other than the hiring process. Bishop should not have been tenured for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which being that she is, at the end of the day, a murderer. However, I cannot fathom how someone with her questionable criminal and academic records got a tenure track position in the first place. These idiosyncarcies (to put it mildly) of the hiring process are what make so many of us adjunct professors, with no real hope of gaining tenure, crazed enough to cause a scene in a fast food joint. How did someone like this successfully navigate the three ring circus that is academic hiring in the first place? And who did she beat out in the process?

Secondly--and here's the smartalecky part of my post--what no one seems to have mentioned is the interesting fact that this tragedy happened in a science department, a place quite unlike a humanities department, where tenure is already antiquated.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Thanks, Jeff. I have lots to say about this, but no really good words at the moment. It's another part of the "it's not fair" column I promised last week and I've been working on, which is so far mostly floating around in my head. But just yes to all of this.

Steve Muhlberger said...

"However, I cannot fathom how someone with her questionable criminal and academic records got a tenure track position in the first place."

As for her criminal record -- if they checked for one in the normal way would they have found one? I never heard she was charged with anything.

As for academic record -- uninspiring teacher, talented inventor in the relevant field.

Joseph P. Fisher said...

Steve, I don't necessarily know the answer to the criminal charge question because, honestly, I have neither the time not the patience to construct a timeline for when all of these allegations came out. It is always interesting to me, however, that we can always find out about potential murders and bombs sent in the mail, etc. after the fact, but that such information isn't available ahead of time. My skepticism about all of that runs both ways.

Regarding the academic issue, I think that's a trickier question than it appears on the surface. First, there's this. But then we do have her "innovative" work on neural cells. The latter raises an interesting disciplinary question, I think. According to The Chronicle, that work was collaborative, which is different than the way us humanities folks often prove our worth through individualized research. Is it possibile that Bishop's "innovations" were really the result of the work that her collaborators did? Is there any way to get a clearer picture of what goes on in collaborative work? Should the sciences adjust the way that they evaluate scholarship?

I genuinely do not know the answers to these questions, and, as I said in my previous comment, I'm not sure that this incident should be used to incite some kind of paranoid witch hunt in the sciences. At the same time, I don't think that we can view Bishop's record as wholly transparent, indicating that she was the most qualified person from the job from day one. As others have already noted, academe is not immune to these hiring snafus, which is clearly the point of this discussion in the first place.

Now, back to class preparation.

Steve Muhlberger said...

My feeling is that no matter how careful the people in Alabama would have been, they would not have found out what happened in Braintree when Bishop was 18 years old. The police chief let her off without charges and lost the record of the incident.

No one was charged in connection with the bomb, and it is quite possible that Bishop had nothing to do with that.

My conclusion is that sometimes life is unfair and there it is nothing much you can do about it.
word verification "ancesses" = one's ancient wise female ancestors, providers of mitochondrial DNA.