Monday, February 15, 2010


Thoughts on the Alabama Shooting

Every time I hear about a shooting on a college campus, I wince. This one was especially surprising, given that the (alleged) shooter was a professor and a woman.

It seems that Amy Bishop, a professor in the biology department at the University of Alabama at Huntsville, opened fire at a department meeting, killing several colleagues and wounding several more. She has been taken into custody, and she will face murder charges.

Although it's hard to know immediate causes, Prof. Bishop had recently been denied tenure, and this was to be her final semester at Alabama.

First, obviously, my condolences to everybody at Alabama, and everybody with family and friends there. At some level, I think we all know that there but for the grace of God...

Second, though, I'm cringing as I imagine the ways this case will get used in other arguments.

Second-day coverage revealed that Bishop had previously shot and killed her brother in Massachusetts in the 1980's. The case was officially classified as an accident, though the paper trail is murky. For my money, any explanation of the Alabama incident needs to mention the Massachusetts one. Instead of using Bishop as somehow typical of a tenure case gone bad, let's keep in mind that this is a woman who shot a close family member in the chest. There's nothing typical about her.

Regular readers know that I consider the tenure system unethical, and that I've specifically taken it to task for the "up or out" moment of decision. That position isn't terribly popular in higher ed, but there it is.

But to use this case to argue against the tenure system strikes me as way out of bounds. This isn't about a typical, predictable consequence of the tenure system. It's about someone who has killed before, killing again.

To make this case about the tenure system, we'd have to imagine that shootings like these don't happen in other employment settings. But they do. They happen in corporations, schools, and all manner of public and private places. I don't begin to understand all the reasons they happen, but they do. My kids have had 'lockdown drills' at their school, so they'll know what to do if a deranged person gets in. The fact that we think to put five year olds through lockdown drills says a lot about our culture, most of it harrowing, but I'm glad they do the drills. When I was a kid, I never heard the word 'lockdown.' Then again, I never heard words like "Columbine" or "Virginia Tech," either.

The horror of this case, besides the obvious human loss, is the sheer randomness of it. Although the facts are still streaming in, it doesn't look like any reasonable measures could have prevented it. Bishop wasn't trespassing; she was still an employee there. Short of patdowns of every person every time they come on campus, she wouldn't have been stopped. Since she was never charged in the 1980's shooting, it's unlikely that even strict gun control laws would have prevented her from getting a weapon if she wanted one, or that even a rigorous pre-employment background check would have prevented her hire. On paper, as far as I know at this point, there weren't any red flags. Given how quickly the shooting apparently unfolded, even a heavy and heavily armed campus security force (or heavily armed colleagues) couldn't have stopped her in time.

From what is known now, this case doesn't provide another example for some ideological battle. It's not about gun control, or campus security, or tenure, or any of that. It's about someone who came unhinged and committed a horrible crime, and about the losses of several innocent people.

I know the internet has its own habits of mind, but for anyone out there thinking of using this case as "yet another example of...," please don't. Let's not use a deranged shooter to make points. The crime is awful enough as it is.

The fact that we think to put five year olds through lockdown drills says a lot about our culture...

Yeah, it says we're a bunch of overly paranoid half wits who don't understand risk management or statistics.

Well-put and apt. I would certainly agree that the rush to generalize (as in "just another case of...") or particularize (as in "somebody must have made an error somewhere, which, if only identified, could prevent this happening again...") are both equally inapt. As I expressed to a friend, the mainstream media's tendency to try to find some failure of security or record-keeping, some "red flag", which "should have" been a warning signal, proceeds from a unsubstantiated conviction that tragic events are never random and can always be prevented, which is not how the world works.

That said, we both have experience of working in academic bureaucracies (or as bureaucrats) in which we can recognize that certain persons manifest inappropriate responses (e.g., potential "red flags") of varying magnitude. And in a bureaucracy bound by OP's, the path to containing the behavior or terminating the employment of such a person can be very difficult.

I will be interested to see, if we ever hear, any commentary from the tenure committee or other UA-H colleagues about *why* the shooter might have been denied tenure. It does not appear to have been a problem with productivity (grants recorded around the web) or student satisfaction (as of yesterday, she was well-regarded at ratemyprofessors). Was her tenure denied because of inappropriate conduct? It seems possible.

And I wish that the first comment upon your thoughtful post hadn't taken the tone it did--not helpful, in my estimation.
The last report I saw indicated she may also have sent a pipe bomb to a Harvard professor who was going to recommend she not be allowed to continue in its doctoral program because of poor work.

Well-articulated post - tenure didn't cause the shooting. But it does point to the unreasonable expectations academics have for a "lifetime job" that the rest of the world would never expect.
Thanks for this, DD. Too bad some of your commenters didn't get the point--hence 'it does point to the unreasonable expectations academics have for a "lifetime job" that the rest of the world would never expect.'...
When I as 6, we had atomic bomb drills. We'd sit in the hallways with our arms over our heads or under our wooden desks. This says nothing abou "those" people who would bomb us and it says nothing of "those" people who might shoot us. It says tons about those people who would have us fear.
I agree that you can't use this case to make whatever points that you want to make about gun control, the tenure system, or anything else. This case makes me cringe because I always know in the back of my mind that a mentally unstable person may be one of my students someday. Since I have hundreds of students per semester, the odds that a few potentially dangerous students will come my way are pretty high. Teachers, after all, are pretty visible targets for people who have some "issues."
This tragedy is the result of hundreds of folks failing to act.

It starts with the police department in MA botching/squelching etc. the murder investigation of Prof. Bishop's brother. The State Policy report (which exists and is on-line) has more holes in it than Swiss Cheese. Where was/is the justice for her dead brother? What is going on with this???

Then there is the attempting bombing a scant seven years later. Again, nothing much comes of the investigation although Bishop seems like a likely suspect.

Currently, there are the conflicting stories her husband is currently giving about how the 9 MM came into her possession.

This is NOT a tenure story. However, given the suspect's documented history of violence, it is a story about good people not doing the right things when their "creep-o-meters" should have been screaming.
My heart goes out to the families of those whom the Alabama administration failed to protect, despite numerous apparent warnings.
There wouldn't be any red flags, would there, had she just gone on or just gone off some powerful anti-depressant? Having had to deal with mental illness with 2 family members, and noting the change therein when going on or off "new" meds, I can assure you the change in thinking/behavior can be quite extraordinary. Prozac, for example, still takes 3-5 weeks to kick in, during which the effect of the anti-depressant is to INcrease depression temporarily, before the medicine takes effect.

Or maybe she was just mentally ill, and covered it up well for years until it got to be too much, and she snapped.

In any event, our hearts of course go out to the survivors of those killed, and our prayers to the two survivors still critically hospitalized. Good essay, Dean, thank you.
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