Tenure “Terrorism:” The University of Alabama Killings at Huntsville

Many press accounts report that allegedly Professor Amy Bishop of the University of Alabama, Huntsville, murdered three biology professor colleagues and critically wounded several others in a tenure-denial rage.

Amy Bishop mug from UAH

Professor Amy Bishop image from Huntsville Times

What stuns me is I never envisioned a situation where such murderous violence would allegedly result as retribution for a tenure-denial incident. I have worked with professors all over the country who have been denied tenure and empathise with the fact that it is devastating. Loss of prestige, loss of job, loss of career path, loss of retirement, loss of health care. So many faculty who are denied tenure feel abused, marginalised and the victim of a witch-hunt or as a casualty of the politics of academia.

Allegedly, Dr Bishop, a Harvard Ph.D., committed these multiple murders during a faculty meeting at the University of Alabama on Friday, February 12, 2010. The New York Times in their coverage of the story wrote:

“Ms. Bishop was first 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.”

If true this is inconsistent with American Association of University Professors guidelines and a violation of widely accepted best practices in the consideration of tenure. Normally a professor on the tenure track applies for tenure during her sixth year. If granted, the professor receives tenure at the start of the eighth year, although she can only be  dismissed for cause-de facto tenure-from the time of the awarding of tenure by letter.  The probationary period normally is seven years. If Dr Bishop had been denied tenure during her sixth year, she should have been given a full seventh year, or a one year’s notice prior to termination. If she came up for tenure in her fifth year, her tenure clock might have been accelerated for credit for prior years of service in an academic setting. Yet normally one comes up for tenure during the sixth year of full-time service in a tenure stream faculty line.

Yet the quotation surprisingly states the University of Alabama at Huntsville does not allow tenure-denied  professors to remain beyond the sixth year.  I am wondering if this is just lousy reporting. Universities must provide a year’s notice that would permit the tenure-track professor to serve seven years. Perhaps the Times article was wrong or there were other extenuating circumstances but it struck me immediately as a possible issue. The university must grant a person denied tenure a one-year notice for purposes of preparing to relocate and the opportunity to receive full salary and benefits for another year.

The Washington Post reported through an A.P. account that the microbiologist had been at Huntsville since 2003. That would mean her denial of tenure during her sixth year would have been the 2008-2009 academic year. Her terminal contract would have been issued this year or her seventh year of service which indeed would end at the termination of the spring semester in 2010. I believe it is possible the New York Times’s reporting was wrong and the Washington Post’s correct.

Reports stated Professor Bishop had appealed her case. I do not know the details of that but would urge tenure-denied professors to appeal as provided in their faculty handbook and bylaws, to contact a lawyer and contact the American Association of University Professors. Sometimes, professors  have a decision reversed; sometimes they sue and either win in court or obtain a settlement. Generally, professors denied tenure are not successful at reversal but some do relocate and resume their careers.

In the aftermath of this tragedy, it would serve the principle of justice to know whether Dr Bishop had been afforded normal due process rights and whether she had used the various avenues–beyond an on-campus appeal–to pursue her case. If  she did commit such a barbaric and violent crime, it might have been prevented had her case been handled according to best practices by the university and if she had pursued her appeal with better strategic planning. I do not know if that was the case or not. Yet such a tragedy is beyond comprehension if caused by tenure-denial. It does, however, reveal all too starkly the sense of desperation and career destruction that so many feel. Of course, a sociopath or a psychotic individual could be unleashed to do horrible evil regardless of what had occurred.

Also when will the United States ban handguns and prohibit by law the rights of citizens to carry dangerous objects that send bullets into the bodies of others. When will this madness cease and the evil love of violence that afflicts our nation brought under control? When?

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