Friday, at the University of Alabama, Huntsville, a biology professor named Amy Bishop murdered three of her colleagues and wounded three others. Two of the people she wounded are still in critical condition, and I offer my sincere hopes for their complete and swift recovery. The murderer had been denied tenure in the department, and media coverage has centered on the question of tenure. Tenure, that strange and exotic academic rite, is obviously the hook for this story, and the resulting coverage is appalling.
The New York Times headline for their story today (which doesn't deserve a link) is "At an Academic Pressure Cooker, a Setback Turns Deadly, Official Say." There's something appalling about the passive construction in that sentence, as if it's the "setback" that did the killing. But the story, with its emphasis on "the pressure-cooker world of academic startups" is worse. It also undermines its own angle: the killer's potentially lucrative biotech startup was going well. Meanwhile, Inside Higher Ed fatuously links to an old article about faculty who have minor breakdowns after being turned down for tenure, as if one could compare a shouting incident or a distraught person climbing up an ivy trellis with cold-blooded murder. (No link for you either, IHD.) The general thrust of the coverage is that the tenure process is so painful and stressful that an otherwise normal person might snap and become violent.
Let me just say, as someone going through the tenure process: bullshit.
On the other hand, the media has had no interest at all in the question of race, although Bishop shot almost every non-white faculty member in the department. (She also shot and wounded two white victims, a professor and a staff member.) She killed both African-American professors in the department (one of whom was too junior to have had anything to do with Bishop's tenure decision). She killed the department chair, who was ethnically South Asian. A Latino faculty member was wounded. There may only be two non-white faculty left in the department. Whether she intended it or not, Amy Bishop effected a racial purge of the Alabama Huntsville biology department. But the press isn't interested in asking whether or not she intended it. Perhaps the question isn't exotic enough.
These murders are not about tenure. They are about Amy Bishop's moral failings. Those failings might or might not include racism. But a person who responds to a career setback by cold-bloodedly murdering three people, and attempting to kill three more, is not the victim of a difficult process. Amy Bishop is a horribly defective human being. Whatever complaints she may have had a week ago, she has forfeited any right to make them.
I'm as conscious as anybody can be about how tense the tenure process can make a person. I've spent the last year going through it. And even the smoothest and most successful process has some moments that are absolutely infuriating. Sometimes over the last year, reading bureaucratic documents about myself, I've felt myself turning into a thin-skinned prima donna. (I've since reverted to my normal personality now, for better or worse.) Sometimes, one sentence or paragraph could becloud a whole day. My case is fairly close to the end, but there have certainly been moments when I've imagined myself being turned down, and considered game plans for denial. But you know what never crossed my mind? Doing anyone physical harm. Some of my friends have had disputed cases, been turned down, been forced to appeal the final decision. You know what I've never heard them talk about? Retaliating against anyone personally. You know why not? Because that would be insane. It never even crosses a healthy person's mind.
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