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Professor Shoots Two Black Scholars at U. Alabama-Huntsville

Professor Amy Bishop, 42, recently shot and killed three of her colleagues in the Biology Department at the University of Alabama-Huntsville. The professor is charged with capital murder and more charges are likely. She could face the death penalty if convicted.

“She began to talk about her problems getting tenure in a very forceful and animated way, saying it was unfair,” an anonymous source said.

As Bishop was led away, she was asked by a reporter what happened. “It didn’t happen. … They are still alive,” she said in a low voice, shaking her head.

This is a terrible tragedy, but perhaps there is something we can learn from this. There are three thoughts I have as we analyze the shooting at the University of Alabama-Huntsville and Amy Bishop’s alleged behavior:

1) According to reports I’ve received, two of the professors Bishop killed were black: This is not to say that the individuals were targeted for being black, but it certainly makes one wonder if race was a factor in this shooting. Again, there is not enough evidence to say that this is the case.

2) Amy Bishop shot her brother in 1986: Although the original shooting was an accident, the case has been recommended for additional investigation. If it is indeed the case that she shot her brother deliberately, this might argue that Bishop had a propensity toward violence already. Her erratic behavior may have been a warning sign to other faculty that she needed to be removed from the department.

3) Amy Bishop’s issues with tenure are not uncommon: There have been scores of cases in the past of graduate students or faculty engaging in violent acts as a result of the stresses of academia. The tenure process is incredibly ambiguous and politicized, leading to some faculty even losing their sanity. Black scholars are exposed to the challenges of tenure more than anyone, since we are different, and being different is not rewarded in academia. While I am not one to say that Amy Bishop did or did not deserve tenure, it is easy to wonder if this Harvard-educated scholar was good enough to meet the standards of University of Alabama-Huntsville. The tenure process is often a non-transparent affair in which dirty tricks are played behind closed doors (I’ve seen some doozies, I assure you). People take care of their friends and use tenure as a way to get rid of their enemies, thus escalating the amount of hostility in many academic departments across America.

Of course, Amy Bishop’s challenges with tenure do not justify her alleged behavior. At the same time, the severe mental anguish caused by an ultimately unfair set of policies and practices should be reviewed and reconsidered by us all. I was personally denied tenure for what many felt to be unjust political reasons (no black man has ever been recommended for tenure by my business school – Syracuse University – in more than 100 years of operating history), so I know the stress of the process firsthand. Personally, I was lucky to have obtained the kind of support which allowed me to detach from the petty politics of those around me (Rev. Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Michael Eric Dyson and Dr. Julianne Malveaux came to support me), but there are many other scholars who invest their lives in to this process and don’t have the support they need to ensure a level playing field. The lifelong investment in the tenure process can often lead to unhealthy reactions to cheap political tricks that keep qualified scholars from getting the rewards they deserve. Excluding the shooting by Professor Amy Bishop (which none of us can condone), I can also point to other cases of campus violence that resulted directly from either tenure denials, unapproved dissertations, etc. While we have the right to decide who gets hired and fired, “business as usual” in academia often puts scholars in the uncomfortable position of either having their lives inexplicably altered or being forced to destroy the life of someone who has dedicated their life to academic success. The potential for volatile behavior becomes quite high under these circumstances.

In order to deal with the threat of workplace violence, academia needs additional oversight. We need independent, outside entities to review every inch of the tenure and hiring process to ensure that the rules are being applied fairly. Black scholars should be especially diligent in pushing for such advocacy, in large part because we are the ones who are most victimized by unjust tenure denials every year. Additionally, it is the absolute fear of this academic terrorism (where people destroy your career and give you no recourse to respond) which causes us to lose our academic souls. Instead of doing good scholarly work to help our communities, we spend years hiding quietly and humbly in the intellectual shadows (biding our time) in hopes that our lifelong quest for tenure is not disrupted by a racist holding a grudge.

Obviously, Amy Bishop has some psychological issues, so her response to the academic environment was ultimately an unhealthy one. At the same time, a part of me wonders if this incident would have occurred had Dr. Bishop felt that she had some kind of recourse to air her grievances. Perhaps if she’d felt that she were getting a truly unbiased appeal, she would not have believed her back to be against the wall. Given that her husband, also a highly trained scholar, is considered a “person of interest,” we can see just how deep the resentment went within her family.

“Universities tend to string it out without resolution, tolerate too much and to have a cumbersome decision process that endangers the comfort of many and the safety of some,” said Dr. Park Dietz, who is president of Threat Assessment Group Inc., a Newport Beach, Calif.-based violence prevention firm.

It is possible that if Dr. Amy Bishop felt that she had access to unbiased options, I would argue that she may not have chosen to possibly spend the rest of her life in prison. I assume that resorting to violence was the last option for this hard-working, Harvard-educated scholar, since she’d rationally chosen to appeal her original tenure decision. As universities reconsider their responses to workplace violence, we must remind ourselves that we cannot toy with the livelihoods of employees without running the risk of people getting hurt. The University of Alabama Huntsville shooting was not, to be honest, as isolated of an instance as we might think. While actual violence may be rare, the potential for violence is always around us. The focus should not only be our collective outrage at Amy Bishop’s highly inappropriate behavior, we’ve also got to be smart and courageous enough to challenge the tenure process itself.

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