Some thoughts on the recent tenure-related shooting

In the wake of the tragedy in Alabama, there has as expected been a lot of discussion on the internet about the nature of the shooting and its implications.  In some sense, my impression is that the case has become a Rorschach test for lots of people, and they’ve seen reflected in it their own concerns or political crusades.  In that spirit, I thought I’d share a few thoughts on the incident and my impressions of some of the other commentary out there.

To summarize, last Friday afternoon at the University of Alabama in Huntsville three professors were killed and three others seriously wounded when a shooter opened fire at a biology faculty meeting.  Biology professor Amy Bishop was taken into custody and charged with murder.

The “twist” to the story is that Bishop had been denied tenure in April, and had appealed the decision.  The appeal was turned down on Friday, and this decision is what evidently precipitated the shooting.

This confluence of a school shooting and a tenure decision has brought up again the tired questions of allowing students to arm themselves on campus and the validity of tenure as an academic policy.  Neither question has garnered that much attention this time around, but it irritates me to see them popping up like weeds yet again; it especially irritates me to see people using a tragedy like this one to push their pet political projects, literally only hours after the tragedy has occurred.

I predicted as soon as I saw the shooting that it wouldn’t take long for someone to make an argument that concealed weapons should be allowed on campus.  I dread bringing this up again, because my last post on the subject, from almost two years ago, still brings out stupid right-wing commenters.  Nevertheless, my prediction was correct: the first MSNBC article on the shooting quoted a student who complained that she was afraid to attend school because she couldn’t carry her gun (that article has since been revised and the quote removed).  My response to this is the same as it was two years ago:

If there had only students had been allowed to carry guns on campus, the tragedy could have been prevented. This is an idiotic action-movie fantasy which is probably unique to the United States, where the tough-talkers have never actually faced an actual gun. If a shooter walks into a room without warning and opens fire with an automatic handgun, he will likely be able to empty his entire clip before anyone in the line of fire can effectively respond to the attack: A Glock, for instance, can fire 40 rounds per minute. There is also the concern that, for every incident which might be prevented by the presence of additional firearms, a half-dozen other incidents would be created by the presence of those weapons. As a university professor myself, I don’t want guns on campus: there are far too many students who, while not violent, might be tempted to use the presence of a weapon as an ill-advised attempt to intimidate the teacher. Even without weapons, threats against teachers are not uncommon.

School shootings are, despite their news coverage, very rare.  If a student is so afraid of such an unlikely event that they need to carry a gun everywhere they go, they should have psychiatric care, not a gun.

Anticipating a very silly counterargument, does this mean I wouldn’t love to have a gun if someone burst into my office and started shooting?  Undoubtedly.  But I am mature enough to realize that the overall societal risk of prolific firearms everywhere outweighs the benefit it might have in certain special scenarios.

The other recurring argument is that tenure makes professors lazy and unaccountable.  For instance, this comment on a post I will mention again in a moment:

Tenure is part of the feudalistic structure in academia, ostensibly there only to promote research, academic freedom, rigor and to protect the professor from reprisal from grading too toughly or spending time on unpopular curriculum and the like. It does some of these things, but what it does vastly more of is to produce aging, lazy, self-satisfied professors who won out in the tenure hustle, while in their prime. The real labor that benefits the college is then done by systematically tortured and underpaid adjuncts.

Emphasis mine.  This is another one of those statements that I respond by demanding: show me the proof.  I’ve heard lots of people argue that tenure produces lazy professors, but I never see any of these people produce evidence beyond vague unsubstantiated anecdotes.  I, personally, have submitted all my tenure paperwork and look to be in very good shape, yet I’m actually working harder than ever.  Among my research colleagues who have tenure, I am hard pressed to find one who is just coasting along.  Are there “aging, lazy, self-satisfied” tenured professors out there?  Almost certainly; however, there are also lazy, self-satisfied workers in every career.

The whole argument sounds to me like a hollow right-wing trope, based on the assumption that people only work hard when subjected to negative reinforcement, in particular the threat of being fired hanging over their head.  Part of the purpose of the tenure process, in my experience, is to select those professors for tenure who have a love of their job and a drive to excel at it.

I always feel that people have a gross misunderstanding about tenure and what it actually entails.  I thought I’d compile a list of common misunderstandings:

  1. Tenure means that you can’t get fired. Not really true.  Quoting from the faculty handbook at my institution,

    A Faculty Member, who is the beneficiary of institutional guarantees of Tenure, shall enjoy protection against unjust and arbitrary application of disciplinary penalties. During the period of such guarantees the Faculty Member may be discharged from employment, suspended, or demoted in rank only for reasons of:

    (a) incompetence, including significant, sustained unsatisfactory performance after the Faculty Member has been given an opportunity to remedy such performance and fails to do so within a reasonable time;

    (b) neglect of duty, including sustained failure to meet assigned classes or to perform other significant faculty professional obligations; or

    (c) misconduct of such a nature as to indicate that the individual is unfit to continue as a member of the Faculty, including violations of professional ethics, mistreatment of students or other employees, research misconduct, financial fraud, criminal or other illegal, inappropriate or unethical conduct. To justify serious disciplinary action, such misconduct should be either (i) sufficiently related to a Faculty Member’s academic responsibilities as to disqualify the individual from effective performance of University duties, or (ii) sufficiently serious as to adversely reflect upon the individual’s honesty, trustworthiness or fitness to be a Faculty Member.

    In short, if you fail to perform your duties, you can be canned just like anybody in any other job.  Tenure protects a professor from “unjust and arbitrary” disciplinary action.

  2. There’s no incentive to perform well once you get tenure. People who say this are again really assuming that only negative consequences are motivational, which I utterly disagree with.  Within a university, there is usually the additional motivation of promotion to full professor (with an increase in salary), as well as ordinary raises that are performance-based, not to mention the possibility of various internal teaching awards.  In the greater scientific community, there are many prestigious research awards that can be earned, as well as fellowships in professional organizations, and honorary degrees from other universities.  (My former thesis advisor has enough honorary degrees to populate a physics department single-handedly.)
  3. Tenure is purely about academic freedom. The idea of academic freedom, being able to say what you like academically without worrying about retribution, is undoubtedly the most important role of tenure.  However, it also provides freedom to speak out about internal university policies.  In other words, it is protection against retribution from the administration of a university.  Considering the academic faculty should be considered the guardians of the academic integrity of an institution, their ability to argue freely about university policy is hugely important.Tenure also allows faculty to pursue more long-term research goals without fear of dismissal.  Many really important and transformative research projects are very complicated and could take years to bear significant fruit.  Being subjected to yearly performance evaluations naturally forces faculty to take on smaller, less complicated research projects, as any tenure-track faculty member can attest to.
  4. If you don’t get tenure, your career is over. It is undeniable that a failure to get tenure is a traumatic, even devastating, experience; however, it is not necessarily the end of the world.  I’ve personally known several people who have been denied tenure or reappointment (sometimes quite unfairly) and have landed on their feet at other institutions.  One essential protection is that the tenure decision typically comes a year before the official end of a faculty member’s current contract, giving the person time to find other employment.

When people talk about abolishing tenure, I  suspect they are really after the ability to control the speech of those “liberal” professors.

One of the most interesting questions raised in the aftermath of the shooting was by Abel Pharmboy at Terra Sigillata, who asked, “What role should personality or collegiality play in tenure decisions?

The questions for you, dear academic reader are:

1. Do you think that lack of collegiality is grounds for denial of tenure for a candidate that otherwise meets the basic quantitative criteria outlined in university guidelines?

2. Do you feel that collegiality – or whatever you want to call it: teamwork, cooperation – should be an important factor in making academic tenure decisions?

In other words, “Should a person’s ability to get along with the department affect tenure decisions, or should it be based entirely on their research/teaching/service merits?”  It is an interesting question for a few reasons, some of which are:

  1. There is an impression, popular amongst the public, that the most brilliant researchers have the worst social skills.
  2. “Collegiality” is an extremely difficult behavior to quantify.

It probably goes almost without saying that an employee in any business should get along with their coworkers.  An unpleasant work environment can really wreck everyone’s productivity and make the overall workplace productivity even worse than if the offending employee weren’t there at all. (I’ve encountered many people over the years who, in essence, caused more problems than they solved.)  However, the science myth goes, some researchers are so brilliant that their skills outweigh their negative social characteristics.

I’ve talked a bit about the myth of the abrasive genius in a past post, as has Chad at Uncertain Principles, and to a large extent, that is what it is — a myth.  There were certainly some really obnoxious pricks in the scientific world who were also very smart, but there were also plenty of brilliant researchers who were perfectly charming and easy to get along with.   Considering most universities these days are trying to grow a long-lasting research program, not just cultivate individual researchers, hiring people who are at least marginally sociable seems understandable.  I suspect, though, that it is a matter of degrees — truly brilliant researchers can get away with a lot more attitude than the run-of-the-mill researchers.  The problem is that plenty of the researchers with attitude are not quite as brilliant as they think they are.  For my money, then, it turns out that some degree of collegiality is an important piece of any researcher’s overall worth.  A great take on the importance of collegiality in tenure decisions can be found over at Janet’s blog.

The second point is a much more important one for universities — how does one quantify “collegiality”?  To have a fair reappointment and tenure process, a researcher needs to have clear and measurable set of goals.  I really have no idea how one would quantify “collegiality” such that it could be made clear to a junior faculty member.  I could envision a general “collegiality” requirement for tenure becoming a back door by which tenure committees could dump people purely based on personal squabbles (not that it doesn’t happen already through other means).*

Regarding the Bishop case, I would ask people to resist the urge to speculate why she was denied tenure.  It may have been for nefarious reasons, it may have been for lack of collegiality, or it may have been for other more quantifiable weaknesses in her tenure package.  Speculating that the tenure committee was acting nefariously without any understanding of the real reasoning is unfair to them.

This post has been a bit meandering, but I wanted to address one final thing.  Another commenter at Terra Sigillata speculated that Bishop acted the way she did because she was under the influence of antidepressants that basically made her “snap”.  This is also a rather disgusting bit of unjustified speculation, especially to those of us who have been treated for depression.  Even if Bishop was taking antidepressants, this proves nothing; I am forced to quote another two-year-old post of mine, in response to an argument that most mall shooters were on antidepressants:

This is a classic ‘correlation vs. causality’ logical flaw. Emotionally unstable people are more likely to be treated with medications, including antidepressants. Emotionally unstable people are also more likely to shoot up a mall. The common link between antidepressants and mall shootings is emotional instability. Again, independent of the effectiveness or lack thereof of antidepressants, I would expect mall shooters to be highly likely to be on them.

In short, in the aftermath of tragedy there are always people who are eager to shoehorn the event into their own personal worldview; don’t fall for such simplistic and dangerous thinking.


*It reminds me of another of my pet peeves — the requirement of many journals that papers represent “important” enough discoveries to merit publication.  This is so subjective that you will often find referees simply stating, “This isn’t important,” without any justification, to reject papers they don’t like for unspeakable reasons.

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9 Responses to Some thoughts on the recent tenure-related shooting

  1. Mary says:

    I agree with the general thrust of this post, that seizing upon a tragedy to make a political point usually results in a somewhat forced or false argument as well as being in poor taste.

    The part of the post where you rebut the most common arguments against tenure, though, makes me want to bring up a couple that you didn’t mention. I have no dog in this fight really, as I have left academia for industry (though I still work in research and usually collaborate with academics).

    But there is a reason I left, and it does have a lot to do with the tenure process.

    Tenure is a lifetime commitment, so it’s no wonder that universities are reluctant to make it to someone who is young. Especially since being young usually means being unproven as well. The result is the long, long slog through post-doc and junior professor, after an average of six years of PhD school, after the four years of college, of course. During that time one has no job security, and will probably have to relocate at least once or twice after grad school, and that’s if you do well enough in the increasingly brutal academic job market to get a tenure track position after just a short post doc period. Some people are post-docs for ten years. In the mean time you have to put together a research resume impressive enough to convince someone to hire you for life. And for women it’s especially hard, since we are more likely to be faced with the “two body problem” (I think I read“>here that 42% of female physicists are married to male physicists where as only 6% of male physicists are married to women — in any case, women are much less likely to have spouse content with “trailing”.) And, of course, if you want kids as a woman, those years where your research portfolio is all-important are also your best chance to have them safely.

    I opted out of that career path (although both my husband and I were offered post-docs in Chicago, which we loved), and I think the tenure system is a large part of the reason that career path is what it is. It just makes the stakes too high.

    And though I too know people who have been denied tenure and come out okay, I’m sure it doesn’t feel that way at the time. At that point you’re no longer a rising star, and proving yourself worthy to some other institution means starting over, find a new tenure-track job, another six years minimum of that same pressure to perform, only now you’re competing with the young up-and-comers.

    And if you lose this game you’re stuck adjuncting indefinitely, where you have no job protection, no reliable steady income, often no real benefits. And the adjunct market is also created by the tenure system, I think.

    Dean Dan has advocated a five-year-renewable contract system for these reasons, and I think he’s convinced me, at least.

    So anyway, the arguments I don’t think you rebut are “The high risks for institutions for granting tenure warp the job market in bad ways” and “The high risks and high pressure of the tenure chase can screw up the lives of young researchers (and especially women).”

    I don’t feel as strongly as maybe this post makes it seem about this question, and I’ll happily agree to disagree if you don’t find those arguments convincing, but I’d like to see how you address them…

    • Mary: The tenure system is clearly not perfect, and I certainly didn’t want to imply that it is. My arguments were not intended to be a blanket defense of the system as much as a criticism of the really ignorant, and often politically-motivated and disingenuous, attacks on it and calls to abolish it.

      I didn’t address the points you raised because I don’t have any real defense of the practices behind them! I am not a big fan of the poor process leading up to a tenured professorship, including low salaries for many, many years. I have also had friends who have struggled with the two-body problem and I think that is one of the biggest issues that universities need to get on top of in terms of hiring practices, and not just in physics. These days, it is really likely that spouses will be in the same field and I agree that it can be a particularly difficult for women. A friend of mine essentially gave up her career when her husband got hired at a major university; they promised her a job in the same department but it mysteriously never materialized.

      One comment on your statement: “proving yourself worthy to some other institution means starting over, find a new tenure-track job, another six years minimum of that same pressure to perform…”

      At least from my limited anecdotal evidence, people who fail to get tenure or reappointment don’t necessarily start over from the beginning. The folks I’ve known managed to get fast-tracked appointments at other institutions. I don’t know how common this is, but it seems that some schools realize that a declined tenure decision is often due to factors other than poor performance, and are happy to pick up a good faculty member that might otherwise be outside of their reach.

      I guess my vague impression is that the tenure system does not inherently cause a lot of the problems we see in academic hiring, though it can contribute to the overall mess through the way it is handled.

  2. Mary says:

    (On re-read — I’d think more than 6% of male physicists are married to women — I meant “female physicists”.)

  3. yoron says:

    You are quite right. It’s like looking at drug-addicts, taking whatever they can get to get their kicks. Going of their abuse some of them will crack up into a psychosis. The question here if it was the drugs that did it or if it was their own response to their problems that started their drug-abuse. Self-medication we call it in Sweden.

    Your problem is guns and the attitude towards them. The wild west is gone but the attitude is still there. Like they can leave their front doors open in Canada whereas in the States you want triple locks 🙂 Canadians aren’t really ‘aliens’ and they have their criminals too, but they still dare to leave their front doors unlocked. It’s about attitude and how you grow up. If you grow up in a society expecting problems to be solvable by guns and make them easily available you are going to have this kind of problems.

    And it’s also a result of a society where you lose your roots. America is a very large country and people travel around hunting work opportunities etc. Most modern western countries have this problem, but the majority isn’t that large. Had she had friends to talk with it’s possible that it never would have happened, as a guess. Somebody would have reacted, then again, there will always be the few unpredictable. So I can’t be sure on that, but I know one thing. Take care of your friends, and make sure that they take care of you.


    • “Had she had friends to talk with it’s possible that it never would have happened, as a guess.”

      That is a problem I’ve noted with U.S. society, and probably modern society as a whole. I have often pointed out to people (though not necessarily on this blog) that a lot of the traditional community connections have broken down, and over a relatively short period of time. When I was growing up, neighborhoods were very close, in that you knew everyone on your block and were good friends with them. Also, you probably attended a close-knit community church. Even a place of employment probably had a lot more camaraderie, as people tended to stay in one job for much longer. Nowadays, people are much more isolated and friendless, and that seems to contribute a lot to people “snapping”.

      I’ve actually had personal experience with this, in having had two mentally-unstable roommates and one other mentally unstable acquaintance. In each case, the person going off the rails didn’t really have anyone to talk them down from their self-destructive behavior, which allowed them to exist in their own “fantasyland” where their views did not coincide with reality at all. (I tried my damnedest in each case to find those people someone that could talk them down.) One would hope that a spouse could help with such a thing, but my impression is that people really need a community of friends to help them through turbulent times.

      Curiously enough, social networking such as Facebook seems to help. I’ve known a number of people who have used Facebook as a “support group” and that has helped them work through their life’s tribulations. I tend to think that society is going to a transition period, where the traditional social supports have broken down and new ones have yet to fully replace them.

      • Tevong says:

        this “social phase transition” is really interesting, I’ve been thinking about the negative aspects of the decline in traditional local communities vs the emerging positives of an increasingly connected “virtual” world. It does seem to be the case that interactions are moving towards an “always on” kind of model where people are used to being in a 24/7 community of their own choosing that lives through the internet. this community can be messageboards, chat rooms, facebook, flickr, deviantart, online games, blogs etc… or even just email and skype that keeps your once local community of family/friends together over global distances.

        The older generation worries this takes away from face to face interaction that builds social skills but I think it’s accepted now that this only enhances people’s social life and encourages real life interactions. even things like dating sites are now becoming mainstream.

        (not sure where i’m going with this, just random thoughts…)

      • It sounds like we’re having similar thoughts. My notion of “social phase transition” originally came to me when I started using and realized that such sites were effectively replacing the old ways of dating. It also helped explain to me why I was having such a hard time figuring out where in real-space I could find dates (or maybe I was just rationalizing!).

        This transition seems like a very natural phenomenon — if society doesn’t fall apart in the process, new methods of getting together and socializing will grow to fill in the gap. If it wasn’t the internet, I suspect that other social groups would have arisen.

  4. yoron says:

    Yeah, to me internet is a the most important aspect of the last ??? years. It’s like the wheel in importance.

    Some reasons why.

    Assume a real decline in living standards worldwide.
    We will still have the net.

    The point here being that it ain’t materialism that takes us forward, it’s interacting, getting ideas and, learning.

    Assume people have a totalitarian state spreading propaganda.
    Most of us will still have some sort of access to the net
    (Think China, North Korea and Turkmenistan for a example.)

    And consider prejudices, they will melt as young ones meet young ones all over the world.

    And also, giving poor people ideas and new hope as they see that dreams can come true, and that education is free up there. Like our different communities (Physics f.ex:)

    So our foremost problem today isn’t the bomb, well as I see it then, but those regimes, commercial interests and politicians that want to regulate it’ for our own good’..

    They are our new problem. You can never defend yourself from reality, and some people are sick, and that’s the downside of it. They too will find ‘networks’ but it all goes back to one major question. But pointing at those as a reason?

    Either we are out here to try to help out as good as we can, or we are here to compete, and ‘last man standing’ will then be the ‘winner’.

    Considering that this guy too will die at some time, I think the first choice should be the sanest one. And looking at ‘regulations’ in that light will just tell us what we already knew, that no matter those disturbed ones there are more of being sane. And that no ‘democratic’ society wins from ‘regulating’ their citizens.

    So stay awake.



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