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Thursday, March 4, 2010

New York Times Displays Shoddy Reporting on Amy Bishop Story

People hoping to gain a deeper understanding of the recent tragic events on the campus at the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) are not likely to find it from reporting in The New York Times, purportedly the nation's leading newspaper.

The Times has invested considerable resources on the UAH shootings, which left three faculty members dead and three others wounded. Much of the reporting has focused on the background of biology faculty member Amy Bishop, who has been charged with capital murder, and the denial of tenure that apparently sparked the shootings.

It's an important national story, and The Times deserves credit for giving it major attention. But the newspaper's reporting on the Huntsville story has been sloppy, superficial, and at times almost nonsensical.

Consider a story titled "A Murder Suspect's Worth to Science," by reporter Gina Kolata. The story focuses on hundreds of comments posted on the Internet about the UAH shootings, some asking questions about the tenure process, some noting the extraordinary stresses of academic life, and some wondering if Bishop was treated fairly and according to procedures.

Kolata dismisses such questions with the following paragraph:

In fact, scientists who have looked at Dr. Bishop’s résumé said they saw no evidence of genius, no evidence of a cure for diseases like A.L.S., no evidence that she even could have gotten tenure at a major university.

But Kolata relies on a curious set of sources to reach this conclusion, leaving her story with some serious holes for anyone familiar with the University of Alabama System--as I am, having worked there for 19 years.

Consider a number of key points made in the story:

* Kolata dismisses Bishop's research on amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease--The article states that Bishop's theories haven't been proven and didn't originate with her. But what is that supposed to mean? The whole idea of research is to work on ideas that haven't been proven. If the idea has been proven, there is no need to research it. And my understanding is that the vast majority of scientific research builds on the work of others. If Bishop was working on an unproven theory, based on the work of the others, she has plenty of company.

* Kolata quotes a scientist who says Bishop's work wasn't groundbreaking: That's not the issue is it? The tenure process is supposed to be about a candidate's potential for contributing to the academic environment. Are we to believe that the University of Alabama only grants tenure to junior faculty members who conduct "groundbreaking" research? If that were the case, there would be few full professors in the UA System.

* Kolata dismisses the number of publications in Bishop's record: But what about the quality of those publications? Tenure is not just about quantity. Did Kolata's sources actually read the articles? And how did Bishop's publications, both in quantity and quality, compare to others who recently have received tenure at UAH?

* Kolata cites a researcher who notes that Bishop doesn't appear to be the senior researcher on her papers: Does this tell us anything useful? How many assistant professors are going to be in the senior position? Don't those spots usually go to someone who already has tenure? Again, does this say anything meaningful about Amy Bishop's qualifications?

* Kolata quotes someone from Columbia University, saying Bishop wouldn't be considered for tenure there: How is this relevant? Bishop was at UAH, not Columbia. How do grant dollars at Columbia compare to those at UAH? Would a junior faculty member at Columbia, an Ivy League school, have a huge advantage over a counterpart at UAH? Almost certainly yes. How does a teaching load at Columbia compare to the heavy teaching load Bishop had at UAH, where she taught five classes? Would a junior faculty member at Columbia have more time for research than a counterpart at UAH? Almost certainly yes.

* Kolata dismisses Bishop's invention of a cell-incubator, quoting scientists who saw no need for it: This conflicts with published reports indicating the invention has generated $1.25 million in investment funds. Apparently, somebody sees a need for it. Did Kolata think to ask some of the investors who seem to consider the invention worthwhile? If the invention was worthless, why did UAH President David Williams say on his blog in fall 2008, "This remarkable technology will change the way biological and medical research is conducted"? Williams has a background in engineering and was a vice provost for research before coming to UAH. Shouldn't he know a thing or two about the potential for new technology?

The tone of the Times' coverage seems to be, "Move along, children, there is no story here, no reason to ask questions about the tenure process or the University of Alabama's handling of this situation." It's almost elitist and condescending toward those who might ask questions about administrators in higher education.

If I were an editor, and Kolata turned in this story, I can think of quite a few questions I would have for her:

* Has she compared Bishop's record to those who did achieve tenure in roughly the same time frame?

* Has she tried to get a copy of Bishop's tenure dossier to see what it contained?

* Has she checked copies of the committee comments that led to tenure denial? Are those comments based on facts or objective opinions--or do they reveal signs of jealousy and backbiting?

* Has she, or any other reporter, sought to interview the provost and president about their reasons for denying tenure to Bishop, even though the president praised her in glowing terms less than two years ago?

* Has she looked into instances of employees possibly being treated in abusive and unlawful ways in the University of Alabama System?

* Has she looked into the background of those who served on Bishop's tenure committee? If one or two of them thought she was crazy, what are there backgrounds like? What are their credentials? Do they have DUI's on their records, perhaps affairs with students, research fraud, ugly divorces? What about leaders in the UA System? One member of the Board of Trustees has documented ties to a massive insurance fraud case in Pennsylvania. Have any reporters looked into that?

* How many taxpayer dollars were used to help train and support Amy Bishop's academic career? How did the University of Alabama manage this investment in a valuable human resource?

Bishop has some troubling incidents in her background, and it's important to look into that. But is anyone going to take a serious look at the university's handling of this case?

One of Kolata's "experts" says the Internet comments are a matter of some people "making excuses" for Bishop. How is it "making excuses" to ask questions about the bigger picture here? How is it "making excuses" to see this as a story, not just about one troubled individual, but about a university system that has grown dysfunctional.

After all, we have public statements from a former UAH student-body president saying the university's work environment is "deplorable." Has anyone interviewed him?

Some of the comments at nytimes.com provide more insight on the UAH story than we get from the newspaper's reporting. A reader named Joel, from Huntsville, wrote at No. 25:

She was screwed over, no doubt about that, but that's no excuse to kill someone else. I was there at the shooting and still having trouble wrapping my mind around it.

Have any reporters tried to contact this guy? Perhaps the best comment I've seen about this story comes from a reader named Adis in Massachusetts, writing at No. 254:

This is tragic! My condolences to all affected. However, this is an opportunity to review the conditions and processes that have led to this tragedy. How does a faculty member whose teaching evaluations are not below normal, who has produced an article a year, $217,000 in NIH funding from 2008 and an award winning patented product of her research that has attracted $1.2 mill. in investor funds get denied tenure? The academia is a place for knowledge production and not beauty contest where you can just vote down the face or attitude you don't like. These later categories are so subjective and hard to measure that many tenure decision makers have hidden under them to oppress tenure track faculty who don't get along with them. The system is rotten in many places and abuse of power is rife. This is a good time to address this disfunctionality.

Will The New York Times get around to asking such questions and pulling back the mask on higher education's ugly little world, one that is largely funded by taxpayer dollars? A lot of public money was used to support Amy Bishop's training and research. The public has a right to know if that money was used wisely.


Anonymous said...

Valid points but even you are still missing the main point that has been verified over and over-

Bishop was known as volatile and unstable by most people she worked with. From many reports, that is why she was denied tenure.

Thomas S. Bean said...

If you want to understand the amazing phenomenon of US citizens (always tied to US MILITARY OR FBI) GOING POSTAL....then....do yourself a favor.

Google JULIANNE MCKINNEY, a US Intel Commun Whistleblowers Ass member who found out from an FBI agent that the program to create "school shooters" is called OPERATION SLAMMER.

Same program was run on me.

Same program was run on Kleboldt and Harris at Columbine.

Same program that DR MIKE HARLOW knows about while working for the DOD.

Check it out...it's all a DOD program protected by FBI HQ and Eric Holder's DOJ HQ.

Cervantes said...

You are mistaken on several points. One paper a year is a very low output. Assistant professors are expected to be first authors on papers -- actually it's the author listed last who is the "senior author." If you're going for tenure, you should have your own program of research and that means some first authorships.

While it is true that quality matters as well as quantity, Bishop's very meager publications were in very low impact journals. That doesn't tell the whole tale but it's something committees will certainly look at, for better or for worse.

It is true that all science builds on previous work but nevertheless the point is to bring some creativity to your research and find something new.

I agree though that calling her work "unproven" is pretty silly.

legalschnauzer said...


Thanks for a thoughtful comment. A couple of questions still in my mind:

* Was Bishop's publication output low for UAH? Based on her bio and others I've seen, it appears faculty have UAH have heavy teaching loads. Wouldn't that have an impact on the volume of publications?

Eric Seemann, a psychology faculty member who joined UAH at the same time as Bishop (2003), has been quoted about Bishop in the press. Apparently, the two of them were fairly friendly.

Seemann was granted tenure, and Bishop was not. If you look at Seemann's bio on his Web page, it appears he averaged less than a paper per year. Like Bishop, he also appears to carry a heavy teaching load.

It's possible this is not a complete list of Seemann's publications. But the comparison between the two, in terms of volume, is relevant, I think.

Here is link to Seemann's bio:


legalschnauzer said...


You say that Bishop was known as volatile and unstable "by most of the people she worked with." I don't know that to be true. Some people considered her volatile. But someone on the inside apparently heard the comment about a tenure-committee member claiming Bishop was "crazy" and reported the comment back to Bishop. That indicates to me that someone thought the comment was either unfair, inappropriate--or both. It seems to be a mixed bag with Bishop. Some students petitioned against her; others petitioned to have the university keep her. Universities are filled with people who could be described as volatile and unusual. Many of them get tenure, particularly when they have generated major inventions and significant grants, as Bishop had.