Thursday, February 18, 2010

Did Mismanagement Lead to Alabama Campus Shootings?

Amy Bishop, the neuroscientist who is charged in last week's fatal shootings on the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) campus, has a number of troubling incidents in her past.

News reports, so far, have focused on Bishop's actions and her background--with little scrutiny directed toward administrators at the University of Alabama.

Based on what we've learned about the UAH shootings, and on my own experience as a 19-year employee in the UA system, that needs to change. Mismanagement, particularly related to Bishop's denial of tenure, almost certainly played a major role in a tragedy that left three people dead and three others wounded, two critically.

By now, many readers probably know about the mysterious shooting death of Bishop's brother, the suspicious mail bomb sent to one of Bishop's former professors at Harvard University, and the altercation with a fellow customer at a Massachusetts pancake house. All of these help paint the picture of Bishop as a troubled individual.

But we also have a picture of Bishop as a successful researcher, caring teacher, promising entrepreneur, devoted wife and mother. We've seen no reported signs of violent behavior during her time in Huntsville.

It seems undisputed that Bishop has a prickly personality, one that can rub some people the wrong way. But what transformed her into an alleged mass murderer? What role did UAH administrators--and the overall environment in the UA system--play in this transformation?

Our guess is that mismanagement played a substantial role in the Huntsville tragedy. Several reports have indicated that the victims' family members have raised questions about Bishop's hiring, why her past troubles were not unearthed in a background check. That raises the possibility of future lawsuits against UA for negligent hiring.

Experts have said, however, that even the most thorough background check probably would not have found the incidents in Bishop's past. Her brother's shooting, rightly or wrongly, was officially ruled an accident. She and her husband were among several people questioned about the mail bomb, with no charges ever being brought. And charges over the restaurant altercation were eventually dismissed.

If the public and the victims' families want to see where responsibility is more likely to lie, they should look at the actions of UA's administrators long after Bishop was hired--particularly as her candidacy for tenure drew near.

Our guess is that liability for UA should rest with negligent (even wanton) supervision, rather than negligent hiring. Our guess is that Bishop's defense lawyers eventually will be able to make a strong case that gross mismanagement drove her to insanity.

The federal government deserves scrutiny, as well. Discriminatory practices have been evident in the UA system for quite some time; we were writing about them here at Legal Schnauzer long before Amy Bishop became a household name--and they go well beyond my personal case at UA's campus in Birmingham (UAB). (See here, here, here, and here.)

Why should the feds be held accountable? The UA system receives hundreds of millions of dollars every year in federal research grants. Those funds are predicated on a commitment to conduct business in a lawful and nondiscriminatory manner. But it has been clear for at least two to four years that UA does not live up to that commitment.

We've written extensively about the case of Seema Gupta, a woman from India who was one of at least four international trainees to leave UAB's family-medicine residency program in Huntsville after making claims of widespread discrimination. Gupta filed a federal lawsuit, and a jury found that she indeed was the victim of discrimination based on her Hindu religion. Edward Stellmacher, a former resident from Germany, has a similar lawsuit pending.

This doesn't even include my case, which is being investigated by the EEOC, or the cases of at least three veteran UAB faculty members who have combined experience of roughly 80 years. And I've lost track of the number of current and former employees who have contacted me, because of my blog, and told horror stories about their experiences with UAB managers.

The record, just from UA's Birmingham campus, is clear: The university regularly engages in discriminatory practices. But has the federal government intervened? To our knowledge, the answer is no.

UA's federal funding should have been frozen some time ago, while an investigation of alleged discrimination was conducted. But the federal government apparently has done nothing, giving UA managers and administrators a free pass to abuse employees and violate civil-rights laws.

Did Amy Bishop experience abuse in the workplace, particularly regarding her candidacy for tenure? Our guess is that she did.

Tenure decisions are based on a junior faculty member's performance in three areas--research, teaching, and service. As the old phrase "publish or perish" implies, the research component often is far and away the most important factor.

All informed, objective accounts that we've seen indicate Amy Bishop was a top-notch researcher. One of the most insightful pieces on the Huntsville tragedy comes from Eric Fleischauer, of the Decatur Daily. He quotes Eric Seemann, a psychology professor who was one of Bishop's colleagues at UAH. Writes Fleischauer:

Despite her excellent research ability, Seemann was not surprised she struggled to obtain tenure.

“Amy was kind of hard to get along with,” he said. “I’ve talked to people who said, ‘Wow, she can be really arrogant,’ or be really headstrong. I knew that to be true. But at the same time she was brilliant. She was really one of UAH’s rising research stars. People I know in biological sciences would say, ‘She’s a great researcher, but she’s lousy to work with.’ ”

She was brilliant and she knew it.

“At one meeting I was with Amy, she was complaining to a group of us. She said she was denied tenure not because she was a lousy researcher — she’s not, quite the opposite — and not because she didn’t have good classes, she believed she did — I think some might say otherwise — but because she was accused of being arrogant, aloof and superior. And she said, ‘I am.’

“She said, ‘I am arrogant, I am aloof and I am superior in my attitude. But it doesn’t mean I don’t want to get along with people.’ ”

Reports about Bishop's teaching ability are a mixed bag. Some students rated her highly, finding her to be insightful, effective, and caring. Others complained, saying she lectured mostly from the textbook, gave unfair tests, and had a distant manner.

But Bishop's record as a researcher, alone, indicates that she probably met the criteria for tenure. UAH recently received an Area Research Enhancement Award (AREA) from the National Institues of Health, a grant designed to promote research at universities that have not traditionally received much NIH support. Who brought home that major grant? Amy Bishop.

Another insightful article comes from Shaila Dewan, of The New York Times. She quotes Bishop's husband, Dr. James Anderson, as saying that his wife had won the first round of her appeal on the tenure issue. It appears that a faculty review committee disagreed with the decision to deny tenure, but UAH Provost Vistasp Kharbari upheld it and President David Williams signed off on that final ruling. Writes Dewan:

Mr. Anderson said that months ago, the university administration overruled a successful appeal of the decision to deny Dr. Bishop tenure in spring 2009.

“She won her appeal,” he said, “and the provost canned it.”

The university has declined to elaborate on the details of Dr. Bishop’s tenure application, saying only that she was denied last spring and that she could stay at the university only until the end of this academic year. Even if a faculty member successfully appeals a tenure denial, the final decision rests with the administration.

The Huntsville Times' Lee Roop picked up on that theme. Writes Roop:

Bishop's husband, Jim Anderson, said Monday that Bishop won her appeal at one level based on "inadequate review" of the dossier, but that Kharbari "turned that down."

Administrators overriding the findings of review committees seems to be an ugly pattern at UA. I know of at least two other similar situations:

* In my case, UAB's own employee grievance committee found that I should not have been terminated. I sat through the entire four-hour grievance hearing, and there was no evidence that I should have been disciplined at all. Based on the findings, the committee apparently did not believe a number of statements from my former supervisor, Pam Powell. And yet, UAB's HR director at the time, Cheryl Locke, ignored her own committee and upheld my termination. UAB President Carol Garrison signed off on that.

* In the Seema Gupta case, a rogue program director named Dr. Allan Wilke apparently caused many of the problems at the family-medicine residency program in Huntsville. Wilke was demoted after Gupta left the program and filed a lawsuit; he now teaches at a school in The Bahamas. But Wilke didn't leave until he had badly damaged the careers of multiple residents. In Gupta's case, Wilke non-renewed her after the second year of a three-year program, even though the head of the internal medicine program said she already was performing at a third-year level. Gupta appealed and a review committee found that she should not have been non-renewed. She returned to the program, and Wilke promptly placed her on probation--even though the review committee had made no such recommendation. That caused Dr. Gupta to leave the program, in what appears to be a classic case of "constructive discharge" under the law.

So why would UAH administrators deny Amy Bishop tenure--even though her department chair supported her, even though a faculty-review committee reportedly supported her, and even though she brought home one of the most important research grants in recent UAH history?

A report yesterday from The Chronicle of Higher Education shines some light on that question. It indicates that one fellow faculty member, who served on Bishop's tenure-review committee, described her as "crazy."

Is it possible that the opinion of one person, who perhaps had zero credentials for judging someone's mental health, overrode the findings of numerous other individuals--plus a documented record of substantial research success?

Is it possible that the UAH administration allowed the opinion of one person to largely ruin the academic career of a promising faculty member?

Where were the University of Alabama Board of Trustees, and Chancellor Malcolm Portera, when all of this was taking place? Where were the system's supposed professionals in human resources? Where were the lawyers from the system's Office of Counsel?

All of these people are supposed to make sure that procedures are followed and employees are treated in a fair and lawful fashion. They failed in the Seema Gupta case, they so far have failed in my case, and they clearly failed in the Amy Bishop case--with tragic consequences.

Why could all of these people, with their multiple advanced degrees, not ask a simple question: "Why are we taking this woman--who has a stellar research record and the support of her department chair, a faculty-review committee, and many of her students--and denying her tenure?"

Why couldn't somebody ask this simple question: "Are we certain that this woman, who has a doctorate from Harvard University, can't cut it at UAH?"

Many unanswered questions remain about the Huntsville shootings. But we know this much for sure: Amy Bishop, for all of her peculiarities and difficulties in the past, was keenly aware of what tenure meant. Colleagues have said that, unlike most faculty members at UAH, she spoke openly about the process, both before and after her candidacy was denied. She surely knew what the standards were and that she met them.

Amy Bishop probably realized that she had played the game the way it was supposed to be played, right up until the end, and still she was being cheated. And something inside of her snapped. Numerous lives now are ruined as a result.

The University of Alabama has a clear recent record of treating capable and diligent employees in an inhumane fashion. Legal Schnauzer readers have been reading about such treatment, of me and many others, long before gunfire erupted in Huntsville.

The University of Alabama's dismal record on employment issues is a matter of public record. I can reach across my desk right now and lay my fingers on numerous documents that prove it. And yet people in authority--judges, lawyers, government officials--turn a blind eye. The mainstream press, so far, has turned a blind eye--and who knows if reporters ever will ask the questions that should be asked.

Our guess is that if Amy Bishop had been granted tenure--and the record indicates she had earned it--she would have gone on to a solid, maybe even a distinguished, academic career. She might have hurt a few feelings along the way. But we doubt that any hurtful acts on her part would have gone beyond that.

On the surface, Amy Bishop is responsible for the UAH shootings. She alone apparently pulled the trigger, and under criminal law, she alone will probably pay a severe price.

But under the surface, there are bigger issues that all of us should ponder. For months now, I have been writing about the inhumane and unlawful treatment of employees in the University of Alabama System. I know people are reading those posts, but I've seen no sign that anyone has taken action. Mostly I've seen signs that the legal and journalism professions in Alabama are doing everything in their power to cover up the problems.

We know, by the way, that Alabama is not the only place with such issues. On February 8, I wrote a post titled "Are Universities Breeding Grounds for Discrimination," outlining multiple cases where institutions of higher learning have mistreated employees.

Four days later, gunfire went off on a campus in Huntsville, Alabama.

Can anyone draw the connection? Does anyone have the courage to hold higher-education officials accountable?


Anonymous said...

This is guesswork of the highest order. There is not a fact to be found in all of this post that suggests discrimination.

Seeing discrimination where it doesn't exist insults the victims of discrimination.

Moreover, every indication that we currently have suggests that Dr. Bishop is a seriously violent person who has killed before. Even if she were discriminated against here, I seriously doubt that her brother discriminated against her.

Don't view the world through the lens of your own experience. Failure of empathy is a source of discrimination.

legalschnauzer said...

The post doesn't say Amy Bishop was a victim of discrimination. It says she probably was the victim of mismanagement that resulted in a denial of tenure that was unwarranted. Whatever happened with her brother has nothing to do with the tenure issue, which is the subject of this post.

The post does say that a number of people, including me, have experienced discrimination under the UA System in recent years. But it does not say that Amy Bishop was among them.

I don't know that discrimination, in a true legal sense, is even an issue normally in a tenure case.

The discrimination cases that I reference--plus the apparent mishandling of Amy Bishop's tenure case--form a pattern of mismanagement in the UA System.

Many unanswered questions remain, and any analytical article about these shootings involves a certain amount of guesswork. But the record, as we know it now, strongly suggests that Amy Bishop met the objective criteria for tenure and was denied--probably because one person found her to be "crazy," even though we know of no credentials that would allow this anonymous person to make such a judgment.

That the person made such a judgment is unfortunate. That the UA administration gave it any merit is appalling.

Anonymous said...

anonymous 2- can anyone really be as out-of-touch with reality as the person who wrote this silly diatribe?
people in all walks of life encounter difficulties - but they don't go killing people because of it! And yes, Amy Bishop did show signs of aggression in the past 6 years as she resided in Alabama - punching a woman in the head at an IHOP. And a suspect in a pipe-bomb. Your juvenile statement that people sitting on academic committees do not have the right to make frank and intuitive judgements of others; to call a person "crazy" if it appears to them that a person is really nuts- demonstrates just how divorced from the real world you are. Your adolescent reasoning places blame for murder of 3 people - and the intended murder of many more who sat in the meeting that morning - upon the university academic system! What terrible, distorted reasoning on your part. I have no doubt believing that Amy Bishop was and is crazy - because people who murder their own siblings are not exactly going to have a peaceful life, comprenedez amigo? Or is that too hard for a liberal, left-leaning person like you to understand? Is it too hard for you to understand that people like Amy Bishop are their own worse enemies, and that they bring their trail of failure to every place they arrive at, and I am talking about the fact of MORAL FAILURE which your stupid complaint does not bother to address.

legalschnauzer said...


You have a few problems with facts:

* The IHOP incident happened in Massachusetts;

* The pipe bomb incident, for which no was ever charged, happened in Massachusetts:

* I didn't say people on a tenure committee don't have the right to speak their mind. I said it's alarming that a university would give weight to statements regarding someone's mental health when they come from a person who isn't qualified to make such assessments;

* Nothing in the public record indicates Amy Bishop "murdered" her brother.

* Nothing in the post places blame on the "university academic system." It does say the university's current handling of HR issues is seriously flawed--and that's a matter of public record. There's quite a bit in the record so far to indicate that Amy Bishop's tenure case was not handled according to procedure. But this post isn't about blame and doesn't assign blame.

You might want to try actually reading the post and brushing up on the facts of the case before going off on a rant.