Monday, February 22, 2010

Story of UAH Shootings Takes on Broader Dimensions

Coverage of the fatal shootings at the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) so far has focused on the crime itself and the background of the alleged perpetrator, neuroscientist Amy Bishop.

But we are seeing signs of a more complex story starting to emerge, one that includes a focus on the workplace environment at UAH--and the actions and inactions of University of Alabama officials.

A prominent UAH alum says the university should shoulder some of the blame. A senior faculty member in the UA System raises the specter of deeply flawed tenure processes, where some candidates are intentionally undermined. And a UAH student says Bishop had numerous admirers, who considered her an excellent teacher and inspiring scientist--and they petitioned the administration to keep her.

Perhaps the most startling statement comes from Samuel N. Parks, a former student-body president at UAH. In a letter to the editor titled "UAH Deserves Some Blame," Parks says he was inundated with calls and text messages in the moments after the February 12 shootings. Once his initial disbelief cleared, Parks apparently was not all that surprised that such a tragedy took place on the UAH campus:

I do not wish to divert responsibility for these heinous crimes away from the perpetrator, but I am compelled to admit the university's administration does share a modicum of the blame for fostering an environment that welcomes this type of tragedy. By routinely treating the faculty and staff as expendable livestock, and by regarding the students as blank checks ripe for cashing, the university has spawned an atmosphere of doubt, fear and animosity. Such conditions will always breed radical responses from the chronically oppressed.

The most unfortunate part of this event is that three innocent people died before we realized the deplorable working environment which permeates the university.

The "deplorable working environment which permeates the university"? Those are powerful words from a UAH insider. Perhaps its time to label Parks as "crazy."

Another "crazy" might be James D. Slack, a professor of government at the UA System's Birmingham campus (UAB). In an op-ed piece for The Birmingham News, Slack says the tenure process often is hopelessly flawed and shrouded in secrecy:

If the horrific murders at the University of Alabama in Huntsville are linked to biology professor Amy Bishop's tenure denial, the public might get a rare glimpse into the dynamics that determine permanent faculty status. Tenure, or the protection against firing without cause, typically involves a five-year process of reviews and, in the sixth year, a determination with avenues for appeal. Successful candidates gain property interests, while unsuccessful ones receive a terminal year of employment.

Slack seems to envision lawsuits that will open the books on what took place in Amy Bishop's tenure process. And Slack indicates that it's high time such an inquiry took place:

Good tenure standards and procedures assess quality, not just quantity, but measuring quality is always an elusive affair. Mistakes happen that devastate lives and careers, and sometimes they happen intentionally. Just as Bishop may find with the Alabama jury system, the tenure process may be flawed, but it's the best we've got.

Is it possible that the tenure-review committee intentionally shot down a worthy candidate for reasons that had nothing to do with her strengths or weaknesses as an academician? Sounds like James Slack would not have a hard time buying that.

We've heard a lot about Bishop's detractors. But The Huntsville Times reports that she also had quite a few admirers. One of those was Rena Webb, a graduate student in Bishop's Introduction to Neuroscience class. The Times reports:

Webb, the graduate student, wanted to be a part of cutting-edge research. When she learned that Bishop had been denied tenure at UAH, Webb appealed to her classmates. All 22 in neuroscience signed the petition to save Bishop's job.

That petition, dated Feb. 5, was mailed seven days before the shooting. It began: "Dr. Bishop is a brilliant and excellent instructor. She is very responsive to the students."

UAH officials reportedly had denied Bishop tenure in April 2009 and denied her appeal last November. Would they have revisited the issue based on the request of Bishop's neuroscience students. It seems unlikely, given what we are learning about the university's administration.

Samuel N. Parks, the former UAH student-body president, expresses a sentiment that we share:

The perpetrator should be prosecuted to the fullest extent. But we should not allow this lesson to pass quietly. It is time for wholesale change at UAH so the shootings of Feb. 12 are never repeated.

We would modify that only slightly. It is time for wholesale change throughout the University of Alabama System. And the scrutiny should start with the Board of Trustees, who are responsible for all three campuses and have helped foster an environment of dysfunction.

Also, we shouldn't just focus on the prevention of workplace violence. Thankfully, incidents such as the one in Huntsville are rare, and I suspect that will remain the case. But an absence of violence does not mean a workplace is healthy--or that an employer is following the law. Here at Legal Schnauzer, we've been writing for months about unlawful treatment of employees in the UA System--long before gunfire erupted at UAH.

I have communicated personally with probably a dozen or so current and former UA System employees who have solid reason for believing they've been wronged in the workplace. My guess is that none of them ever will come close to acting out in a violent fashion. But their stories still indicate that the University of Alabama has serious workplace issues that need to be addressed.

Parks hints that he wasn't all that surprised that such a tragedy took place under the UA banner. As a former employee in the UA System for 19 years, it's sad to say that I wasn't either.


Scott Huminski said...

The US Police State,

Robby Scott Hill said...

I left UAH during my sophomore year. The grading system is even more mysterious. You can receive a D or even an F in a course even though you got more than 80% of the questions correct on the departmental final exam, but usually your final grade in the course isn't based on your final exam score alone. An arbitrary and capricious system that includes "class participation," "take home exams & research papers" & "lab projects" also factors into your final grade. One professor allegedly admitted that he would draw names out of a hat. The first few got the A's, the next few failed, then the B's & D's. The names that he didn't draw got C's.
It's a fundamentally unfair system.