Friday, February 19, 2010

What Role Did "Crazy" Comment Play In Shootings at UAH?

The story of last Friday's fatal shootings on the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) campus has taken a number of twists and turns, most of them focusing on the background of neuroscientist Amy Bishop, who has been charged in the case. But perhaps the most stunning development since news of the shootings first broke came in a report two days ago from The Chronicle of Higher Education.

An anonymous UAH faculty member, who served on Bishop's tenure committee, told the Chronicle that he had concerns about Bishop's mental health. He said that at least twice in official settings he had expressed the view that Bishop was "crazy." The Chronicle story hints that the faculty member's assessment played a role in the university's ultimate decision to deny Bishop tenure--and that apparently was the issue that sparked the shootings.

That a faculty member, who apparently has no credentials for assessing anyone's mental health, would make such a statement is unfortunate. That UAH officials might have given it any weight, effectively ruining Amy Bishop's academic teaching career, is appalling. For that, we all are losers because Bishop had shown that she is a scientist of considerable promise.

It is not known what discipline the anonymous faculty member practices. But given that he served on a tenure-review committee, it appears that he held senior status. The Chronicle article states that several of Bishop's colleagues found her to be strange, but one veteran said she was not the strangest academic he had encountered in a long career.

I know from my own experience of working in higher education for 19 years that if every "strange" or "crazy" person was denied tenure, there would be few full professors on university campuses.

One colleague, however, thought he found something dark about Bishop. Reporters Thomas Bartlett and Robin Wilson write:

Another professor, however, has long been wary of Ms. Bishop. He asked The Chronicle not to use his name because, considering recent events, he is worried about his own safety. The professor, who was a member of Ms. Bishop's tenure-review committee, said he first became concerned about Ms. Bishop's mental health "about five minutes after I met her."

It's comforting to know that this professor was confident in his ability to make snap judgments. And he was so confident that he shared his views in an official capacity, during a process that would essentially make or break Amy Bishop's academic career. The Chronicle reports:

The professor said that during a meeting of the tenure-review committee, he expressed his opinion that Ms. Bishop was "crazy." Word of what he said made it back to Ms. Bishop. In September, after her tenure denial, she filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging gender discrimination. The professor's remark was going to be used as possible evidence in that case.

Did UAH officials take this snap judgment seriously? Oh, yes:

It was then, the professor said, that the associate provost of the university, John Severn, came to him and asked whether he truly believed what he had said about Ms. Bishop. (Reached by phone, Mr. Severn declined to comment.) The professor was given the opportunity to back off the claim, or to say it was a flippant remark. But he didn't. "I said she was crazy multiple times and I stand by that," the professor said. "This woman has a pattern of erratic behavior. She did things that weren't normal."

On what did the professor base his assessment? Not much:

No one incident stands out, the professor said, but a series of interactions caused him to think she was "out of touch with reality." Once, he said, she "went ballistic" when a grant application being filed on her behalf was turned in late. The professor said he avoided Ms. Bishop whenever he saw her, on or off the campus. When he spotted her not long ago at a Barnes & Noble bookstore, he made sure he was out of sight until she had left the store. He even skipped a faculty retreat because he knew she would be there.

The professor makes clear that he never told university officials he thought Bishop was potentially violent. He says officials appeared to mainly be concerned about legal fallout of a possible lawsuit by Bishop.

So what did they do? They effectively fired Bishop, even though her record--as we know it at this point--indicates she was a productive researcher who probably met the criteria for tenure.

Here is "management" as it apparently is practiced in the University of Alabama System: A faculty member makes a grossly inappropriate comment that gets back to its target and causes you to worry about a lawsuit. Your response is to effectively fire the person who was victimized by the comment.

Makes a lot of sense, doesn't it?

Now three people are dead, and if it's legal fallout UAH officials were concerned about, they will have plenty of that in the weeks and months ahead.

I worked in the University of Alabama System for 19 years--and was the victim of a wrongful termination that currently is under EEOC investigation--so it takes a pretty stupid administrative act to shock me. But this latest news from UAH leaves even me feeling numb.

The story does not clearly state this, but it appears that the anonymous professor's assessment might have been the deciding factor in denying Amy Bishop tenure. It remains unclear when Bishop's appeal was completed and a final decision was reached.

The way I read the Chronicle story, it appears the university gave considerable weight to the professor's assessment in the original finding to deny tenure for Bishop. Then it seems the university might have been thinking about reversing course and granting tenure, possibly causing a representative from the provost's office to go back to the professor to see if he was serious about what he had said. This would fit with statements from Bishop's husband, James Anderson, that his wife had won her appeal at the faculty-review level, but the provost ultimately overruled.

Again, the timeline on all of this remains unclear. But it looks like the professor's willingness to repeat his "crazy" comment might have been the final blow for Amy Bishop's tenure hopes.

If the administration was leaning toward denying the tenure appeal, I can't imagine why Associate Provost John Severn would have consulted the professor. It would seem pointless to do that.

Regardless of the timeline, the ignorance displayed by UAH in this situation is mind boggling? I can only try to illustrate by encouraging others to put themselves in this position: Imagine that one person, with an uninformed and unprofessional comment, has the power to cost you your job and put a permanent black mark on your career. Imagine that you have a spouse and perhaps children who depend on your ability to make a living. Imagine that the person who makes this comment might not actually think you are "crazy"--he might not like your gender, your politics, your religion, your skin color; he might be jealous of your accomplishments.

It has been widely reported that Bishop was a "Harvard liberal." Was the anonymous professor a conservative who detested her political views? Was her tendency to vote for Democrats what really caused the professor to consider her "crazy"?

Then imagine that your superiors actually listen to this individual and give his opinion considerable weight regarding your future.

Scary, isn't it?

If the anonymous professor had legitimate grounds for thinking Amy Bishop might be a threat to herself or others, there were other avenues to take. He could have contacted human resources, the legal office, campus police--the list goes on.

My understanding about the tenure process, and I worked in higher education for a long time, is that it's supposed to be about a junior faculty member's capabilities in three areas--teaching, research, and service. In many instances, I'm told, service carries almost no weight, teaching carries some weight, and research carries a whole lot of weight. Research, which is particularly important in the sciences, was Amy Bishop's strong suit--and that leads us to believe that she almost certainly met the criteria for tenure.

I've seen no indication that the tenure process is supposed to be an opportunity for uninformed and unqualified individuals to question a candidate's mental health. And it certainly is not a time for administrators to allow such individuals to sway life-changing decisions.

If Amy Bishop had become a threat to others down the road--an inclination that even our anonymous professor says he did not see--the university could have taken appropriate action at the time. Tenure is not a free pass to bully, harass, or harm others. We've seen no reports that Amy Bishop ever harmed or threatened to harm anyone during the roughly six years she lived in Huntsville, before the anonymous professor's comment and the ultimate denial of tenure.

Despite that, we now have three people dead, two critically injured, and Amy Bishop's career and life are in tatters.

What might the loss of Amy Bishop's productivity mean to society? Numerous reports have indicated that she invented a new kind of cell incubator, which is touted as a major advance over old-style Petri dishes. And what might this mean in everyday terms? Here is how The Chronicle of Higher Education describes it:

Its use could drive scientific advances against nerve-related ailments—such as Lou Gehrig's disease, Alzheimer's disease, and stroke—because nerve cells don't survive more than a day or two in a Petri dish, said Richard E. Reeves, chairman of Prodigy Biosystems, which is making and marketing the device.

An Alabama university nurtured a scientist who had made major strides toward developing treatments for catastrophic nerve disorders that effect huge numbers of Americans. Then an Alabama university screwed it up, and now her services have been lost--with probably 25 years or so left in her academic career.

All, apparently, because word of a colleague's unfounded remark about her mental health got back to Bishop. And UAH wanted to avoid legal fallout.

How pathetically, and sadly, ironic is that?


Anonymous said...

It appears likely that she is actually "crazy" - paranoid schizophrenic. And probably has been for many years. The tenure issue was just another excuse to act out violently, as she has done before in her life.

Robby Scott Hill said...

I knew a paranoid schizophrenic law student and even experienced judges have suffered from the condition. George C. Scott co-starred with Joanne Woodward in a movie about "classic paranoia" back in the 1970s called "They Might Be Giants" where he played a courtroom judge who had gone paranoid. I highly recommend this film to anyone who has suspected their local judge or their attorney was a little off his rocker. The stress of higher education and professional practice causes some people to snap. There is no adequate system to identify and treat these conditions in practicing professionals mostly because the colleges and licensing boards are ashamed to publicly admit that the smartest, most qualified members of their profession can "go over the edge." This is especially true in Alabama. They refuse to identify professionals with problems and send them for treatment until somebody gets hurt.
They sit on their butts and allow the criminal justice system to take out the trash instead of getting proactive to help their brothers and sisters and avert a tragedy like UAH. It won't be long before a lawyer or judge opens fire on innocent folks in a courtroom because the judges and DAs are allowed to carry heat while everyone else is prohibited.

Anonymous said...

What is "crazy"? Was any mental or emotional issue caused by the terms and conditions of her employment? If someone suffers from "craziness," aren't they protected under the Americans With Disabilities Act? And if the "craziness" is caused or exacerbated by her employment or employer, would that be a worker's comp issue, aside from EEOC issues? (And, for what it's worth, I've heard our very own favorite Schnauzer called crazy, also by someone afflicted with arrogance but no training or ability to assess mental conditions.) Edu-cracy (one letter off from "crazy"), bureaucracy (ditto), and the legal system -- all systems that contribute to the increase in "crazies"!

Anonymous said...

Does it really matter if she's schizophrenic, paranoid, or a sociopath if the end result is that she still killed three people for denying her tenure. Do you know many people who kill their colleagues when they're denied a job? I don't. In fact, last time I heard, that behavior was still not acceptable. You could call me a nutcase, retard, or whore, but I don't kill people for it. That's the difference!