Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Legal Fallout Begins In the Wake of the Amy Bishop Shootings at UAH

Amy Bishop

The president of the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) has announced that he will step down on April 1, and some members of the university community expressed surprise.

UAH was the site of fatal shootings in February 2010, and no one who has followed the aftermath of that tragic day should be surprised at President David Williams' exit. In fact, we suspect other administrators will follow Williams out the door.

Amy Bishop, a former assistant professor of biology, faces criminal charges in the shootings, which killed three of her colleagues (injuring three others) and reportedly were sparked when UAH denied Bishop tenure. As we reported last month, at least five lawsuits have been filed in connection to the UAH shootings, and we suspect Williams' exit is a sign that the legal process is grinding forward.

We suspect it also is a sign that the University of Alabama administration will be held legally accountable--and that, in our view, is the way it should be.

From the outset, we have seen the Amy Bishop case as more than just a crime story. Is Amy Bishop a disturbed woman who was destined to act in a violent manner someday, no matter what happened around her? We think the story goes deeper than that.

By most accounts, Bishop displayed a prickly personality at UAH and could be pushy. Perhaps because of her Harvard pedigree on a relatively unknown Alabama campus, she gave off an air of superiority to some of her UAH colleagues. Some disturbing incidents in Bishop's past, none of which brought criminal charges at the time, have been widely reported.

But the record indicates that Bishop almost certainly met the standard for tenure. UAH had touted Bishop's skills as an investigator, and one of her inventions had generated $1.25 million in investment funds--at a school that was striving to enhance its research profile.

Tenure decisions generally involve an evaluation of skills in research, teaching, and service. I worked in higher education for almost 20 years, and my understanding is that research often carries far more weight than the other two components. Some reports indicate that Bishop received mixed reviews as a teacher, but more than 20 of her neuroscience students signed a petition supporting her bid for tenure. On her research record alone, Amy Bishop probably had earned tenure.

So, why was she denied? We know that her department chair, the person who should have been most familiar with her work, supported her candidacy. (The chair, Gopi Podila, was killed in the shooting.) We know that an unidentified faculty colleague spoke out in meetings against Bishop, claiming she was "crazy"--and his comments reportedly carried weight in the final tenure decision.

Did the faculty colleague have some special insight into Amy Bishop's behavior, and if so, why did her department chair not pick up on it? Did the faculty colleague have a genuine reason to believe Bishop was crazy or was he possibly jealous about her research successes? What really went on with the decision to deny Amy Bishop tenure?

The University of Alabama probably will do everything in its power to make sure the public never learns the answers to those questions. We suspect that means the victims and their families eventually will receive significant sums from the university for their pain and suffering. But the truth about what happened with the tenure process, in the weeks and months leading up to the shooting, probably will never be known.

Victims and their families, of course, deserve compensation--and behind-the-scenes negotiations probably are going on now. Some of the lawsuits have named Bishop and her husband as defendants, but there is not much money to be found there. The deep pockets, and much of the legal liability, lie with the university.

Why? One of two scenarios seem to apply here:

* The university failed to follow its own procedures, causing Amy Bishop to wrongfully be denied tenure--and she snapped under the strain of an injustice; or

* The faculty colleague had genuine reason to believe Bishop was already disturbed, prior to being denied tenure, and university administrators failed to take those concerns seriously.

A review of complaints filed in the various lawsuits indicate negligence, wantonness, wrongful death, and premises liability are some of the legal theories that will be raised.

A number of defendants have been named, but we look for the buck to stop at the door of the University of Alabama administration. And David Williams' resignation is a sign that process is under way.


1 comment:

Robby Scott Hill said...

The actions of Amy Bishop were inexcusable, but so is the way UAH evaluates and treats its students and faculty members. Many former students and professors who were kicked to the curb by UAH have gone on to receive advanced degrees and have highly successful careers away from Huntsville. I know. I'm one of them. Hopefully, UAH will reform its culture problem. Many in the UAH Community are frustrated with the school's poor leadership, but thankfully most would not resort to the measures that Amy Bishop did. While she deserves to be punished, perhaps she will be spared the death penalty because of the extenuating circumstances.