Amy Bishop UAH case: What role should personality or collegiality play in tenure decisions?

Valued commenter wc just left us a link to one of the most insightful articles to date on Dr. Amy Bishop, the University of Alabama in Huntsville biology professor charged in the shooting deaths of three colleagues where two other professors and an administrative assistant were injured.

In today's Decatur Daily, staff writer Eric Fleischauer has an extended interview with UAH psychology professor Eric Seemann. You really should read the whole thing because it provides an inside view of Bishop's personality and relationships. But here is a critical passage:

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.'

I recently had the opportunity to lead an effort to draft from scratch a reappointment, promotion, and tenure document for a newly-established department. With a committee of deans and department chairs, the final document pretty much included your typical quantitative requirements for teaching, research, and service. But one dean strongly suggested to me that we include a section on collegiality, defined loosely as the ability to interact constructively with individuals for the greater good of the department and the university. While wording to that effect was included, it was not explicitly defined as an evaluative criterion.

In academia, we often tolerate a great deal of destructive and defiant behavior that disrupts the organization in the name of "genius," perceived external stature and, perhaps most importantly, grant dollars (which generate indirect cost dollars for the institution). When describing some situations I've encountered to my colleagues in other non-academic businesses, their conclusion was that some of these people would often be let go if such behavior occurred in their workplaces.

For this consideration, let us step away for a moment from the horrible tragedy in Huntsville. Let us assume that an assistant professor there adequately met all of the explicit quantitative criteria for promotion and tenure in terms of teaching, research, and service. I would expect, however, that if the candidate under consideration was not an otherwise constructive member of the organization, comments in this regard would have been included in the chair's recommendation to the college dean's promotion and tenure committee based on the deliberations of the departmental promotion and tenure committee.

The questions for you, dear academic reader are:

1. Do you think that lack of collegiality is grounds for denial of tenure for a candidate that otherwise meets the basic quantitative criteria outlined in university guidelines?

2. Do you feel that collegiality - or whatever you want to call it: teamwork, cooperation - should be an important factor in making academic tenure decisions?

Update Feb 15 - One of the most collegial academics I know both online and IRL, Prof Janet Stemwedel, has an excellent post this morning on her blog, Adventures in Ethics and Science, entitled, "Collegiality Matters." She expands there on what comprises academic collegiality and why she thinks it is an essential consideration in tenure decision.

More like this

Abel has a thoughtful post on the horrific faculty meeting shooting at University of Alabama Huntsville this past Friday. New information seems to come out every few hours on the shooter, Dr. Amy Bishop, a biologist at the university who had been denied tenure, and I'm nowhere near ready to weigh…
ScienceBlogling Abel Pharmboy asks two questions about collegiality and tenure: 1. Do you think that lack of collegiality is grounds for denial of tenure for a candidate that otherwise meets the basic quantitative criteria outlined in university guidelines? 2. Do you feel that collegiality - or…
Was just checking the old SiteMeter stats before foraging for dinner and saw a surge in search hits for "Amy Bishop." Yup. Lo and behold she has been charged with murder - for the 1986 death of her brother. From an article an hour ago by Donovan Slack and Shelley Murphy at the Boston Globe: The…
First and foremost our condolences go to all our our colleagues at the University of Alabama at Huntsville and others in the Huntsville science community such as Twitter friend, @girlscientist, Dr. Chris Gunter. As we are learning, yesterday's shooting occurred after UAH Assistant Professor of…

Although Amy Bishop had a difficult personality, so do many people and they don't kill others. There is a strong possibility that Ms. Bishop was taking an antidepressant to help her cope with a denied tenure.

The Physicians Desk Reference states that SSRI antidepressants and all antidepressants can cause mania, psychosis, abnormal thinking, paranoia, hostility, etc. These side effects can also appear during withdrawal. Also, these adverse reactions are not listed as Rare but are listed as either Frequent or Infrequent.

Go to where there are over 3,600 cases, with the full media article available, involving bizarre murders, suicides, school shootings/incidents [53 of these]workplace violence, and murder-suicides - all of which involve SSRI antidepressants like Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil, etc, . The media article usually tells which SSRI antidepressant the perpetrator was taking or had been using.

An important piece missing in this well thought out article is that whether one is "difficult", "arrogant", "superior", or whatever, disappointments in one's professional career are normally not reacted to by gunfire and murder! Dr. Bishop might have been a talented scientist, but she was clearly mentally ill and unsuited to an academic life in the very least. I sympathize with her but that feeling cannot supersede what I feel for her victims.

I believe that collegiality should be a considered a deciding factor. What good is a genius if it isn't for the greater good especially in academia. If your an intellectual individual working in an academic environment, how can others benefit or wouldn't you want others to benefit from it. Social skills is important. Not much can get done when working with a difficult individual, I find it similar to running into a wall. What happened at that University is a tragedy.

We need to separate mental illness from personality to comment on the two questions, given that the UAH case is the impetus for asking.

In our society we deal with mental illness poorly, and those in the health care professions know more about the ingredients for that situation than I do. Universities deal even less well with mentally ill employees and also employees engaged in criminal activity (sexual harassment would top my list as an example). To what extent UAH recognized the potential for mental illness or criminal behavior in the Bishop case, those of us on the outside cannot know.

On the question of personality and collegiality required for tenure: I've given that question a great deal of thought in the past 33 years of being on the faculty at UCD. My short answer is NO, it should not, if the person meets the research, teaching and service components of the job. On the other hand, personality should be expected to affect those components, particularly teaching and service, and so personality is indeed embedded in the requirements for advancement in academia. But if a colleague has a productive research program, and a good teaching record, including mentoring graduate students, then whether person is simply unlikable for some reason to her/his peers should not matter.

Missing from this discussion is recognition of the risk young scientists run and the extraordinary dedication that their job requires. Academic scientists often "train" for half their professional lives before becoming eligible for tenure. "Trainees" are often underpaid in comparison with other professionals (MDs, lawyers) with similar education and experience. Then, after all of this personal investment, we come to tenure. Often, this hinges on the level of research funding the candidate has, and this depends on factors that the candidate cannot fully control. Professional opportunities for scientists who have been denied tenure are limited, so it is clear why the tenure decision is a source of anxiety to junior scientists and failure to gain tenure is a source of frustration and despair.

This is not to condone illegal or "non-collegial" behavior by anyone, but to shed light on the risks and inadequate compensation of trainees. Who would enter this field fully aware of the facts? If we want continued technical excellence at US universities and continuing innovation to support industry, we must do more to support science trainees and ensure that their personal investments and the national investment in their training are not wasted.

By Jacques Bouvier (not verified) on 14 Feb 2010 #permalink

I'd assume that the ultimate goal of tenure decisions is to maximize the quantity and quality of whatever mixture of teaching and research the institution making the tenure decision does.

In the trivial case of having a choice of candidates, of roughly equivalent qualification, choosing based on personality traits would seem wholly reasonable: at worst, the rest of your faculty and staff are incrementally happier, at best, the tenure candidate with the better personality ends up being more productive through collaboration.

In the less trivial cases, where you are trading off between genius and pleasantness, it doesn't seem like there would be any general purpose rule, it would depend on the character of the work being done. If effective collaboration is essential, being an unapproachable asshole would be a major impediment to getting good work done. If, on the other hand, superior ability, along with the assistance of people willing to put up with you because you are Just That Good, happens to produce excellent results, it would be hard to justify axing somebody for being unlikeable.

I'm glad to see this paragraph written:

"In academia, we often tolerate a great deal of destructive and defiant behavior that disrupts the organization in the name of "genius," perceived external stature and, perhaps most importantly, grant dollars (which generate indirect cost dollars for the institution). When describing some situations I've encountered to my colleagues in other non-academic businesses, their conclusion was that some of these people would often be let go if such behavior occurred in their workplaces."

I think it's long past time to be asking why this situation is allowed to continue. It makes the news when the tragedy is high profile, but the fact is that smaller personal tragedies occur constantly because such behavior is tolerated, and in fact rewarded. Many academic behaviors have already been litigated in companies, long ago, and industry has learned that tolerating them has a price. For a bunch of smart people, academia is way behind the curve on this one, but I expect modernity will catch us in the end.

Thanks for writing this.

I would say that it depends heavily on what kind of work they are doing, what type of teaching position they have and other factors like that. There have been many brilliant scientists throughout the years who are just not very good at explaining concepts in simple terms and are not generally good speakers or communicators. They may be excellent with their subject matter, but put them behind a podium and tell them to give an address to a small group and they'll studder, say the wrong thing, confuse people or bore them to death.

I have met a couple brilliant researchers who actually come across as shy and are not outgoing at all. I did some computer work for a guy who was an amazingly intelligent researcher in the mathematics of chaos theory, but he never returned phone calls and was impossible to deal with in general.

If we're talking about a job that involves primarily pure research, then that's fine. If it involves a combination of research and some graduate advising or teaching, then it might also work out.

However, if we're talking about an undergraduate professor or biology who is going to be regularly teaching, holding office hours, advising students and so on then it won't cut it. It doesn't matter how brilliant you are, if you can't teach then you shouldn't be teaching - you should find a role that better suits your skills. Aside from being bad at it, my guess is that a person like that would be absolutely miserable having to spend time trying to explain things to undergrads.

As far as teamwork and cooperation - again, it depends on the setting and type of research. If it's something that generally requires a lot of team work and very little individual research, then you have to be a team player. It doesn't matter if you're brilliant, if you can't get the job done because you can't work in that setting. If it's something that is mostly individual research, it might not be an issue.

The real question is whether she did her job well. The reason why she did or didn't do her job well could be personality or intellect. It really doesn't matter. If you don't cut it, you don't cut it.

Too often, the boss uses time spent away from work to decide what he really thinks about a person and his future in the workplace.

If three people are equally qualified to _be allowed to stay_ (!), "personality" shouldn't be used to decide who leaves.

No adult should be punished for not sharing the group's tastes in entertainment.

If someone is said to be "not a good teammate", it should be understood to mean that the person refuses to shoulder his fair share of the group's unpleasant tasks.

By Randall Simmonds (not verified) on 14 Feb 2010 #permalink

"but because she was accused of being arrogant, aloof and superior. And she said, 'I am.' "

She murdered 3 people , yes murdered not killed because she acted in a premeditated way. Planned (or went) with a gun to a faculty meeting. I think of course she should go to jail and rot.
But lets think a little about sexism and tenure.
Was she an easy person to work with?, probably not, working with an arrogant person is beyond impossible. But think about this, if a I man would have acted this way (arrogant/superior). He would have been just an arrogant ass but a genius non the less and thus would have obtained tenure anyway. I woman cannot brag about being a genius , we must giggle and smile and be coy and shy, otherwise you are an impossible bitch.
This whole thing has a sexist side that most people are choosing to overlook.

Is the author aware that this woman shot and killed her brother in her early 20's....this would seem to be the major FAct to consider in this case!

By Joyce Myers (not verified) on 14 Feb 2010 #permalink

Indeed, everyone - the outcome here is tragic and extreme. And not to minimize this, as I spent a lot of time in my previous post on this case, here I am questioning how we value/devalue certain behaviors in the academy.

I agree wholeheartedly with those of you who raise the point about mental illness. The spectrum of CNS biochemical dysfunction is sadly stigmatized in our society, even more so in academia and even in settings such as medicine and neuroscience where we should know better. Voices like the Johns Hopkins clinical psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison, who lives with bipolar disorder, as few and far between.

When does narcissism or other personality disorders become diseases deserving of consideration under ADA guidelines? When does just being a dysfunctional, disruptive arrogant ass result in consequences in academia?

I really appreciate anon's point (#7) and thank her/him for appreciating that part of this post. We do indeed tolerate a lot of crap in academia that wouldn't fly in other businesses.

On the other hand, we do a lot of things in academia that are unlike other businesses: tenure decisions ask that every faculty member meet the same exact criteria without appreciating that each person has a subset of strengths that together improve the organization. My colleague, Dr. Janet Stemwedel, held forth on this very point the other day at her own excellent blog, Adventures in Ethics and Science, where she presents a superb argument for why we should do away with, "The idea that tenure should require dazzling excellence at research, teaching, and service."

The decision for tenure, even if it's supposed to be made based on basic quantitative criteria, will never be a truly objective process. Even if lack of collegiality is NOT considered grounds for denial of tenure... someone who is obnoxious or arrogant may find themselves denied for some other more "official" reason. These decisions are fraught with politics. In theory, I would say that lack of collegiality should be considered but then who defines collegiality? I think that some very accomplished, politically savvy indivisuals might get through anyway regardless of interpersonal skills.

The world of academia is so fraught with giant egos, arrogance, and politics that it's a more complicated issue. In an ideal world, I think that candidates with better people skills, who are more adept at teamwork, etc should be favored.

Re: post #6:
"I'd assume that the ultimate goal of tenure decisions is to maximize the quantity and quality of whatever mixture of teaching and research the institution making the tenure decision does."
Tenure is part of the feudalistic structure in academia, ostensibly there only to promote research, academic freedom, rigor and to protect the professor from reprisal from grading too toughly or spending time on unpopular curriculum and the like. It does some of these things, but what it does vastly more of is to produce aging, lazy, self-satisfied professors who won out in the tenure hustle, while in their prime. The real labor that benefits the college is then done by systematically tortured and underpaid adjuncts.
Get rid of tenure, form a sensible system of ranking and job security and measures of academic freedom to all college teachers, pay those on the bottom much better, and offer grants for research.

By Steven Buonocore (not verified) on 14 Feb 2010 #permalink

I was terminated without cause because of a personality conflict with a new headmaster hired after I had been well established at the school. I was and still am taking these drugs mentioned, i.e., zoloft, wellbutrin, clonopin, lunesta, I also own and know how to use several guns. The school stole one of my designs (I was the art teacher and I am a painter, fiber artist, and graphic designer) and refused to pay me even though I never signed an IP contract giving them total control over my artwork. They had no reason to let me go and no rightful claim to my personal property but they did it anyway. Of course, I was upset, but it never even crossed my mind to retaliate in ANY way, let alone even think of causing physical or mental harm to anyone. I also have a pretty high opinion of my talents but I am reasonable enough to understand sometimes things don't go as planned so you get another plan. Amy Bishop has her degree, her research record and had an opportunity to make another plan. There are so many people in this world right now who are in much more desperate situations than she was and they aren't just going around killing people. I'm still not teaching 5 years later but I'm still working on a new plan. And it doesn't involve violence!

By Holly Baker (not verified) on 14 Feb 2010 #permalink

Suppose it depends on the level of collegiality required. Sometimes people just don't have the wiring for good social skills. They may get along well with others, are found to be generally pleasant, do an excellent job, but they are unable to do the small talk or schmoozing, and avoid social functions as those make them uncomfortable.

They often can be blunt or even appear rude, and while they may later recognize what they said was rude or inappropriate, they don't understand why it was--only that others think it was (i.e. note to self: if someone asks you for an honest opinion, they don't want an honest opinion).

We can't discriminate against someone with a physical handicap, but we do it all the time against someone with a social skill handicap. If a person is an abrasive or divisive person then perhaps they're not suited for working with others,and in those cases, deny them a position where they will create friction or a poisonous workplace.

But too often the schmoozer, the one with the great social skills, is picked over the better qualified, more brilliant, but slightly socially inept person who would get along well with others given the time needed to adjust to strangers in his/her environment.

Too much emphasis is put on the person who makes others feel at ease when the more important qualifications for the actual work are overlooked. Hire the person who makes you feel good, not the person who is good--seeing that in action many times is very frustrating over a lifetime, especially if others are getting full-time jobs and you're having to take contracts, often moving just to find work, giving up a stable life in one spot, no way to own a home or raise a family because you never know where you'll be 6 months from now or if you'll have money coming in.

Put all that onto a person who has poor social skills, is probably a bit of a loner and due to all the moving is single, and perhaps given their poor coping skills many of them will have some sort of mental episode (most, fortunately, do not kill others, but still suffer from depression, breakdowns, suicide, or just drop out of society altogether).

No answers here. Introverts might have invented the world, but extroverts are the ones running it, and they don't understand introverts very well at all.

Hope you're feeling better, Abel.

By Daniel J. Andrews (not verified) on 14 Feb 2010 #permalink

Let's be honest and include collegiality as one the explicit requirements for tenure. When it is not made explicit, those offended by a lack of collegiality go on a witchhunt to drum up some other lame excuse to fire the candidate.

By Another academic (not verified) on 14 Feb 2010 #permalink

Is there any evidence other than conjecture that Dr. Bishop has a mental illness? Until she has a diagnosis, we should avoid jumping to that conclusion. As a person with a serious mental illness who also manages to hide it from coworkers, I cringe every time something like this happens because the first assumption is that the person is mentally ill. The stigma is hard enough without adding to it by lumping people with mental illnesses in with everyone else who commits a heinous crime.

By thankyoufairy (not verified) on 14 Feb 2010 #permalink

For the already tenured faculty in a department voting on tenure, the vote is basically one of "Do I want to spend the rest of my life interacting with this person on a daily basis?" It is thus wholly appropriate that being a flaming asshole is relevant to the decision. Of course, this appropriate consideration can also serve as cover for illegitimate--and possibly illegal--reasons for not wanting to spend the rest of one's life interacting with someone.

Regarding question #2 (which is the easier) I would answer that certainly collegiality should be considered. I suppose a special dispensation might be made for an insufferable genius from time to time. But the value of such a burdensome intellect should be weighed against the damage it will do to others. There is no "extra" value to having a genius around, apart from the output of his or her work and the net effect on the department.

I think these are the same sorts of calculations all employers make, and that academia just weighs certain qualities differently.

Well, in the humanities tenure rejections based on subjective criteria has led to departments where a pretty narrow perspective on the subject at hand blatantly perpetuates itself among the junior tenured faculty.

What you get is a group that is surprisingly homogeneous in terms of outlook, not best teachers, researchers and thinkers available.

OTOH: obviously these subjective factors can't be discounted altogether.

Perhaps the best solution is to ask for a supermajority in favor of rejections for subjective reasons?

P.S. @Randall 9: Yes! The chair of the department where I worked for a while did just that. He discriminated against someone who did not drink alcohol. He insisted on having departmental meetings at the local pub, and while everyone ordered alcoholic drinks, one person, "Chris", did not.

It didn't matter that it was because Chris physically couldn't drink alcohol, the chair felt as if he was being judged for drinking. He regularly made snide remarks to others that revealed his insecurity, and his teasing of Chris started becoming condescending, telling guests something like, "We'll all go out for drinks, except for Chris, who will just drink milk".

Chris was very good, well-liked by students, received top teaching marks on evaluations, was very knowledgeable about many things outside their field, was rather funny and witty once relaxed a bit, but after 5 years of contract work, Chris wasn't hired for the full-time position.

Instead it which was given to a newer and less qualified person who just happened to be a great storyteller and shared the chairs preference in alcohol (Guinness). I was so disgusted I made a formal complaint as did others. The chair was demoted (in that he wasn't returned to the chair position when the renewal came up 3 months later), but Chris still was out of a job.

By Daniel J. Andrews (not verified) on 14 Feb 2010 #permalink

I suspect the type of academics that exhibit a lack of collegiality in day to day interactions with peers are likely to engage in unethical behavior in other professional activities, such as reviewing papers, reviewing grants, writing reference letters etc... This tolerance of destructive and bullying behavior in academia reflects a much broader issue with ethics.

Post #22 is further evidence to support my remarks in post #14. The chair depicted by Mr. Andrews would not have held inebriated department meetings if he did not have tenure, and if he had, he could have been fired (as appears appropriate.)
In what other job are you so completely protected? President of The United States?
Ask Bill Clinton what it was like to be impeached.
State Senator? Ask Eliot Spitzer.
Attorney? Can you spell "d-i-s-b-a-r-r-e-d?

By Steven Buonocore (not verified) on 14 Feb 2010 #permalink

Steven (#14) is on the right track. The original purpose of tenure was to protect academic research in controversial areas of thought and practice. Things like stem cell research or homoerotic photography, for example. It has become distorted and redefined by individual institutions to the point where there is no one REAL definition of "tenure" leaving it wide open to interpretation by those applying for (or being denied) tenure. In some institutions tenure and promotion automatically go hand in hand. Tenure was never meant to be the brass ring of lifelong job security because you played the game well enough for the first 5 years of your employment, it should simply be a part of any existing contract for temporary protection while you are working in an area which may be considered unpopular or inappropriate to certain groups of people. Job protection, not perpetuity. There is no reason the world of academia should not work just like the real world and academics should stop thinking of tenure as the goal and only consider it the necessary but temporary protection of their freedom to think and create.

By Holly Baker (not verified) on 14 Feb 2010 #permalink

A consideration of collegiality or personality for tenure would be an abomination. Not that anything can excuse the acts of Dr. Bishop, an 'arrogant' 'difficult' female professor is perceived quite differently compared to a male professor. These same characteristics would be essential to equip a male professor or any professor to survive the rigor and competition of academia.

It is far past time to get rid of the idea of the solitary genius working in a lab as the template for how science "works" but it would take a huge overhaul of the hiring system if not the graduate degree program to be effective. Collegiality should be evaluated formally since, as Emily says, it's being done anyway and probably being used to maintain status quo wrt the type of people in the department. People don't have to be best friends but they should be able to treat co-workers (at all levels) with respect and in a professional manner.

For what it's worth academia is not so different than any other business. I would consider profs to be equivalent to at least middle management and Deans/Department heads as VPs. Some seem to have been brought up by wolves; others seem more equitable and sympathetic.

One could describe the academic world as overly "tolerant", as this writer feels.

However, in academia, outside ideas are not generally welcome. On most campuses, there is an "easy road", politically, and a "hard road". Most professors and students try to believe in the ideas that constitute the "easy road". This enables them to get good grades and move their careers forward. This IS academia today.

The risk of a "collegiality" clause is that professors could use such a clause to reinforce the prevailing ideology (whether political, 'scientific' or technical) of department heads. Such a clause would probably be misused.

It is possible that Bishop was simply mentally ill and a self-centered person. Bishop was dangerous, but I'd bet she'd have still been dangerous even if a quest tenure was nowhere involved in her life.

"The world of academia is so fraught with giant egos, arrogance, and politics that it's a more complicated issue."

Giant ego is another term for thin skin. And much of what constitutes "collegiality" is wrapped up in cultural assumptions, which is very important when you have a lot of international faculty.

I'm just a lowly staff member, of a particular class that has very little job security on campus. So I try (and sometimes fail) to step lightly. But I interact with professors all the time and appreciate the eccentric along with the socially skilled. If you get in the habit of being offended, it's easy to forget how to ask or answer difficult questions.

Dr Amy Bishop was a NO researcher. In looking more into her research, I think she was exactly right. Her patent application to use NO to treat and prevent neurodegenerative diseases is correct, and would work, provided she had the right NO generators. The bacteria I am working with are the correct NO generators.

I really do understand how frustrating it can be to be correct, and to not be given the opportunity to be heard. The NO research community is not very âcollegialâ (in my opinion as an âoutsiderâ). There are a lot of researchers with very big egos, even when they are wrong. I have heard complaints of reviewers using their positions to thwart the publication of research that they disagreed with.

The approach of using NO to treat neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's will work. It should essentially stop the progression of the disorder as soon as it is used. It can't reverse the damage that has already occurred, but it can stop or greatly reduce the progression of damage. I can easily understand how frustrated someone could get when faced with changes in circumstances that could add years or more to the time it takes to implement the development of these techniques. Neurodegenerative diseases kill many people each year. All of those deaths are the cost of delaying the implementation.

Try to understand the frustration of knowing how to save many hundreds of thousands of lives but being unable to do so; think Semmelweis, Jenner, Snow, Pasteur, Koch, Flemming, Banting, Salk.

I close with two quotes from Arthur Schopenhauer:

Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see.

With people of limited ability modesty is merely honesty. But with those who possess great talent it is hypocrisy.

Tenure criteria are typically in areas of teaching, scholarship, and service. Tenure decisions should be totally based upon these alone; no other considerations should be used unless they are part of clearly stated criteria and unless objective standards for these are clearly established.

Unfortunately, collegiality, personality, and campus politics have become part of the tenure decision processes, in spite of there often being no established objectives standards. This is inherently unfair and a represents situation that is abusive to junior faculty.

Universities need to be protective of those with diverse personalities and take whatever steps are necessary to prevent being infected with political correctness.

A more complex issue that merits further examination is how schools deals with mental illness and faculty undergoing tenure review. A significant part (~15-20%) of the overall population and faculty deal with a form of mental illness. Colleges need to be supportive of these faculty and have processes in place to ensure that they do.

The first thought when someone commits cold blood murder may be "They must be insane." However, I think it is very unfair to then go on and speculate that "mental illness" might be some sort of mitigating factor in regards to the behavior of someone like Amy Bishop. I think it is just as likely that she was an "just" an arrogant, aloof person who was angry, had a gun and thought she was superior to others, and so she murdered people because she wanted to and she could. I think people naturally want to find some "reason" such as mental illness or the fact that "the university was trying to steal her intellectual property" or "she was a female in a male dominated environment and thus subjected to unbearable stress" (see other blogs) to explain and make her behavior more rational and understandable - and that is an irrational effort given what is known at this time.

And to the question: yes, lack of collegiality could be grounds for me to vote no on someone's tenure. And, no, I would not use the fact that someone was an arrogant and aloof person - and that maybe I personally despised them - to override the fact they met all the other criteria and vote no. But, let's just say, someone was so bizarre and disconnected from reality and scary that you absolutely could not work with them? And, in turn, they had no desire (or ability) to productively work with others? I would then vote "no" given that the granting of tenure basically would ensure, for most practical purposes, that I might then spend the rest of my career lifetime "trying" to actually then work with this person. Even if they were a "genius", a tenured faculty member in any department I would belong to is not a lone-ranger. But, again, their inability to perform as a team member and to cooperate would have to be very extraordinary and severe for me to actually vote "no" in a specific tenure decision.

I vote for doing away with tenure. Why should academia be different from the rest of us lowly workers? That would also do away with pressure, disappointment and all the negatives that come with not getting it, and resulting in murder in this case. Also, when I was in grad school, tenured profs were known to cruise, cruise, cruise after a while and they could not be fired!

The points raised about "who" defines collegiality are excellent, especially the one about groups comprised of multiple international cultures.

I am in a situation now where I would not trust the dean to make definitions of collegiality or cooperation because she herself is an example of what *not* to do. (She was hired with tenure)

By neurospasm (not verified) on 14 Feb 2010 #permalink

As I understand it from a workshop provided by our provost's office, collegiality has been upheld as a criterion for tenure in every court case where it has been challenged. Collegiality is not defined here as being pleasant to everyone, in that case, universities would have few tenured faculty members.

@agr #35

If the other Lepidopterists don't like the Marilyn Manson poster on my office wall, or think I'm a pretentious wine snob, do I have no remedy because Marilyn Manson fans and snobs aren't legally protected categories?

Most of us are good enough and almost none of us are geniuses, so what needs to be decided is what the rewards of reliable competence are.

By Randall Simmonds (not verified) on 14 Feb 2010 #permalink

This post is actually fascinating to me because it raises this point of collegiality, or if you will, "being nice". I am currently making my way through the excellent book "Women Don't Ask", a book on negotiation which primarily highlights the techniques women need to take to successfully negotiate in a man's world.

One of the central concepts of the book is that the personality trait of collegiality/niceness is MUCH, MUCH more important in the careers of women than it is in men. And there is ample research that has been done to support that conclusion.

So, in light of Amy's excellent research record, and her not-so-nice personality, I am left wondering if she would have been denied tenure if she were a man. (Of course, this is no excuse for murder, I am just wondering).

Given that men are *not* held to the same standard of collegiality and niceness that women are- no, no I do not think collegiality should be taken into account when awarding tenure. At least not until gender discrepancies in science disappear, and that won't happen for a long time.

A superb point, CE - we are all familiar with how "assertiveness" in men is called "bitchiness" in women. I'm sure the book describes many more cases and studies. With a nonzero number of women in my life who have/are negotiate(ing) the academic career ladder, I think that I should also read, "Women Don't Ask."

Curious. The (insert 'cooperative' or 'collegial' or chosen code-word here) problem is for most all structures public and private not just academia, in the U.S. where mediocrity is more valued than creativity, where you are your job, and job is you, working backwards, both ways.

The qualities wanted, cooperative, collegial, etc. are code for kiss the boss's ass, and go further to tell him or her how awesome he or she is, not just to him or her but all around. I suggest you lay it on with a trowel. No matter if it is a boss at the Burger King or the Home Depot or in your college, wanted are loyal employees gathered around him or her, rather disgusting. You probably could not get hired at Burger King or Home Depot, period, fin, since you could not bring yourself to "fit in" to their ass-kissing structure as you have where they have met your price. So pervasive is this fawning in the U.S. that it's fair for us to surmise that the U.S. military and the local high school teachers and principal, war and teaching, are the same way, where sycophantic flattery prevails, called 'getting along' or 'respecting authority,' where persons unable to suck up to persons in power are marginalized, and incompetence rules. Parcel of the mindset is the feeling that employees are fungible, if new word for you pretty much like chickens where one chicken is pretty much like another, a few plumper. We can't win a war, we can't educate.

In what areas is this boot-licking not the case. Most MD's are arrogant and not sucking up. This helps them make decisions. Physicists seem to have avoided this stupid structure, congratulations. I have heard that on the MMPT (Minnesota multiple personality psychological test) the big three anti-social groups, which are lawyers, bohemians, and criminals can be lumped by this attitude of independent thought, no wonder some are unpopular.

Only through their sly framing about the UAH happenings will we get information, but we know today how those things go, don't we? In Knoxville, TN last week an elementary school teacher shot his principal and vice-principal, because they were not going to re-hire him. We can be sure he did not "fit in" and decided to make it official in his own way.

As for you, sblg reader, academic or not, if your boss or one of his myrmidons tells you 'welcome aboard' or some such you are forewarned to fawn in support every chance you get if you want to advance, or be granted tenure, which is a rather silly situation for you, don't you think? since performance is elsewhere? And if you are thinking, this guy is asking for trouble, you already knew what I am talking about. I know what I'm doing. We may ask, are academics as clean as they make out to themselves and their students? We may answer, no.

Abel, I think everyone, both women and men, could learn a lot from this book. Many of the negotiation techniques discussed are applicable to both women and men. And also, as a man, it would shed light on your interactions with many of your female colleagues and/or trainees.

Tenure committees in the United States are universally flawed. More often than not, mediocre people are granted tenure because some dean likes them, while superior candidates are rejected because they expose the mediocrity of the others. She just snapped. This was all compounded by the fact that she has four children and limited means of supporting them. Even brilliant scientists are having trouble finding jobs as budgets for research have been cut. The critera of collegiality is too vague. It leaves too much room for people with vendettas or who are simply jealous, to blackball a candidate. Those are the certain to be the ones without the imagination to be a great scientist. This is all quite tragic, a reflection on America's disdain for the excellent and its worship of the type that gets along. It is everywhere in our society, from universities to board rooms. What is surprising is that there haven't been more incidents like this. Yes, there is a conspiracy in America and it is the conspiracy of mediocrity. America values a team player over genius.

By Richard Cummings (not verified) on 14 Feb 2010 #permalink

The overwhelming effect of feminist ideology is deforming the facts of this case.

Where is the evidence that Amy Bishop was a "brilliant" research scientist? No-one here knows how much of her "co-invention" was really the work of husband, who also co-authored three of the seven peer-reviewed articles she has published. I am not a geneticist, but I would be surprised if anyone were to get tenure these days with just seven co-authored articles, unless they have a strong record of teaching, community service and --yes-- collegiality. This assistant professor is being called brilliant because she's a woman living in a feminist age.

Yakubu, you sound like a real prize.

No-one here knows how much of her "co-invention" was really the work of husband, who also co-authored three of the seven peer-reviewed articles she has published.

And no one here knows how much of her husband's "co-invention" was really her work. She co-authored three of the xx peer-reviewed articles her husband had published.

Yakuba, if you look at the patent application I linked to above, she is the sole inventor. If that application would issue (it won't because there is prior art that anticipates it), it would be a many-tens-of-billions of dollars per year market. The abstract is quite correct, it would prevent the major CNS degenerative diseases.

I appreciate that people who are not expert in NO physiology can't appreciate that. Many who consider themselves expert in NO physiology can't appreciate that. She probably could.

CE: Yeah, how nice of Yakubu to come over and man-splain to us. I deeply appreciate your response.

Thank you daedalus2u for pointing out that the female member of that marriage was the sole inventor on the patent application.

OH NOES! The feminists are ruining stuff again!

Candid, you beat me to the niceness crap. For women, it's not so much niceness as it is d00d-compliance. Rosalind Franklin and Barb McClintock bounced around from place to place. McClintock knew she wouldn't get tenure in Missouri, so she left. Rosalind was ready to walk away in frustration when she became sick. "Women Don't Ask" is a great book, also read the "Rosalind Franklin: Dark Lady of DNA" by Maddox.

Amy Bishop sounds like she was part of a two-body deal for the hire at UA-H. If her husband got tenure working on the same stuff and co-authoring the same papers as her, while/if she did clock stoppage to have children, some other factors played a role in a tenure denial.

I think collegiality matters. Two of my friends (tenured professors) work with a professor who's pathologically abusive to co-workers and grad students, and unfortunately they're in an interdisciplinary science field where they can't just ignore her. They've lost their best graduate student because of this colleague; other potential students have turned down an offer to work in their labs because of the reputation of how difficult it is to work with Professor X. Both of my friends are considering leaving their tenured job and going to another university if this woman gets tenure, because going into the lab is just too miserable with this person.

Imagine you're on the tenure committee for this woman. Her research is stellar. Your top professors and grad students will flee if she doesn't go, and that could take down the reputation of your whole department. How would you vote?

Fellow scientists, this whole discussion is based on the unfounded premise broadcast in popular media, that Amy Bishop was a ârisingâ or âgreatâ researcher. As many have pointed out, academic tenure is based on the individualâs research, teaching and service portfolio. If we were to look beyond her research productivity, what else in her package warrants her tenure? A quick search using the ISI database (author = Bishop A, address = Alabama) shows that she has published only three papers for work originating in her lab at UAH, one in 2005 co-authored with her husband, and two in 2009. This level of research productivity (0.5 papers per year) is far below average for promotion/tenure consideration. In many places, intellectual property (e.g., patents or patent applications) is counted as part of scholarly productivity, and this would have brought her number up to 0.8 per year, still below average productivity in the molecular sciences, and certainly not worthy of high praise. Bluntly put, her dossier would not have been competitive even for an entry-level faculty position similar to the one that she has held. Another important âresearchâ component of the tenure package is grantsmanship and graduate student training. How many NIH or NSF grants has she won while at UAH? How many M.S. or Ph.D. students has she supported or trained? Of the two recent (2009) papers that she published, she was the first and senior author on both, suggesting limited student contribution.

By the normal tenure clock and based on new details that surfaced today, her formal tenure review probably began in summer/fall 2008 â at a time when her dossier would only have shown one published paper, two submitted manuscripts and two patent applications (none granted as of today) from work initiated at UAH. In short, her teaching evaluations have been average, and her research productivity has been sub-average. Even if she was well-liked, collegial, and superb in the service component of her package, her dossier does not appear to warrant a lifelong appointment at a major US University. In my view, her tenure denial was based on her subpar dossier over the last 6 years. One great invention may lead to a successful business, but one invention is hardly a pass to a potentially lifelong academic appointment. She may have talent as an inventor, but her record should not go unchallenged as being that of a âstarâ in an academic institution.

I must say I very much enjoyed all of the comments listed with this article. One point that was not mentioned is that while being denied tenure is a very negative event: it is more devastating to the well meaning but 'average' scientist. If this person was truely 'brilliant', and her ideas were going to make millions, I am pretty sure she could find a new home and become successful. Indeed, as the owners of their own company, she could make her own rules. A brilliant person can move on and be successful anyway. There is still no reason to kill.

Yabuka - you say you are not a geneticist. I'm curious - what are you or do you claim to be? Do you claim to be any sort of scientist? If so, then you seem to have forgotten a rather fundamental concept: the idea that one gathers data to test a hypothesis and come to a conclusion - and not vice versa. What basis is there in any known fact for your statements: 1) "The overwhelming effect of feminist ideology is deforming the facts of this case" and 2) "This assistant professor is being called brilliant because she's a woman living in a feminist age". Could it be that you forgot to employ this basic precept (i.e., "the scientific method") in some sort of academic career? Did someone (heaven forbid - a woman?) let you know you weren't as "brillant" as you claimed in your tenure packet? Could your post represent anything more than a case of badly fermented sour grapes? Of course, I can't conclude anything without gathering some more data, so consider these just a few partial hypotheses based upon your little post (aka rant).

Some food for thought stimulated by KM's comment is this prescient Feb 3rd essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled, "Life After Tenure Denial," by a pseudonymous prof who wrote essays early on as well:

And Daniel, thank you for asking about my health - I'm at least up to blogging thanks to my fourth-line antibiotic regimen and third-round of high-dose prednisone to manage my pneumonia recovery. So, many thanks to all for engaging in this conversation while I am recuperating.

@ Lizzie, my sympathies of a sort

There's an underlying assumption here that there's only one structural way to work with Professor X, the old way or no way. And it's implicit here that the department head is not competent on this situation, that he or she cannot solve or address problems. Of course, that thought of incompetence is unthinkable with this group, after all he's the head, he is his job.

And as an aside, "the reputation of the whole department" is likely to be a self-imposed artifact delusion indulged in by puffed up faculty members and may not extend fifty miles from the parking lot, they would not know, the sycophantic culture is so strong.

As to your question, how would I vote, I would need much more information than what you have deemed necessary to list.

I think she is smart but I also think she is an egocentric sociopath with no conscience. It appears likely that she "accidentally" fired multiple shots at her brother after he seemed to be outshining her academically. She was investigated in the early 90's as a likely suspect when pipe bombs were mailed to her Harvard medical doctor who as her supervisor was possibly writing a negative evaluation of her. Then you have the horror of this week. I am no criminal psychologist but there seems to be a pattern here.

As a retired teacher, I might also add that intelligence does not necessarily equal a successful teacher. Teachers need to be able to relate to their students.

If collegiality would be a criterion for tenure, our universities would be pretty empty. But in Amy Bishop's case I do not see that that was an issue. According to ISI and PubMed she only published three papers during her time at UAH and one was a review and the other two came out in 2009. Not good if you are up for tenure in the spring of 2009. So collegiality can not be a big issue. Arrogance in the face of failure is more likely. GPW

On Amy Bishop's past academic work history:

It seems that Amy Bishop and her husband were suspects when 2 bombs were sent to a professor she worked with at Boston's Children's Hospital when she was a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard. The news article provides many details including the fact that "Bishop surfaced as a suspect because she was allegedly concerned that she was going to receive a negative evaluation from Rosenberg on her doctorate work, the official said."

It would appear she may have a history of problems with collegiality in the workplace, as well as an issue with poor performance evaluations. I feel very sorry for the professors in her department who were doing their job when they had to evaluate her for tenure and reaped the result of her wrath when the results did not suit her.


Collegiality should be a criterion, because it's important for the psychological well-being of the rest of the staff. No one wishes to work in a hostile environment; such hostility can suck the life out of those who suffer under it. Even a brilliant person who has difficulty controlling negative ways of relating to others can ruin an entire department of, arguably, other brilliant scholars.

But, this topic begs the question of whether Dr. Bishop actually belongs to the category of those offended by the use of collegiality as a criterion. Dr. Bishop is a person who shot and killed a sibling when she was 19 years old, and then was investigated in the case of a pipe bomb that was mailed to a professor/doctor at Harvard Children's Hospital--said professor was one on her PhD committee responsible for the evaluation of her dissertation. In both incidences, she was never charged, and in the first incident there are pretty strong signs of a cover-up. Collegiality could hardly have played any motivating part in why she allegedly committed these crimes.

By Academic at heart (not verified) on 14 Feb 2010 #permalink

I have to agree totally with CJ and CPP. The words genius, brilliant etc... have been all over the web coverage of this story, and her record is mediocre at best. Also, somewhat galling to think how true academic brilliance may be devalued in the public eye by this inappropriate description, but hey, that's the media. Combined with the rest of her record, seems like this would be a fairly clear cut case against tenure in most quality universities. I sense that an unjustified sense of entitlement may be part of the equation. I have been involved in tenure assessment, and one of the problems can be that an overaccommodating academic community doesn't act soon or clearly enough, stringing people along and contributing to the problem. OF course this is worst for personalities that cant tolerate hearing anything negative about themselves and can't conceive of there being a valid reason for criticism, but this is also where it is most necessary.

If collegiality would be a criterion for tenure, our universities would be pretty empty. But in Amy Bishop's case I do not see that that was an issue. According to ISI and PubMed she only published three papers during her time at UAH and one was a review and the other two came out in 2009. Not good if you are up for tenure in the spring of 2009. So collegiality can not be a big issue. Arrogance in the face of failure is more likely. GPW

My department has a statement about collegiality in our tenure/promotion criteria. It hasn't come up as an issue - I'm fortunate to have wonderful colleagues. But I've wondered whether "collegiality" could be used as an excuse to discriminate, as other commenters have mentioned.

It's tricky, because the characteristics I associate with colleagiality - basically, caring about and respecting other people - affect teaching (and through advising of grad students, research). Caring about teaching can transform an adequate teacher into a great teacher with time, and disdain for students can eventually transform an effective teacher into an ineffective one. Problems advising grad students can hurt research productivity in the long run. And constant infighting in a department can hurt everyone, undergrads, grad students, and faculty. So I think that collegiality, at least in some form, is important. But I don't know how to evaluate it in a way that is fair, and that doesn't give an advantage to people who are good at manipulating others.

(My department is now tenured-up, and the worst behavior change I've seen is an increased willingness to play music in an office. Not a bad change, at all - just amusing. But I think my department managed to hire good people, rather than shaping them with a requirement for collegiality.)

CJ, CPP, and peabrain: You are all correct that Dr. Bishop's publication and funding record would very likely have been insufficient for tenure at elite institutions. For referral by others, here is the Google cache of her faculty page. I'm having trouble finding her record for training graduate students.

However, and I cannot speak for the standards of this department at UAH, basic science departments at undergraduate teaching-intensive institutions have somewhat different standards of research and funding productivity. One peer-reviewed publication per year may be acceptable when one is teaching two, three, or even four three-credit hour classes per semester.

Also keep in mind that UAH is still a NIH R15-eligible institution, meaning that they do not traditionally garner a high-level of NIH funding (of course, they seem to have a much better infrastructure for NSF and NASA funding). If one looks at NIH RePORTER for NIH grants awarded in Alabama's 5th Congressional District, Alabama A&M University in Normal seems to do much better than UAH in NIH funding.

So yes, "genius" and "brilliant" may not apply in this case. But we do also need to keep in mind that the weight given to criteria for promotion and tenure at "non-elite" universities may not be familiar to all of us.

For even top predominantly undergraduate institution (PUI), I know from personal experience that an NIH R15 grant is a very prestigious achievement. Due to heavy teaching loads and limited support staff, publications rates for PUI science faculty are typically one publication every other year according to the CUR.

If Amy authored several papers during her time,gained NIH R15 funding, had research that was proven competitive for funding by venture capitalists, and had a NASA experiment done, her scholarship would have been fine for tenure at most PUIs. HBCUs such as Alabama A&M receive a great deal more funding for the NIH than PUIs since there are many more program available for them.

Based on available evidence it does not appear that Amy's scholarship would be a credible reason to deny her tenure. In fact, Amy has probably been one of the top research performers at UAH. They certainly have issued a number of press releases on her work.

It sounds like Amy Bishop and anger management have been lifelong strangers. But as for protecting everyone from the Amy Bishops of the world: It's just not possible to test, guess, or interview anyone sufficiently to completely anticipate everything that person will do. People can be very, very good at successfully hiding their true feelings from everyone else -- and some crimes of this nature may simply not be preventable.

BTW, I personally believe that handguns should be regulated. But whether or not they are, there will always be people who are convinced that the world is out to get them, and will commit violent crimes of perceived revenge. And some large percentage of these crimes will never be anticipated by anyone.

By Julie Stahlhut (not verified) on 14 Feb 2010 #permalink

How can a faculty member who is about to snap in a similar situation possibly be identified or helped. Amy Bishop's family and friends seems to indicate she gave no sign that a violent act was forthcoming. This story, I think, provides an interesting insight:

"Ms. Barreca, a professor of English at the University of Connecticut, summed it up just right, I think. She wrote yesterday that this was not, as the NY Times story put it: âa Harvard-trained neuroscientist who was described by her colleague as being ânot as good as she thought she wasâ who was mangled by a system she then sought to destroy in a rage of blind violence.â Barreca instead, with empathy uncommon in situations like this, writes that Bishop was:

a different soul, one who howled out her pain and rage twenty years ago, one who might have been rescued or restrained, one who might have been cured or caged or at least taken out of circulation. But because she was smart and because someone was willing to take care of her, the system forgave herâonly to have her attack and kill those who represented another kind of system, one that did not reward her to her satisfaction, twenty-four years later."

Amy Bishop killed her brother in 1986 after an argument.
She was a suspect in a bombing case of a Harvard Professor
where she attended in 1993, who she had disagreements with.
Amy Bishop kills 3 colleagues and wounds 3 others at
University of AL, Huntsville on 2/12/10 because she was denied tenure.
A person with average intelligence "can see what is wrong with this picture"...

I'm not a scientist and I'm not in academia... can I be the token lay person on this thread?

First, tenure (ie, guaranteed job security without ownership) is somewhat foreign to my thinking. But, I do see a comparison with a "partnership track" at large law firms. Yet, partnership in a law firm has the element of ownership.

Then again, lawyers have (as do MDs to a lesser degree) the option of hanging a shingle and going it on their own. And this option, for lawyers, can be monetarily rewarding. I'm not so sure the same is currently true for MDs. (Disclaimer: IANAL, but several close family members are - both solo and "big law" practices.)

It seems to me that Amy Bishop, with her invention, is (or was) one of the few biologists who could, in a sense, hang a shingle and go it alone without the big firm. Because of this, I tend to disregard the monetary argument... that she couldn't feed her four children without tenure. Frankly, that argument is bullshit.

Was the success of that invention dependent on her getting tenure? That part of the equation, I'm sure I don't understand... but if it was, it doesn't make sense.

On the other hand, I understand perfectly "fitting in" and being a "team player" and the requisite bullshit required to do both. These are not exclusive to academia -- they are rampant in the non-profit world. I understand holding back the gag reflex required to play such roles when those in charge are obviously not qualified to be there... and one wonders how the hell they got there.

One of the reasons they got there was the "good ole boy-girl network". (Puhleeze don't tell me there aren't good ole girl networks.) These are social status related and they are not immune to penetration, but they fight it off when they can. Without the leveling influence of capitalism, such networks can and will choke off innovative, ie, disruptive, influences.

Meritocracy could be substituted for capitalism, but that obscures the currency. The best solution for humanity is a blend of meritocracy and capitalism. A solution that allows the inhospitable, cranky genius a place to do her thing without disrupting the 'normal' flow of business and the exchange of ideas.

The particular and peculiar case of Amy Bishop is not one upon which we should establish policy. She is, fortunately, an outlier. Policy must be established on normalities to be effective. Outliers must be handled separately, else normality has no meaning.

Donna, the success of the invention hinges on who controls the patents. The University controlled the patents.

If the success of the invention depends on her working on it, and she can't work on it because the University won't let her, then the invention can't be successful.

I thought it quite interesting to read in the Times story (link @#47) that the "novel" that was found on her computer consisted of a tale "about a scientist who killed her brother and atoned by excelling at her work". Not to get all Freudian about this, but perhaps the "incident" back in her 20's (whatever it was--accident, deliberate) was never fully dealt with by her psychologically, and the tenure denial was not seen by her troubled psyche in the same way that anyone else would take a devastating career loss. Getting tenure and being a success was to her, "an atonement" for the loss of her brother. Now don't get me wrong--this does NOT in any way condone/justify her actions, but this (warped) reasoning may be the justification in HER mind as to what she felt she had to do--in order to "atone" for NOT being able to atone for her brother's death. I don't think we can know with any certainty what was in her mind at the time, but certainly she is not someone we want running around free in the society to possibly do this again. I do think that whatever happens to her will never mitigate the damage she has caused to so many, starting with her own brother. What we as a society can do about this to prevent such things from happening in the future is at best a difficult question that may have nothing to do with WHY she did what she did.
Obviously, the stress of getting tenure is factor that most are able to deal with without shooting up a room full of people, and yet because of what this woman did we are all here discussing this (and other)issues that surrounded her actions. My feeling is that irrespective of what Amy Bishop did, the tenure process is one that needs to be re-vamped, if only because our society, workplaces and workforces have changed a great deal since the idea of tenure was put into practice.
The idea of collegiality is really nothing more than "fitting in" to an organization, at whatever capacity. In many places, a person who was shy or nerdy, but did exemplary work might be able to "fit in" to the organization depending on what interactions he might have with his colleagues. If they never saw each other but for the faculty meetings, and he was aloof but respectful, than it might not matter. By the same token, someone outgoingly friendly but brash, might ruffle feathers and just not "fit into" the culture of the workplace. So judging an individual on collegiality is fair game if it is interpreted as the person being a good fit for the department. How a department defines that fit is really up to the culture present in the department at the time.
In the example of Amy Bishop, what strikes me is that the people that she killed were all involved in research that involved plant science of one sort or another, and looking at the rest of the bio department, if I were to venture a guess,(and its only a guess) it would appear that the department seemed to be gravitating toward genetics/plant science as a main research focus, not surprising, given that it is Atlanta. As a neuroscientist, focusing on brain pathology such as ALS, perhaps Bishop was "not a good fit" for the department-the type of research that she intended to do might be a better fit at a university with a medical school or at least one with a hefty psychology department doing neuroscience. The circumstances stated in the Times regarding the appeal being denied at the Provost level also makes me think that the tenure decision was one of "we think its time for you to move on" along with whatever lack of publication, so-so teaching, and aloof personality she might have had. In the end, she just wasn't a good fit for that University.

By Autodidactyl (not verified) on 14 Feb 2010 #permalink

One hidden danger of promoting anything like collegiality as a necessary attribute is that it risks turning into a "hmm, yes, but is s/he one of us?" question that covers for racism, sexism or any other discriminatory -ism.

As other posters point out here and elsewhere, the underlying issues here are about the stresses of academic life in a violent and angry society. This wouldn't happen in most countries because (a) she probably wouldn't have got so angry, (b) she wouldn't have seen violence as the appropriate avenue for her anger, (c) she wouldn't have had a handgun to be able to cause such carnage.

I would say that some form of collegiality should be taken into account in ensemble with the rest of the tenure package. The same aspects of "collegiality" apply to how people interact with people OUTSIDE the department as well. If someone's an asshole, they're probably embarassing themselves, and by extension the department, to the rest of the University. And they're embarassing the University to the outside world.

If they teach really well, or have great research, or bring in huge grant dollars, or do great service to the department, then it could be that even despite negative collegiality they are a net positive to
the department and the University.

Let's see if that might have been the case with Dr. Bishop.
Here's Dr. Bishop's publications list.

I'm not impressed. People have been quoted as saying that she's brilliant, but being smart just isn't enough to get tenure. You've got to produce. She arrived at UAH in 2003, and must have submitted her tenure packet in fall 2008 (2009 March was when she was denied tenure). Over that time she's got 4 papers. And none at all in 2007 and 2008 right before she was coming up for tenure. She may have had some "in prep" or even "in press" by that point. But this publication record is pretty thin.

It's not so thin that great teaching, huge money, good service, and a collegial nature might not have been able to make up the difference. They could have. But it's damned weak.

It seems to me that while collegiality may have been an adverse factor here, there is plenty reason to have denied Dr. Bishop tenure without it.

By enderwiggin (not verified) on 14 Feb 2010 #permalink

#69, daedulus... if the University controlled the patents, then, to my capitalist way of thinking, they owed her tenure based on the value of the patent. However... since there was apparently a separate company established to market the invention, that doesn't quite make sense.

If the university supplied the equipment and opportunity to make the invention possible, they should certainly gain something in exchange.

And if it needs to be said again, identifying an institutional problem does not condone murder as a solution. Just in case that needs to be said again.

I am reminded of the local grant given to a non-profit agency to procure the development of a web-based program to track availability of, and assure non-duplication of, social services to the homeless. I was involved in the original design and observed the transformation (somewhat "magical") from something the government (HUD) and local community charities paid for into a for-profit entity revolving around one person. The work is now sold at an enormous profit to various governments across the U.S.

It seems to me that there is built-in corruption somewhere... and I don't even pretend to understand what it is exactly, much less how to curb it.

Interesting to read comments that are well-written, well-spelled, and well-informed. My thoughts are that Dr. Bishop is a classic narcissist/sociopath/borderline personality disorder,i.e, she is NOT mentally ill in the true diagnostic sense. As a fairly liberal female, I don't believe anti-feminism is an even an issue here, as Bishop admitted being arrogant, aloof and hard to deal with. A colleague, female attorney, exhibits many of the same personality traits of Dr. Bishop. She also is "not as good as she thinks she is". This female attorney's method of "payback" is to backstab other attorneys, try to create new alliances with attorneys that can help her out of the messes on cases she tries to take that she is totally incompetent to represent people on, etc.

Trust me, this is NOT someone you would want for your boss, let alone a co-worker. She is beyond seeing the world in an idealized way, she lies without compunction, even on non-important things. The average person would be unaware of her personality defects.

How does this relate to Dr. Bishop? "Collegiality", however defined, in my opinion, should be considered when making tenure decisions. There is an absolute difference between someone who may be socially awkward because he or she is shy, and someone who is "socially awkward" because that person believes he/she is better than everyone else. When colleagues don't agree, the narcissist turns into a "toxic" personality, who in fact can cause great harm to other co-workers, colleagues, and the department.

Can this criteria be abused? Certainly, as in the example of the young man who didn't drink with the others and was "cut out" because of it. However, this is common in the business world in any form, it is not endemic to academia.

My son, an NHS student at one of the top 1200 high schools in the U.S., had a biology teacher very much like Bishop- told the class to read the text,and based on her tests on material she never taught. Consistent student complaints over the years have led to... nothing, no discipline, even in the fact of outrageous treatment of students by this teacher. She is regularly castigated on "" by past and present students. She certainly has influenced many extremely intelligent students to NOT take advanced biology classes as her reputation precedes her....

Bishop obviously has no conscience and why? Her parents covered up her acts, including fratricide. She never learned there are consequences for her actions. She "got off" it appears from the mail-bombing incident of Dr. Rosenberg, another person with whom she had a dispute. This is just a classic case of an intelligent person with no conscience, no empathy,nothing except "me-ness". It has nothing to do with her being a female, a supposed socialist as showing up on neo-con blogs, or what have you.
"Collegiality" encompasses a wide range of behavior... perhaps faculty members should evaluate tenure candidates using online Narcissistic Inventory Personality Disorder tools? At least you'd know if you were dealing with someone who can NEVER acknowledge that he/she might be wrong, versus the socially inept scholar who just isn't "charming" enough to ingratiate him/herself with the other faculty...

just my thoughts- undergrad included pre-med,sociology, and psychology... and personality issues come up all in the time in practice of law, be it criminal, or civl (divorce/custody- fitness of parents).

A few notes:

1)This was a horrible act, she appears to be a sociopath, and there appears to be no excuse for what she did (kill someone over tenure).

2)I am surprised anyone would attempt to evaluate her tenure case by counting the number of publications. I'm not in her field, but for all I know one of those publications provides her discipline's equivalent of E=mc^2. If so, it would totally change the entire way we conceive of the life sciences. I'm not saying this is true, but I am appalled that by counting her publications and rendering a judgment commentators are implying that number of publications, not quality, is what matters. That numbers rather than quality is what matters in many universities accounts, in part, for the narrow-mindedness of vision and the triviality of contribution of much of academia.

3)This follows because when numbers of publications are the criterion, then the savvy professor will write as many small contribution publications as possible. There is the term SPU--smallest publishable unit. Such an approach makes a travesty of a serious evaluation of the contribution and promise of a scholar. By analogy, it'd be like rejecting Leonardo da Vinci because when he came up for "tenure" he had only one painting--the Mona Lisa--and, instead, tenuring a da Vinci peer who in the same time had painted a couple dozen tea cups with pastoral scenes in various shades of gray.

4)Those calling for "collegiality" to be a criterion for tenure are forgetting that the people determining who is and is not collegial were hired and tenured before collegiality became a criterion. Thus, they may themselves be so uncollegial as to have created a bizarro world where integrity is anathema and mediocrity is championed. Allowing those people to be arbiters of what is collegial would be a disaster. Consequently, unless the new standard is going to first be applied retroactively (by what authority I know not), then all one will do by adding this criterion is legitimate whatever dysfunction may already exist. Not a step in the healthful direction.

5)Collegiality is not necessarily a bad thing, but may not be relevant to faculty life because, in fact, no faculty member really has to work with anyone else. Collaborating is an option, but it is not required, even in "big science" fields (even though it may be the norm). Faculty are not required to attend faculty meetings, not required to sit on departmental committees, and not required to sit on university committees--service can be done externally and satisfy that requirement. It would be tough to run a department if no one did departmental service, but it is not the case that everyone must. Consequently, I contend that the push to add collegiality as a criterion is totally at odds with the reality of academic life. One wonders what hidden agenda might actually lie behind the suggestion. After all, how would any external actor evaluate the claim that "Jenny is non-collegial" as a reason for tenure denial?

6)Turning to teaching evaluations to evaluate whether the professor has a weak or strong tenure case is yet another mistake. I can't speak for her institution, but we all know students are not the best evaluators of teaching. Indeed, many students have been so coddled prior to getting to college and, in fact, in many college classes, that when they finally encounter someone who expects students to do the work of learning and the teacher is there to assist, not do the work for them (i.e., students should read the book, not expect the professor to tell them what important material to skip simply because it "won't be on the exam"), the students cannot handle it. And, in today's academy, that means something must be wrong with the professor. Over time I have come to see that bad teaching evaluations are actually a sign of good teaching, unless the students can back up their assessment with some real data such as, for example, evidence of being provided incorrect formulas, documentation showing the professor is never available for office hours, and other clear signs of poor teaching and interaction. Of course, such documentation is never available. You may think my reversal of interpretation odd, yet research shows that positive teaching evaluations are either not correlated with learning or are negatively correlated with learning. One study used students' performance in the second course of a two-course sequence to assess the effectiveness of the teacher in the first course, and found that the students taught by the teacher with the lower student evaluations outperformed those taught by the teacher with the higher student evaluations. The reason for high or low evaluations has been shown to be related to trivial matters (e.g., voice pitch) and to be differentially evaluated owing to teacher characteristics (white professor's smiles are interpreted as supportive, black professor's smiles are interpreted as threatening).

In such a world, how would the addition of "collegiality criteria" improve matters? Not at all, I submit.

All these facts indicate that counting publications, scoring student evaluations, and calling for a collegiality criterion are all poor responses to a broken system. To fix the system will require scholars to spend more time on applying the criteria they already have--read, don't count; observe, don't survey. Until they do that, the idea of adding criteria to the tenure process, when faculty do such a poor job with the criteria they already are supposed to apply, is a non-starter.

That said, there is no excuse for the murders. One arms oneself with a lawyer to deal with such perceived injustices, not a Saturday night special.

I call it "tenure abuse" - professors who have not published a thing since they got tenure refusing tenure to a younger person who has in their short career published more than any 3 of the "in-company retired" sitting in judgement-- apparently just because they can. Teaching ability as a criterion? Don't make me laugh - people in the tenure treadmill have told me many times that getting a teaching excellence award is the kiss of death to tenure. I know of a tenure denial to a teaching excellence award winner with several million $ in grants. Why? Because all the new grad students chose to work for *him* - most of the other faculty didn't have enough grant money to support them, & they'd have to teach plus do their thesis research. He was also a far more involved mentor than a lot of the other faculty. That case was so egregious, he moved to a more highly regarded university right after tenure refusal, -- typically being denied tenure means you have to move to a less well regarded university. If you define "collegiality" as meeting whatever opaque **personal** preferences the tenure committee is using to decide that someone is worthy of associating with them for the rest of their careers, "collegiality" is the ONLY thing that matters in tenure decisions. That's illegal to put in writing, so usually other excuses are used - such as, in one case I knew, that 7 papers were published in the year prior to the tenure decision [apparently instead of being more evenly distributed in time] & the quality of the journals was not high enough. Or a young researcher hadn't pulled in enough grant $-- when the little he did have was more than most of the tenured guys, many of whom had nothing. Etc. Unfortunately, there are so many good applicants out there, tenure committees can play this miserable game 'til they get someone whose personality & demeanor suit them to a T. He/she might be a worse teacher than some of the people let go, or a worse researcher than some of those rejected, but they don't care. They care most about their personal comfort zone - that's what "collegiality" means. This country squanders its research talent with abandon.

By FromAnotherPlanet (not verified) on 14 Feb 2010 #permalink

Dear Colleagues,

it a is very interesting and hopefully fruitful discussion.

Your questions (I post my answer below each question):

1. Do you think that lack of collegiality is grounds for denial of tenure for a candidate that otherwise meets the basic quantitative criteria outlined in university guidelines?

Yes, I do. The research grants system + the "quota hiring", which is a logical consequence of the grants system, have poisoned the collegial atmosphere in academia, turning the "alma mater" into something like "spiders in a box", not to use harsher language ...

Everybody is ready to do literally EVERYTHING - just to get the desired grant ...

2. Do you feel that collegiality - or whatever you want to call it: teamwork, cooperation - should be an important factor in making academic tenure decisions?

Yes, I do. "Collegiality" is, to my mind, a much deeper term than just "teamwork" and "cooperation", because collegiality means you are not only considering your colleague as a specialist, but you are also taking into account his/her personality ... Moreover, the very "making tenure decisions" - especially as concerns life sciences - the very idea of "tenure" in academia and non-profit research organizations - should be carefully re-thought in detail. I hope this honorable discussion society will generate ground-breaking ideas in this vitally important direction ... Am ready to provide you with the 1st "kick-off": rethinking of the grant system ...

If collegiality is defined as being collaborative, respectful and supportive of others, not being a flaming asshole or a chronic obstructionist, then fine. Let's include it in tenure decisions.

But, in my experience, collegiality is too often defined as not making your colleagues feel uncomfortable or challenged in any way. Being fun to hang out with. In that form, it can be used to keep out members of any group underrepresented in the department. And that is bullshit.

By Anonymous (not verified) on 15 Feb 2010 #permalink

Regarding the question of whether teachers' performance in the classroom may be properly evaluated using "" I believe one of the criteria is "hotness."
This is great, if we think our academic duty is to arouse students sexually. Maybe we should just pass out copies of Sports Illustrated swimsuit issues?
In one of the colleges where I taught there was a brief "self-evaluation" at the end of the course/teacher evaluation form. Out of nine students, I received nine evaluations. One of the students was always late to class. Yet all of the self-evaluations answered "I am always on time to class" in the affirmative.
It's interesting that teacher/course evaluations are considered honest and truthful for the same reason that graffiti in the bathroom stall is considered puerile nonsense: they are both anonymous.
Evaluations may be useful when they're honest and informed. But when we give too much weight to them we are paying too much attention to the "consumer" part of formal education and too little attention to the "apprentice" part.

By steven buonocore (not verified) on 15 Feb 2010 #permalink

After reading this thread about Professor Bishop I am even more disturbed by the lack of information in the general public. The books "A Brilliant Madness" and "Lies In Silence" can explain what some of the posts discuss. Mental illness does not discriminate. Race, gender, sexual preference, socio-economic status, etc. It is sad but reasonable to presume that when someone commits a crime such as this there is likely an underlying mental health disorder. With a failing mental health care system, and lack of treatment, sadly this woman was delusional and took victims and loved ones. It is a lose-lose situation.
SJ Hart

1. No.
2. No.

It has been proven time and again how the tenure process is vague and easily corrupted. In so competitive an institution, the meaning of collegiality can and will be distorted to suit whoever needs it to work for or against the candidate seeking promotion in the university.

By definition, the general term indicates only the shared responsibility of a group. This would entail several levels on campus: program curriculum, departmental matters, school agenda, etc. If the goals are clearly set at each level, then collaboration among colleagues can take place and the power and authority that is (or should be) shared among peers can be put to good use.

At no time in this cooperative process, is there any certainty of harmony, yet this is often the grade that is applied. Collegial practice should be strictly understood as a matter of professional and informed participation. Instead it is reshaped on a variety of individually-inspired levels to evaluate whether a co-worker is agreeable and/or a nice person. The "popularity contest" of the playground persists and gravely alters the intention of any collective work⦠the benefit of the larger institution, not the personal satisfaction of individuals in their smaller dominions.

Collegiality clauses protect those that pander to the status quo, conform to social norms and accede to administrative policy.

Collegiality clauses leave open to spurious attack those individuals who seek effective change, are diverse in nature, and whose ideas challenge the system.

Which is all highly ironic, since the rationale of tenure is meant to provide security to an academic from just such coercive censure of unpopular ideas. The first group described doesn't need tenure and the second will never attain it. *sigh*

By NewlyTenuredProf (not verified) on 15 Feb 2010 #permalink

I reckon tenure is meant to protect professors with unpopular ideas within their subject matter, not to protect professors with unpopular ideas like "I will make every committee you put me on a living hell for all the members and unproductive to boot."

There needs to be a way to foster the former but not the latter.

(Also, Ping!)

Wow - Janet just said everything I could want to say. Faculty are NOT islands, and when we behave as if we are, our programs suffer.

Dr. Free-Ride, this goes without saying. The P&T process is contractually staged across the six years leading up to a tenure decision. Crazy, disruptive and malignant types should not receive re-appointment, never mind continuing appointment.

By NewlyTenuredProf (not verified) on 15 Feb 2010 #permalink

I want to comment here as someone who graduated from the biology program there with a BS in 2008. It was a pretty diverse department. There were 3 women faculty other than Bishop, 1 of which had tenure according to the department website. I don't think the feminism concerns are valid in this case. Some of the women there had plenty of intellectual confidence, and rightly so, without being considered "aloof" or "superior" like Bishop as was mentioned in the Decatur Daily article. I also don't recall anyone saying similar things about the male faculty members. Overall the people in the department were nice. There were outgoing and shy people. There were old hippies and people who wore suits everyday.

In regard to "tenure abuse" mentioned earlier with people getting lazy, look at Dr Robert O Lawton's publication record. He got published in Science after having tenure. He's (along with UAH's Atmospheric Sciences dept) getting the biggest grants of his career now. That also tells you what can be expected for this department. Her original application was in 2008, and the quality and quantity of her publications were not sufficient for the department then. Her 2009 publications were better, but the significance and possibilities of her inventions were probably not well known when she was evaluated. She hadn't even invented some of the things that are being talked about big when she was evaluated. I guess even in a 2009 re-evaluation, you can't expect them to give her tenure based on what she might be about to do. Yeah she was recently talked about as an up and coming big deal for her inventions, but all this talk was after she was denied because there was nothing like that to talk about when she was denied.

By Clint Patterson (not verified) on 15 Feb 2010 #permalink

We need much more info on Amy Bishop. It is hard to believe that a woman as educated as she is and as brilliant as her peers admit she is, simply went insane over nothing. It makes more sense to me that the doctors with less intelligence than she has were blocking her tenure because they were envious. It is the most brilliant people that can think out of the box and move this world forward.

Keep in mind the show "House"....yes this is a TV show but if the person like the character "House" is normally fired for failing to get along with lesser educated staff then those expecting to be educated will learn less from the less brilliant person.

Part of the problem in the US system is that submission of a tenure package at five years is for many scientists a year or two too soon. Many elite institutions (e.g., Yale) promote to associate at year 5 or 6, but do not award tenure for another couple of years. This makes a lot more sense than the more typical system in state universities like UAB.

By Spiny Norman (not verified) on 15 Feb 2010 #permalink

Another point is that many universities will allow you to push back the tenure decision for a year or two if you have kids, especially (but not only) if you're a woman. Similar allowances can be made for the dath of a parent or spouse, etc. This is to acknowledge the fact that life is complicated. Looks like Bishop might have been fine (given that she has 4 kids) if only she'd taken advantage of such a policy.

So sad.

By Spiny Norman (not verified) on 15 Feb 2010 #permalink

"It makes more sense to me that the doctors with less intelligence than she has were blocking her tenure because they were envious. It is the most brilliant people that can think out of the box and move this world forward."

Was her brother doing that, too, when she killed him?

The implication of your post is disgusting.

By Spiny Norman (not verified) on 15 Feb 2010 #permalink

Look at the department website. Professor Robert O Lawton has been published in Science, and his more updated publication/grant info is on his personal page which is currently a broken link on the university website, but he continues to do excellent work. Professor/department chair Podila had recently been co-author on a Nature publication and was on about 2 publications per year. Who is envious?

By Clint Patterson (not verified) on 15 Feb 2010 #permalink

@91: We have no reason to believe the death of her brother was anything but an accident.

@92: Everything I have read says Amy Bishop was extremely intelligent and it is her project that the university was pushing forward and about to make money from. Seems to me that if her project was accepted that her tenure should have been automatic. As a chemist I frequently sign off on work I do for large companies but will never release a new idea to these companies. As a professor looking for tenure she had to produce quality projects but a university that was not going to offer tenure should not be allowed to forward an idea or project from that same person being denied.

Maybe they were blocking her tenure because she's a PSYCHOPATH. She may have been a genius but it seems clear there was something wrong with her. I doubt she's mentally ill or "snapped." She previously murdered someone, attempted to murder someone else (mail bombing), and has now killed 3 more.

Spiny Norman, sibling abuse is not uncommon, especially female siblings by male siblings. I have no knowledge if there was or was not abuse in this case.

Often parents are oblivious to abuse of siblings by siblings. If she shot her brother in self-defense, the family might want outsiders to think it was an accident, rather than know she was defending herself. Nothing was going to bring their son back, destroying their daughter in a trial only amplifiess their loss.

Yes and yes.

Our own institution is currently suffering from the aftermath of hiring a (pathologically) non-collegial person who looks very good on paper. Several labs have already lost time to failed collaborations with this individual, and the institution itself has a sticky personnel issue as postdocs who still have time left on their appointments flee the problematic lab.

I question the premise that a person who is non-collegial to the point of being unable to effectively collaborate is likely to meet any well-designed quantitative criteria for tenure and hiring. It would be a simple matter to include past successful collaborations in those quantitative criteria, in any case.

Great questions. Fun conversation.

re teaching reviews/evaluations:
Amy Bishop taught the A&P series. This is the most difficult course that nursing students have to take at UAH, so many of them will probably resent the difficulty and give a poor review based on that. She had no exceptional ability as a teacher, but as a rather recent UAH biology graduate, I downweight the reviews of nursing students and especially athletes.

By Clint Patterson (not verified) on 15 Feb 2010 #permalink

Abel, Janet, I completely agree with your thoughtful posts. But... I dont think it will work to include a collegiality criteria in tenure decisions. It will almost certainly be misused so as not to tenure candidates who are "not our kind, dear" (or to tenure those who are better at schmoozing than at teaching or publishing). And this would be bad for those with "different" (but lets hope not violent) personalities and the lone single woman who is quite shy in a department full of older married men. Besides, most tenure reviews already require that the individual contribute to the community (called committee work or administration). Also, most universities have rules that allow for dismissal of faculty that are disruptive.

I don't think he is talking about collegiality in terms of being shy or having different tastes. If a tenure review makes a decision on that basis, then it is going to happen anyway, collegiality clause or no clause.
He's talking about professors that are destructive in their interactions with students and colleagues. Like a professor I had who called his students "fucking bitch", and made sexual innenduoes, including bestiality, during class.
Yeah, absolutely, this stuff should not be allowed to slide by in a tenure decision because someone is a "genius."

Dear adepts of the ***PATHY and other extravagant theories,

I would greatly appreciate your educated attention. Please find below the story told by a colleague who knows Dr. Amy Bishop very well - personally - since decades.

To get to the original URL address, just kindly click on my nick (this is one of the most recent comments to one of the blogs by Zennie62 at the

2/15/2010 12:15:49 PM

donquixote5, janersM and borninAL,

Thank you for your support - the heartache and guilt that I have been feeling is keeping up at night. When I first heard about it on the news, all I heard was her name ( nothing about her degree or where she was from ) and my heart sank, I knew it has her.....

But more importantly, I wanted to answer the question about why she picked science and "loners" in science.

Amy didn't choose science, it chose her. It was the only area that she truly enjoyed and was good at it. It was also an area where she didn't need to make small talk or socialize in order to BELONG. Amy easily fit into meeting/discussions on neurons, oxidation, etc. AND PEOPLE LISTENED. It was the only place in her life in which this happened - where she existed.

I know this because she told me. She never emoted, but one time out of nowhere she told me about this. Amy and I went to college together and then I worked at the Longwood Medical Area while she was getting her PhD an doing post-doc work. So we saw each other often. She also told me that day that I was the only person at college that even acknowledged her and because of that, that she liked me quite a bit. I nearly bowled me over ! In all our interactions there was NOTHING outwardly that would indicate she liked me. NOTHING ! But I took her word for it that day. It broke my heart. We never talked about it again, though we did talk about the "incident" as she called it ( her brother's death ) - I know why she killed. All these headlines and news and postulating make me so sad...because it is very, very simple, and I know it deep in my heart. She was a soul that couldn't be saved, no matter how badly she wanted to be.

It wasn't about being denied tenure, it was about her not being "enough" again - and having the only community that she felt a kinship with, one in which she didn't have to emote or do small talk, banish her. Where was she going to go ? Who would have interest in her ? Where would she get the human contact she wanted so badly.

Yes, donquixote5, there are many "loners" in science - I should tell you that I spent 23 years in molecular biology - but those scientists are either very shy, or awkward, or just so focused on their research that they become myopic. But they welcome a chance to talk about their kids or the weather or the Red Sox. Amy is and was always vacant.

Finally, regarding the sociopath: sociopaths are usually very charming and manipulative and have no conscience. So JanersM is right in stating that she is not one. She was very blunt and didn't have an ounce of charm. She was also not manipulative. Anything having to do with navigation the psyche was out of her ability.

Lastly, this is the only place that I have "talked" about this - outside of with my husband and another college classmate ( who characteristically, doesn't remember her ). This has been a real outlet for me. Thank you."

I was in a doctoral program in chemical education at a university that shall remain nameless. I had problems with the students in a Physical Science laboratory who were simply reluctant to do the work. They would not download the experiments from the Internet after we had moved away from the laboratory manual. I eventually lost my cool and the parents complained to the Chemistry Department Head. I was forced to meet with him and two other professors who were more worried about the reputation of the Department than anything else. I told them that I had had considerable experience teaching at the community college level before entering the program and that I had never encountered this situation before. To make a long story short, my research committee met and denied me permission to continue with the program although I was nearly finished. All I had left to accomplish was one class, the thesis prospectus, the remainder of my research, and the dissertation. The students told me that I was the best teacher they had ever had and even my own faculty advisor told me that I was treated shabbily. I eventually obtained the services of an attorney who advised me to file a complaint with the human rights commission of that state. The doctoral program was terminated three years ago and I found out the news not from the Chemistry Department but from a friend who lives in the same city the university is located. I know I am headstrong and so I did my best to get along with people so that I could obtain my degree and resume my career in chemistry. I felt that the situation in the Chemistry Department was excessively political and that the emotional needs of the students were not being met. A return to academic rigor is in order. As a consequence, I can sympathise with the emotional turmoil faced by Dr. Amy Bishop due to the denial of tenure but not her violent response to it. There are problems with the tenure process including cronyism and promoting incompetent faculty.

After writing this and reading all of your thoughtful comments and experiences, it seems that most agree that constructive interpersonal interactions should be valued but that what we call a lack of collegiality is a slippery topic, particular where it comes to defining it.

I also share some of the misgivings most recently expressed in #98 by Pam Ronald. Who defines the "not fitting in" can be used abusively.

But perhaps what I was most thinking of in the context of this post independently of the horrific shootings is the example given by CP in #96 of the faculty member who looks good on paper and turns out to be a toxic influence that damages careers, collaborations, and program reputations. The chronic obstructionist described in Anonymous #78 also falls into this category.

But Anon #78 also has a very important point that we not conflate collegiality with foregoing robust discussions, avoiding challenging decisions, or otherwise making one's colleagues feel uncomfortable. That's not a trap we want to fall into.

thanks for the heartfelt and insightful contribution dq5 (#100). To me this rings true and does evaporate away all other discussions of feminism, socialism, sociopathy and tenure-related resentment. It seems much deeper emptiness and as you point out, perhaps tragically inevitable that she would eventually reach some kind of psychological impasse. Which does kind of bring us back to gun control...

I also appreciate comment #100. At the risk of sounding like a "bleeding-heart liberal who has more sympathy for the alleged perpetrator than for the victims" I find Bishop is more likely a tragic, psychologically damaged character than a dastardly one. I also think, no matter what the pressures, one is not "driven" to murder. People lose presidential elections, competition for concertmaster of an orchestra, and Olympic events without losing control of their behavior. She is responsible.
As for evaporating away discussions of tenure-related resentment, to the question of what we will decide to believe about Prof. Bishop, you would be correct. However, the author's questions were not about her, but about policy. The premise of the questions is that tenure, as it is exercised today, with all of its ramifications, is to be considered a very good thing, and I consider this to be open to challenge.
Best regards, Steve

By Steven Buonocore (not verified) on 15 Feb 2010 #permalink

There are so many good insights into how someone like Amy may have arrived at a point where she felt shooting her colleagues was an option open to her.

But all this talk about science is a bit off base. Science and its crappy treatment of women/minorities isn't to blame.

I've worked as a woman in science for years, and all the things said previously, about cronyism, sexism, unfairness of the good old boy clubs, is still all too true in much of science. I've been the recipient of some pretty amazingly bad treatment (and I've seen other women treated much much worse) that I don't believe would have been tolerated if it weren't for the fact that i was a woman, that professors and their grant money mean more to a university than ethics, or because i didn't possess the more traditionally 'male' characteristic of aggressive/assertive personality.

Most female scientists/students, however, know that it's an unfair playing field. Most don't do much complaining officially. Those that do are often labeled difficult, even when they're complaints are completely justified.

But what sets someone like Amy apart isn't that she was a good female worker in a job that wasn't over friendly to women. That can be said of many MANY jobs.

What sets her apart is that when she felt she was mistreated, she also felt ENTITLED to get a gun,, bring it to her place of employment, and murder those people she felt were mistreating her.

Frustration, despair, difficult work conditions, how many people in the world, men, women, and children, face situations that are untenable?

Not many feel they're entitled to take lives because of it.

It is hard to believe that Amy wasn't mentally ill long before this. I am sorry for her family, especially her children. And for those poor unfortunate souls who she killed, and their families.

But she DID have a choice. Science can be an incredibly difficult place to be for a woman, but she chose to be there.

I disagree with the poster who knew Amy and said "science chose her". There are people who are forced or born into much more unfair and untenable situations. Most will not go on to kill those responsible, even if given the chance.
I am sorry that this woman apparently led a lonely and sad life, despite having children, a husband, and a career, in the richest country in the world. She appears to have been a miserable person, and it sounds like she was or felt invisible.

But my sympathy ends at the point she felt entitled to kill a group of people (god only knows how many she had planned to kill), because she was unhappy with them or felt mistreated.
She wasn't in a prison they built for her, she was in a prison of her own mind. Science had nothing to do with it.

and cheers to the pro gun control comments.

Yakker, with all due respect, you have absolutely no idea what Dr Amy Bishop was feeling. What you are doing is projecting your feelings onto her. You are imputing how you would feel in her situation, and how you would have to feel to do what she did. You have no data to support your projections.

You are "othering" her so you can have the fantasy that you will never do what she did. That somehow you are "different" than her, and no matter how desperate the situation you are put into, that you will never break and do what she did. The truth is, no one knows what they will do when pushed to the breaking limit. A near death metabolic state can induce psychosis and profound delusions. Severe stress can cause a near death metabolic state, even purely psychogenic stress.

The poster who said that "science chose her" has known Dr Amy Bishop for over 20 years. How long have you known Dr Amy Bishop? Her husband knew her for even longer. He didn't notice anything wrong. If he had, he certainly would have stopped her, would have called 911, would have gotten her to a place where she would be safe and where everyone around her would be safe. That is what any compassionate person would do, even for a stranger. Her co-workers didn't notice anything either, or they would have done the same thing.

Hindsight is always 20-20, but lets not delude ourselves with wishful thinking or by pretending that we know what happened. We don't know what her thinking process was, she may not know what it was either. Trauma does strange and unpredictable things to people. It can induce quite profound delusions which are indistinguishable from reality.

Lots of academic physicians are suffering from personality disorders and are often responsible for the suffering and death of those around them, including patients. The press to excel may stem from those personality issues and/or the expectations from being in a highly competitive workplace.

In my experience, the physicians always do very well for themselves in term of promotions, salary, appointments to chair positions and department politics. The ones I have known have also all been male.

By @murmur55 (not verified) on 15 Feb 2010 #permalink

Ordinarily, daedalus, I'm right there with you. Even when you get a little wacky on the NO stuff, you are usually pretty much right. But this time? I can't.

Look, a person has to have SOME faith in herself. I believe in my heart that there is no way in this universe that I am ever going to take a loaded gun to a faculty meeting, much less pull it out and shoot a bunch of people.

Trauma does do extraordinary things. People with brain injuries do things they never anticipated.

But even if I accept that by a series of awful coincidences Dr. Bishop acted without forethought and just happened to completely lose her mind in a place full of the colleagues who "broke" her, and she just coincidentally had a loaded gun along with her, I do not believe those same coincidences will happen to me.

Having compassion for the mentally ill does not mean saying, "There but for the grace of chance go I," about a fellow female scientist turned mass murderer.

DearReaders - Most interesting stuff, especially the psychology. Readers might be interested in the piece I wrote on "The End of Tenure". This was a technique worked out by Eastern Michigan University [EMU] to end the career of a tenured full professor without any justified cause.

In this case, EMU hired for $65/hour a MI-Licensed Forensic Psychiogist to do a secret and remote analysis without the tenured professor's knowledge or the contract-required permission to access his personnel file. This ended up in 1982 making him unable to be employed for the rest of his life - now almost 30 years ago.

Since these were "Crimes of State", Michigan now owes him an estimated over $300M in back salary, inflation, and interest.

Please consult the blog for details:

Thanks for your interest and feedback.

Bruce Graves

There are several points I think worth pondering in this case. Amy Bishop was a brilliant woman. & She is said to have had a difficult personality and perhaps didn't like being part of the team. But there are some other traits which set her apart from the usual push and shove of the tenure trip.

First, if she indeed killed the brother as the result of an argument, then she had an anger management problem and lack of impulse control. If she sent the bomb through the mail, this is planned and premeditated. Perhaps it was not her, but an interesting thing to ponder. Next, there is the issue of the unregistered firearm. Her husband claims they didn't even own a gun. This fact implies that Ms. Bishop planned to do something like this for quite a while, as obtaining an unregistered firearm isn't something you do by going to a gun shop.

My sense is that besides having lack of impulse control there was something else going on, a long term, premeditated plan to get revenge if things didn't go her way. Now perhaps she was delusional in all this, who knows. I think the tenure issue was a part of it but who can know why a person will throw her entire life away as well as the lives of others over any obstacle such as this.

No matter, it is a tragedy for many.

By ChristineZ (not verified) on 15 Feb 2010 #permalink

@26: "A consideration of collegiality or personality for tenure would be an abomination. Not that anything can excuse the acts of Dr. Bishop, an 'arrogant' 'difficult' female professor is perceived quite differently compared to a male professor. These same characteristics would be essential to equip a male professor or any professor to survive the rigor and competition of academia."


@28: "The risk of a "collegiality" clause is that professors could use such a clause to reinforce the prevailing ideology (whether political, 'scientific' or technical) of department heads. Such a clause would probably be misused."

As a female assistant professor with an ideology different from some members of the central administration at my university, I have been confronted with both of these issues... 1) that I run the risk of looking "bitchy" because I am confident and assertive, and 2) that by choosing the "hard road" of operating under the condition that a REAL university would want me to do the scholarly and activist work that I believe is right, even if it pushes the boundaries of the central admin's comfort zone, that I am risking not looking "collegial." This is despite the fact that most of my colleagues would probably define me as very "collegial."

I just worry about how to define this term and how to quantify it. I have a colleague in another department dealing with someone he works with who has managed to do the "easy road" politically and has people all over campus fawning after him, while the folks in his department are fuming. But even though he is not particularly liked by most in his department, he will probably have the kind of funding success, because of the way he's wheedling and ingratiating himself to certain bigwigs, that will get him tenure. I would love a system that evaluates his relationships with his colleagues as an additional tenure criterion. I just wouldn't want that criterion then turned on women, people of color, or other uppity people who want to make their universities better.

Very interesting article... But:

Let us assume that an assistant professor there adequately met all of the explicit quantitative criteria for promotion and tenure in terms of teaching, research, and service. I would expect, however, that if the candidate under consideration was not an otherwise constructive member of the organization, comments in this regard would have been included in the chair's recommendation to the college dean's promotion and tenure committee based on the deliberations of the departmental promotion and tenure committee.

I don't believe there's a lot of truth to this. In my opinion its biased towards the opposing party.

I am from Huntsville and have been following this tragedy closely.

First point: It is not the decision of this community or any other to second guess the UAHuntsville tenure committee and their reasons for denying her tenure. Based on her reaction to conflict and other local stories, we can see that they were right.

Second point: Agree with #49, I had heard that she had not done enough articles until shortly before tenure when she worked furiously. But then again, that was for the committee to evaluate.

Third point: The issues of racism, feminism, issues of congeniality, her supposed intelligence, tenure abuse, psychological profiling is moot. Amy killed one black woman, one black man, and one Indian man. Two others are still in critical condition. The third injured has been released but he may lose his eye. My father knew Dr. Adriel Johnson 20 years ago when he was an up and coming biology professor. He has since continued to tutor at risk minority boys and volunteer with the Boy Scouts. Dad said he was always a hard worker and steady. Amy Bishop may have different not because she was from Harvard. Or a nerd. Or socially awkward. Or arrogant. Or angry. Maybe she was different because she did not value life.

Where did this happen? This is not for me to speculate nor justify. Did it happen because her mother worked for the Police Board and someone let her go when she killed her brother? Did it happen when she became angry with her advisor at Harvard and maybe sent him dud pipe-bomb?

I'm just thankful that she was not brilliant enough to really take out the whole UAHuntsville Biology department without any clues.

Fourth point: Amy was a loner. @100 and 101: I sympathize with your feelings of isolation and trauma with tenure. My father retired from UAHuntsville and had years of hardship from a Dean who did everything he could to destroy him. The Dean may have contributed to at least 2 families losing children to mental illness. I am just thankful that Amy did not try to kill you.

Fifth Point: Amy was strange. My husband just told me that on one of her latest articles, she put her childrenâs name on the byline.

Anytime something like this happens; we want to justify, explain, and analyze this tragedy. I think Amy's previous infractions without punishment led her to believe that she could get away with this. I pray that even if she is deemed "insane", she stay locked up well until she is not able to hold a gun in her hand any longer.

Appreciate the courtesy with comments and theories. There's more analysis and understanding here than at other web sites where there is a lot of anger and hate spewing.

But some of the intellectualism disregards the fact that what happened is just plain tragic.

By the way, according to Dick Reeves from BizTech (incubator and Angel funder), UAH would have allowed her to keep 50% of all profits from her fledgling company; very generous indeed.

Amy Bishop was probably for gun control. According to rateMyProfessor (before it was scrubbed) she frequently discussed her far-left politics in class. The problem was not gun control. In Alabama, there is no need for gun registration. A background check is done, but legally anyone can buy a gun unless deemed mentally incompetent. Because Amy was never arrested for anything previously, any background check would have been clean.

Finally, while most seem to be arguing that UAHuntsville is not a top tier academic institution (an assertion that many locals including myself disagree with); and, Hometown University should have accepted her "brilliance", the tenure committee or the schoolâs leadership do not owe the public any explanation of the tenure discussion or decisions. While Amy may have been qualified, she also was leading a protest movement to censure the President of the University for implementing a policy for first and second year on-campus residency. (Not really a bright idea for someone up for tenure.)

Ironically, the President wanted to implement this policy to help accelerate the transition of UAHuntsville from a night school to a more traditional college campus, though this transition had been occuring for the last 20 years. It may be Amy and the blood of three others who ultimately have put UAHuntsville on the map. Please pray for the two survivors who are still in critical condition.

Where exactly is this paper where whe put her kids on as co-authors? 'Cause I can't find any evidence of it.


Here is the link to that paper:…

The lead author is her youngest daughter who is around 12 years old. The other authors are her teenage daughters and her husband. The Cherokee Labsystems is her husband's company. It's address is her house! Google it!

This paper was published in a "vanity" journal. It is peer reviewed, but the guidelines to peer reviewers state that the journal is looking for reasons why the paper should be published more than why it should not be published.

The paper with her children's names on it is pretty juvenile. If her children did the work, why shouldn't they be co-authors? I am speculating, but maybe the work was done as a marketing gimick to show that even children could use the new neuron tissue culture equipment the company was developing. If it produced publishable results, it is better to publish them then than to throw them away.

UAH is not a private club. It is a state funded university. It can't be run as a private club. It can't be run at the whim of the administrators as their private fiefdom. The tenure process needs to be looked at, to see if it was properly followed. Not following the appropriate tenure process does not in any way justify murder, but there is no justification for not following the proper procedures either.

It is important to look at every contributing factor and for those contributing factors to be publicized so that those contributing factors can be corrected at UAH and everywhere else before they contribute to another disaster. It is a big mistake to latch onto only one factor and ignore or cover up everything else.

To phisrow:
You cannot be Just That Good. You are The Arrogant.

On the issue: Unfortunately, most one can see nowadays in the academia is something like the Friday meeting on beer and potato chips. Itâs simply a matter of taste.

Abel, Dan is right. Most of us we are no schmoozers, yet we do most of the job.

Indeed, there is an ass-kissing structure in most of the cases, since most are mediocre.


This was not a spoof paper. She included it in her list of publications.

Her children did NOT do this research.

She is a fraud.

to 107 @murmur55

A characteristic of this group is little knowledge of the nature of people which may be because they never learned it or they may be still in adolescent denial. This does not keep them from being good scientists, but it does mean their judgments about people are flawed so you will probably not receive any acknowledgment other than this about what you personally observed. They don't want to hear it, or cannot.

to JoeProf at 75

Your post was not too long; it was packed with organized, meaningful comment and well considered. You would be a good person to have on a tenure committee to ensure fairness.

The world it is the old world yet.

Matthew 5:21-22
"You shall not murder...whoever is angry with his brother...reconcile to your brother..."

No question, she had a choice: To not kill.

For those of you questioning the possibility of Dr. Bishop medicated w/antideps please reevaluate..........Was she also on meds in 2003, 2002 and 198? when exhibiting criminal behaviour? And if she was, (highly unlikely), more than likely she was medicated the years in between so why was she not killing or trying to kill people at those times? I would rather spend time diagnosing her than finding excuses for her.
Re, tenure. Let me preface I have and will not ever be in front of my colleagues to ask for a guarantee of a job for the rest of my life. But should we not keep only those who are foremost GREAT teachers and whom can teach students? Tenure should never ever be given to someone who cannot TEACH! Colleges and Universities are places of higher education. Not places of higher athletics. Not places of grant generators. Places of higher academics.

By Dr.Chopia (not verified) on 17 Feb 2010 #permalink

Re: "Tenure should never ever be given to someone who cannot TEACH! Colleges and Universities are places of higher education."
Makes perfect sense to me. Except here's what, in many a college, these great tenured teachers are doing: teaching very small workloads, while much more work is done by poorly paid, overworked adjuncts. Logical conclusion? The adjuncts are doing work that is much better than anyone gives them credit for, and the college administration knows this, and intends to keep operating this way, and does everything in their power to conceal the reality.
Meanwhile, the tenured guys teach a few students brilliantly, have their feuds, keep doing research, attract students and publicity, keep up appearances for the accreditation boards, travel the world, retire young and get great at golf.
Sorry I keep diverting the discussion; my topic is more interesting.

By steven buonocore (not verified) on 17 Feb 2010 #permalink

Unfortunately Dr Chopia seems to have an undergraduate understanding of what a university's core function is.

The production and desemination of knowledge.

Teaching students is only implied by the desemination bit. Tenure is dead in most of the world anyway so it's a moot point.

By antipodean (not verified) on 17 Feb 2010 #permalink

As a retired director of research and development in large high-tech corporations, I see the issue not as the collegiality or lack thereof of any particular professional, but rather as the question of what the administration or management does to minimize and correct disruption due to personality differences and clashes. I spent a large fraction of my time for 29 years dealing with the personnel issues that arise with "difficult people", which some of the best scientists are. In rare cases, someone's behavior was so antisocial that I had to remove the person from my payroll. But in the great majority of cases of "difficult people", even including a few who were suffering from clinical psychiatric disorders, as well as a number of people suffering from various addictions, I found that thoughtful counseling of that person and others, sometimes by me and sometimes by psychologists and/or medical professionals, reduced conflict to negligible levels and kept the person productive. It is my belief that most administrators and managers of scientists, in academia, in industry, and in government, do not exercise the skill to do this properly. Doing it requires recognition that scientists, like everyone else, are human beings with flaws, and that to get the best contribution from them requires attention not only to their work and work products, but to their strengths and weaknesses as human beings. In the extreme, I did deal with people who were angry enough to portend violence, including a specific threat to shoot me. In only one of those cases did I find it necessary to remove someone from the payroll; in the others I worked with the individuals to address the causes of their anger, and kept them as productive employees. The Amy Bishop case seems to me a failure on the part of those who should have acted either to help Bishop or to get her off the premises immediately.

By Victor Vyssotsky (not verified) on 18 Feb 2010 #permalink think someone who can not get along should have been given tenure. Oh perhaps someone capable of murdering three people and injuring three more (two critically) should be placed in a position to be in control of impressionable college students. Yes I can see how that line of thinking allows us to have increased safety in our universities. Actually no I don't, perhaps I am just not smart enough to see your line of reasoning. Your logic escapes me. I guess I need to go back to school.... except, I would be afraid to go there. A tenured professor with no ability to relate to mere humans might decide her needs to have her way supersede my need to live and she may kill me.

Dear Prof. Dr. Vyssotsky (comment 130),

many sincere thanks for your very apt, timely and insightful comment !

To my mind, "what the administration or management does to minimize and correct disruption due to personality differences and clashes" is actually the contribution of the authorities to the notion of "collegiality" under discussion in this forum, to the healthy moral climate in research organizations.

Regretfully, all kinds of the decision-making, steering, funding-control positions in the academia are with drastically increasing rate taken over by people, who are interested only in their own social recognition, and - as a result - aren't willing to (or are simply incapable of) deal(ing) with the "boring" administrative stuff, like what you are suggesting.

"The decay of a fish starts from its head", as the famous Russian saying states (sorry for this clumsy English translation !).

Although killings, suicides and other extremes cannot be ever justified, this particular Amy Bishop case seems to have been preprogrammed by the disastrous situation in the modern academia as a whole - and - obviously - in the UAH in particular.

The main concern here, in my opinion, ought to be trying to prevent an avalanche of similar cases all over the world - and thus said, I consider the present discussion forum the perfect first step in the rightest direction, a kind of the "self-cleansing" for the modern academia ...

Respectfully yours,

Evgeni B Starikov

Dear BeBe@Huntsville (comment #114),

many thanks, you the TRUE insider, so that your opinion and engagement are absolutely indispensable.

Our thoughts and prayers are surely with those families who have lost their loved ones, with those who are still balancing on the fatal verge ...

This unspeakably terrible case is NOT about some particular deficiences of UAH.

It's rather a reflection of a general devastating situation in academia - which equally pertains all the universities + research institutions over the world - to more or less high degree, of course).

The system of "research grants", especially as concerns the Life Sciences, has definitely outlived its usefulness. It's grown to be the hotbed of the "academic schmuck", those who are striving solely for their own social success by recklessly exploiting "their workhorses", the "toilers", who are the True Scientists. The latter are damned to remain in this "vicious cycle", getting socially marginalized and, as the tragic UAH case has shown, being sometimes driven into horrible, brutal madness ...

Respectfully yours,

Evgeni B Starikov

... Sorry, something has gone wrong with my previous submission (#133), please find the correct version:

Dear BeBe@Huntsville (comment #114),

many thanks, you are the TRUE insider, so that your opinion and engagement are absolutely indispensable !

Our thoughts and prayers are surely with those families who have lost their loved ones, with those who are still balancing on the fatal verge ...

Look, this unspeakably terrible case is NOT about some particular deficiences of UAH.

It's rather a reflection of a general devastating situation in academia, which equally pertains to all the universities + research institutions over the world, to higher or lesser degree, of course.

The system of "research grants", "tenures", "tenure-tracks", "quota-hires" etc., especially as concerns the Life Sciences, has definitely outlived its usefulness. It's grown to be a hotbed of the "academic schmuck", who infiltrate all the decision-making, steering, funding-control positions with increasing frequency. These "schmucks" are striving solely for their own social success by recklessly exploiting "their workhorses", the "toilers", who are the True Scientists. Being nothing else but "toilers", they are damned to remain in this "vicious cycle", getting socially marginalized and, as the tragic UAH case has shown, being sometimes driven into horrible, brutal madness ...

Respectfully yours,

Evgeni B Starikov

Dear colleagues and non-colleagues,

to my mind, it's totally fundamentally wrong to look for "stars" in the science ! It is here that a great temptation of delusion/self-delusion begins.

Scientific research is not sports. In the latter, everybody has to carry out one and the same sequence of exercises, so that the results can easily be evaluated according to commonly accepted criteria, like time, distance etc.

As for the research activity, can you clearly define what exactly its outcome is ? Very often you carry out very expensive and bizarre experiments, you write sophisticated theories, you run large-scale years-long computer simulations to obtain just the only answer - "the phenomenon we were studying is sheer impossible".

In such a case - have you rightfully spent money you have got for your research ?

Sometimes it is absolutely impossible (even for keen professionals in the field) to clearly evaluate definite degree of usefulness some particular theory or experiment might be possessed of - years and years must elapse before the damned "informational barrier" could be overcome ...

Especially misleading is the common system in academia, where everybody's trying to determine who is "star" and who is "not star" just by counting the number of publications - or by checking who has papers in "Science", "Nature", "Angewandte Chemie", "JACS" or likewise. There may be a sole paper which is ground-breaking, but hundreds of scam papers. The mentioned "big" journals are frequently publishing scam, every specialist knows this very well.

Every True Scientist is a star in him/herself, True Scientists are different from each other and from non-scientists !

Therefore I completely agree with Zorean (cf.…) that "as a society what we need to do is to learn to embrace and help people who are "different" or who are greatly and emotionally tied to certain outcomes/situations."

But how to achieve this ideal state of affairs - is a big problem ...

And now let us try to consider this whole dreadful story from a quite different standpoint - namely, not from "inside", but from "outside".

I guess, in this particular case, BOTH Amy Bishop AND the UAH administration bear the responsibility. However, it is extremely difficult to determine - without a fair and detailed investigation into this case - the exact ratio of these responsibilities ...

Please note also another aspect. When denying tenure, the responsible administrators follow THEIR OWN logics and are fully persuaded by THEIR OWN train of thoughts.

That such an "administrative" logics is sometimes at odds with the conventional human one is correct. But it is exactly here that the true "blind alley" starts ...

On the other hand, Amy Bishop - as every human being - has her own logics and her own train of thoughts ... Now, the two "trains of thoughts" have violently collided - there are very clear casualties !

The both sides: Dr. Bishop and the UAH administrators have surely the right to drive their own trains of thoughts. But there must be a fair "roadmap" for these both trains, not to induce violent collisions like that horrific tragedy of the week ago ...

Again, we come to a conclusion that the modern academic system doesn't provide - at least, for the people like Amy Bishop - the fair "roadmap" !

It is impossible to place people into a permanent "struggle for the survival" !

It is sheer impossible to play with "everything" or "nothing", this play becomes a pure sadism, in the long run. This means, I would like to estimate the UAH administrators as (potential) sadists. And - as a consequence - I would like to estimate the unlucky "quota hires", "tenure-tracks", "postdocs" etc. as (potential) masochists.

A couple "sadist-masochist" seems to be stable, but in fact it could exhibit a steady functioning only if the system is closed ...

But the system is open (Thank Goodness !). And exactly this fact renders the system "sadist-masochist" intrinsically unstable.

One of the definitions of unstable systems tells us that if a system exhibits exceedingly huge reaction in response to a tiny external stimulus, it may be qualified as 'unstable' ...

Look, this is but exactly, what we have seen last week at UAH !

Apart from the terrible tragedy of all those who was involved into this violent drama, there is a definite clear-cut conclusion:
The modern academic system is vicious, it is corrupt - because of its intrinsic instability.

This state of affairs MUST somehow be changed ! Otherwise, we'll witness other similar collisions all around the world !


One could describe the academic world as overly "tolerant", as this writer feels. However, in academia, outside ideas are not generally welcome. On most campuses, there is an "easy road", politically, and a "hard road". Most professors and students try to believe in the ideas that constitute the "easy road". This enables them to get good grades and move their careers forward. This IS academia today.

This is such a barrel of useless generalization that it might as well be a barrel of warm saliva. Everything depends on what, where, and whom you're talking about. Specifics matter, damn it.

@19: "...So, in light of Amy's excellent research record, and her not-so-nice personality, I am left wondering..."

Her research record is average, at best. There are no high-In our Department tenure would have been very unlikely with her publication record -- unless there was evidence Bishop was a truly exceptional teacher, which she apparently was not.

@110: "Amy Bishop was a brilliant woman."

I'm getting a little bit tired of this shit.

No, she wasn't.

I honestly think that people are throwing this term around because (1) they don't know a lot of genuinely brilliant women or (2) they don't have very high standards for brilliance.

It is an insult to genuinely brilliant scientists like Joan Steitz and Ada Yonath and Gertrude Elion and Grace Hopper and Rosalind Franklin and Christine Nusslein-Vollhard and Liz Blackburn (and, and, and...) to call this homicidal mediocrity of a woman "brilliant." She wasn't.

@114: "Finally, while most seem to be arguing that UAHuntsville is not a top tier academic institution (an assertion that many locals including myself disagree with)"

Those of us who have said that UAH is not a top-tier research school are correct. That does NOT mean that it is not academically superb; it means only that UAH professors are not expected to produce research and procure grants at the same rate as professors at, say, UAB or U Michigan or Yale.

Spiny Norman's comments:

(#136): "This is such a barrel of useless generalization that it might as well be a barrel of warm saliva. Everything depends on what, where, and whom you're talking about. Specifics matter, damn it."

Dear Spiny, here is a discussion forum for the specialists and insiders - generalizations are absolutely natural here, and, in fact, very welcome ... Bloggers and Commentors here know tons of specifics, but revealing names & addresses (a propos, very well known to everybody here !) is a definite sign of bad taste.

(#137) "Her research record is average, at best. There are no high-In our Department tenure would have been very unlikely with her publication record -- unless there was evidence Bishop was a truly exceptional teacher, which she apparently was not."

Dear Spiny, scientific research isn't sports ! Moreover, are you a professional in neurobiology ? Have you statistically analyzed the students' ratings of Amy Bishop's teaching activity ?

(#139) "@110: "Amy Bishop was a brilliant woman."
I'm getting a little bit tired of this shit.
No, she wasn't." ... " call this homicidal mediocrity of a woman "brilliant." She wasn't."

Dear Spiny, did you know Amy Bishop personally ? If so, for how long ?

(#141) "Those of us who have said that UAH is not a top-tier research school are correct. That does NOT mean that it is not academically superb; it means only that UAH professors are not expected to produce research and procure grants at the same rate as professors at, say, UAB or U Michigan or Yale."

Dear Spiny, the true scientific research is not "produced", and "procuring grants" has nothing to do with science - it is a (very primitive form of) management, accounting, etc.
Further, it is a very difficult problem to decide who is "academically superb" and who is not. Finally, EVERY True Scientist is a kind of jewel - and "academic schmuck" was, is and remains to be just "schmuck".

Spiny, it is pretty clear you don't understand Dr Bishop's work. When one does not understand something it is impossible to evaluate it. Barbara McClintock had similar problems. She wrote:

âOver the years I have found that it is difficult if not impossible to bring to consciousness of another person the nature of his tacit assumptions when, by some special experiences, I have been made aware of them. This became painfully evident to me in my attempts during the 1950s to convince geneticists that the action of genes had to be and was controlled. It is now equally painful to recognize the fixity of assumptions that many persons hold on the nature of controlling elements in maize and the manners of their operation. One must await the right time for conceptual change.â

This is the problem in trying to evaluate science at the cutting edge. When the scientists who are the gate keepers in journals, in conferences, in funding, and in tenure don't understand something (and actively block it), how can someone advance the field when everyone else is holding it back?

What Dr McClintock describes is what Thomas Kuhn talks about in his book on the nature of scientific revolutions. Ordinary scientists do what he calls ordinary science, that is science done within the scientific paradigms they understand. When those scientific paradigms are wrong, they need to be changed. But changing paradigms is not something that ordinary scientists are capable of doing (that is the definition of an ordinary scientist).


I am adequately informed, and I disagree with you. I hope that you understand that two well-informed people can disagree.

I've read some of Bishop's papers. They range from average-good to truly poor. (The last one, coauthored with three of her kids and with her 12-year-old daughter as lead author, is a truly awful piece of dreck that I would be ashamed to list on my own CV; we are, after all, judged by our worst, as well as our best, papers.)

Since you seem to think that I don't know anything about the history or philosophy of science, I should point out that I've also read a number of McClintock's papers (difficult going, but she was obviously anything but a mediocre scientist) and I've read Fox-Keller's biography of her. I've also read both of Kuhn's major books at least twice (and a fair amount of work by other, philosophers of of science; I'm more of a Popper fan, though).

You're entitled to your opinion, and I'm entitled to mine.


you seem to be systematically misreading what I have written. Let's try again.

1. Asking that people actually talk about specifics does not mean that I was asking for names or places or dates. When a generalization becomes too broad, it loses its utility to explain anything at all. Read the post I was replying to @28. It makes useless generalizations, and I said so

2. "Research is not sports". That is true. I was not counting publications; I was actually looking at her papers. Not one of them appears to be in any way exceptional.

If you disagree, then let's talk about the actual work. The papers are published. Which experiments do you think are path-breaking? Which represent exciting departures rather than incremental extensions of other scientists' work? Which interpretations? This is a case where there is absolutely no point to talking in generalities, since the specifics are right there, part of the archived scientific record.

3. About scientific brilliance. Most of the people who have been talking about Bishop's so-called brilliance have been talking about her scientific achievements. Again, those are documented in her own papers. I do not need to have known her personally to say that if she did not publish brilliant papers she was probably not a brilliant scientist. My standard of comparison is both to scientists that I know personally, including Nobel and Lasker laureates, and to scientists who I know solely through their published papers.

4. Scientific research absolutely is produced, just as works of art or music or literature or philosophy are produced. All these things are products of human effort, and struggle, and imagination.

Perhaps this is not the way you see it, but I suspect that any difference is purely semantic -- unless you think that science simply pops into the aether, fully-formed?

5. About grants, and research universities. Every experimental paper has a section entitled "Materials and Methods."

If you can't procure the materials, there are no experiments. It really is that simple. To do experiments in biological research, one must pay for reagents, culture media, microscopes, incubators, etc. All of these things are expensive. Someone has to pay. Peter Mitchell, for example, did it by being independently wealthy. Scientists who are not independently wealthy have had to find other benefactors. This was true for every experimental scientist from Aristotle on.

Now, what was my point about grants? It was NOT that UAH is a "worse" school than the large research universities. It was that as an institution oriented toward undergrad teaching, there is less research activity at a place like UAH than one would see at a place like Rockefeller University or UC Berkeley. This is indisputable, if only because the professors at UAH spend much more of their time in class, and have commensurately less time to dedicate to original research. That is not in any way worse, it is merely different.

I want to add one other thing about Kuhn: most people who allude to his work (this includes most scientists who allude to his work) have never actually read The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and do not actually understand what his arguments were.

Subsequent work in the history and philosophy of science have made it abundantly clear that Kuhn's simple dichotomy between normal science and paradigm shifts is -- at best -- a serious oversimplification of how science actually progresses. Yes, things that look like paradigm shifts (in the Kuhnian sense) occasionally occur. Mitchell's chemiosmotic hypothesis is my second-favorite example in biology (the work of Darwin and Wallace is my favorite, of course).

But just as often, perhaps more often, good ideas are not opposed. In these periods "normal science" often progresses with breathtaking speed and intense competition and collaboration.

To pick but one example: the Nobel-winning work of Weischaus and Nusslein-Vollhard on developmental genetics was embraced immediately across many fields in biology as the tremendous advance that it was. The Watson-Crick model for DNA structure is another good example. It was immediately seen for the advance that it was. Both of these were genuinely anti-Kuhnian paradigm shifts.

On the one hand, I feel for Dr. Bishop, having been horribly discriminated against as a female scientist. However, it is our own responsibility to maintain our mental health. When Dr. Bishop was court ordered to get anger management therapy, she did not. Her husband claimed that she did not need it. But wasn't he there when she hit another woman in public and said "I am Dr. Amy Bishop"? He thought it was blown out of proportion? I beg to differ. What I see is a woman who was book smart but lacked all semblance of an emotional IQ above infantile level.
That being said, I agree with Dr. Vyssotsky in that management of universities should be supportive of faculty and not ignore them. I have begged my president, provost, dean and chairman for support and to stop the discrimination and abuse, and not only have I been ignored, I have been retaliated against. Luckily I have maintained my sanity, but do not trust anyone at the university. For someone like Dr. Bishop, her personality disorder got the better of her. Vigilence and compassion are in order at universities that want to nurture their faculty so that those faculty can be productive in a stress free environment.

By beentherebutdi… (not verified) on 21 Feb 2010 #permalink


Toxic work environments suck, wherever you find them. I'm truly sorry to hear that you've landed in one; my advice is to do whatever you can to get into a better setting. Not everywhere is the same and from what you say, most places are in fact better.

Also, agreed that Vyssotsky's comment @130 is wonderfully perceptive. Managers like that are few and far between; it is a useful goal to find work in a place where you work for honorable people.

It is not, however, clear to me that Amy Bishop could have been happy and productive in any work environment.

Dear Spiny (#145), thank you for your detailed response - I really enjoy your being my discussion counterpart !

Now to your points:

1) #28 is absolutely rightful and appropriate generalization. I'm witnessing these "easy roads" and "hard roads" practically everywhere all around the world during all my 27-years-long career. I myself belong to those who goes "hard roads".

2) Maybe. I have no comment here, for I am a molecular biophysicist. Yes, I have been involved into the research on neuro-degenerative disorders some 10 years ago - but at the molecular level. Here you'd better apply to DAEDALUS2U who's a definite professional in the field.

3) "... if she did not publish brilliant papers she was probably not a brilliant scientist." The word "probably" is completely suitable here. To be eligible to say "mediocrity" to somebody, you have to know this somebody personally for a long enough time. If you just read the papers by somebody, then you may express your opinion on the papers only, without going over to the personality of the author. But you are entitled to draw tentative conclusions on the whole set of the "oevres", if you feel that you are professional enough in the field. This is just the conventional scientific etiquette, nothing new.

A bit more to the story, just a short lyrical intermezzo: Not all the Nobel Prize Winners nowadays really deserve to be viewed as "benchmarks". The common practice to look for a Nobel Prize Winner every year without fail has drastically impeded the value and prestige of the Nobel Prize.

4) Yes, I agree - the difference is purely semantic.

5) Without money - no research, I agree. But the problem of the modern academic society is that "money-making" has devolved into a separate, independent activity. It is truly difficult to combine both "money-making" and the very research. I have never seen examples when somebody could successfully combine these two types of activity. As a result such academic posts as decision-making, steering, funding-control are frequently infiltrated by "schmuck", who are striving solely for their success in the society - at any price - without being even a shadow of a specialist in their respective fields. At the same time, the True Researchers, who do nothing but research itself, fall into fatal dependence on the "schmuck". The latter starts then to be playing with the destinies and fates of the former, using all these "tenure rules", using their power to award grants to whom they want etc.

In all the universities I know this is done more or less according to the above-mentioned scheme. As for the UAH, I am not sure - have never had connections with them. I hope the careful police investigation into Amy Bishop case will reveal all the details of this horrible tragedy.

6) I am not so versed in the philosophy of science as you, so that I'm unable to continue this part of discussion.

Respectfully yours,

Evgeni B Starikov

This has really been a fantastic discussion. I'm wondering if any of you had a chance to look at this article by Gina Kolata in today's New York Times:

It's short and largely dismissive of Bishop's research record, particularly her work in NO, but did not discuss her funding.

Abel @ 151. I think that asking whether the research record of an assistant professor at the University of Alabama at Huntsville would be sufficient for tenure at Columbia's medical school is rather stupid.* However, answering the question-as-asked is even stupider.

*Which for Kolata, is par for the course.

Re: NYTimes article
If she was so unqualified for tenure, then why was one of the slain professors voting in her favor?
But, assuming the professor was judging the situation poorly, then why do colleges let people persist in trying for tenure when it ought to have been clear it's not in the cards? Because academia never tells you when you're being used. It's up to you to figure it out. And if you don't, all the more justification for them exploiting you, as you have identified yourself as a dummy.
While there may be some truth to this, it is perverse to systematically capitalize on a thing like that!
Full professors often complain that the colleges use too many adjuncts, causing slippage in academic freedom, downward pressure on their salaries, and poorer teaching (this one is aguable). If the tenured people would have higher course loads, fewer adjuncts could be used.
Tenure is fairly unpopular among the lay public, Some of them suspect that the purpose of tenure is lavish salaries and light workloads. Are they partly correct?
Does academic freedom mean that you can teach the way you know that you must, even if it makes you unpopular, or does it also mean you can afford to be unpopular with the majority of the general population, extendedly?
If the hierarchy/conditions/salary of academic labor were to be reformed so it looked less like a pyramid scheme, then people like Bishop (competent, not exceptional) might be content with just a decent job.

By Steven Buonocore (not verified) on 23 Feb 2010 #permalink

"If she was so unqualified for tenure, then why was one of the slain professors voting in her favor?"

Um, because different people have different opinions?

"But, assuming the professor was judging the situation poorly, then why do colleges let people persist in trying for tenure when it ought to have been clear it's not in the cards?"

Um, because it would be asinine to jettison what little regularized process *does* exist for tenure decisions, and it would amount to making the tenure decision even earlier, with even less basis for knowing whether a given person is a good candidate for tenure?

"Because academia never tells you when you're being used. It's up to you to figure it out."

Fortunately, things are completely different in the private sector.

"And if you don't, all the more justification for them exploiting you, as you have identified yourself as a dummy. While there may be some truth to this, it is perverse to systematically capitalize on a thing like that!"

Fortunately, you have the alternative of working at Wal-Mart, whose management would never engage in such practices.

"Full professors often complain that the colleges use too many adjuncts, causing slippage in academic freedom, downward pressure on their salaries, and poorer teaching (this one is aguable). If the tenured people would have higher course loads, fewer adjuncts could be used."

Such a simple explanation. I am so glad that I'm only imagining that I teach in excess of 1800 student hours a year, with help from a single TA, while maintaining a significant research program.

"Tenure is fairly unpopular among the lay public, Some of them suspect that the purpose of tenure is lavish salaries and light workloads."

Some of them also suspect that cyrstals can heal what ails you, that 9/11 was an inside job, and that Colonel Sanders puts an addictive chemical in his chicken that makes you crave it fortnightly.

"Are they partly correct?"

About the chemical in the chicken?

"Does academic freedom mean that you can teach the way you know that you must, even if it makes you unpopular, or does it also mean you can afford to be unpopular with the majority of the general population, extendedly?"

I can't speak for other fields, but here we were talking about scientists, and most people in the United States admire scientists. There's data on this point, ya know. (Scientists like data.)

"If the hierarchy/conditions/salary of academic labor were to be reformed so it looked less like a pyramid scheme, then people like Bishop (competent, not exceptional) might be content with just a decent job."

That last sentence provides a succinct explanation of why it was necessary for Bishop to start punching a random woman at an iHop who had made the error of taking thelast booster seat, while repeatedly screaming "I am Dr. Amy Bishop!" It also explains why it was necessary for her to level a shotgun at her brother's chest and pull the trigger. It also explains why there are scores of cases exactly like Amy Bishop's across the United States, every year.

Dear Abel, the NYT article you are referring to is apparently well conceived but rather awkwardly written.

1. In fact, there are no clear and commonly accepted criteria to conlusively estimate the significance of any research work. Indeed, the number of publications ? There might be only one "hidden jewel" and thousand "pieces of scam". May perhaps the number of papers in "big" journals ? Every honest researcher knows that they also frequently publish tons of scam. Number of citations & related criteria ? The paper may be cited just "en passant", without analysis and using the ideas/results, or the paper may be severely criticized - should we really take into account the latter two types of scitations ?

2. Not seldom it's really difficult even for the finest and most renowned professionals to estimate the significance of a research thread in their field - just due to the damned "informational barrier".

3. The modern research is highly specialized, and if I hear "Professor in biophysics" - I have to spend an appreciable time to refine the term biophysics (biophysics of proteins, biophysics of nucleic acids, biophysics of saccharides etc.) - very frequently a fine specialist in protein folding can't estimate the significance of a work done on DNA. But both DNA and proteins are studied in molecular biophysics.

To sum up, what is my point ? Estimating scientific research - and therefore academic achievements - is a very turbid and extremely swampy undertaking.

That exactly this fuzzy and "spooky" activity is forming the basis of the "tenure decisions", where destinies and fates of living people are at stake, is absolutely devastating, to my mind.

Those who've taken in the tenure denials are rarely going berserk or going postal, like Amy Bishop. But not seldom this kind of capital defeat ends up in heart infarctions, cerebral haemorrhages, depressions, suicides ...

From the "external" viewpoint (the viewpoint of the rest of society) - so what, tenure denial ? Fiddlesticks ! There are much more serious tragedies, right ?

But from the "insider" standpoint - it is the total Out, it is a terrible catastrophe, it is disaster ... Not everyone has healthy enough nervous system to cope with the disaster. Does it mean that we have to humiliate, to discard such victims ? Wouldn't neglecting them be just kicking somebody who is already on the floor ?

That the rest of society has virtually no understanding and no excuse for this "insider horror" only amplifies the moral tortures of the "academic victims" ...

It is not a pure coincidence that these "tenure decisions" have devolved into the sadistic instrument used by the academic "schmuck" to play bad jokes with the True Scientists, whereas the latter tend even to be masochistic in their desperate addiction to their research work ...

On the "Psychology Today" forum devoted to the paper by Dr. van Wormer (…) user Carmen, who seems to be one of the victims of the modern academic society, has very insightfully compared this "sadistic-masochistic" attitude with the well-known "Stockholm syndrome".

I guess, this parallel is very rightful. This is where the whole academic psychopathology begins ...

"Um, because it would be asinine to jettison what little regularized process *does* exist for tenure decisions, and it would amount to making the tenure decision even earlier, with even less basis for knowing whether a given person is a good candidate for tenure?"

I was thinking more like this: suppose you have a person trying to get a master's degree in musical performance at a good conservatory. If the person's GPA in performance related courses slips below 3.0 he may be forced to withdraw. This can happen a year or two before the senior recital. This keeps unqualified or insufficiently motivated people from from going the distance, only to be traumatized by an unsatisfactory senior recital.
Makes sense for everybody.

"Fortunately, things are completely different in the private sector."

Haha. This reminds me of John Kenneth Galbraith saying "Under capitalism, man exploits man. Under socialism, it's just the opposite." If you're considering the state university, which may be stringing along tenure candidates to whom it does not expect to give tenure to, or adjuncts who are getting...well, you know.

"Fortunately, you have the alternative of working at Wal-Mart, whose management would never engage in such practices."

Sure, but if you're looking at the psychology today article about the trauma of tenure denial, then it might behoove us to figure out how to curtail some of the more extreme instances of career-induced trauma. Or else be less surprised when an unbalanced person like Dr. Bishop lashes out.

"Such a simple explanation. I am so glad that I'm only imagining that I teach in excess of 1800 student hours a year, with help from a single TA, while maintaining a significant research program."

Congratulations for all you're accomplishing and I didn't mean to offend you. I know a tenured college professor who boasts "I get full time pay for a part time job."
You have an anecdote/example and so do I. Neither qualifies as data.

"Some of them also suspect that cyrstals can heal what ails you, that 9/11 was an inside job, and that Colonel Sanders puts an addictive chemical in his chicken that makes you crave it fortnightly."
"About the chemical in the chicken?"

The point is there has been a slippage in the public's opinion of tenure recently. I just read an article about it. I'll try to find it. I find it interesting. What if the public is stupid, but even a dull witted lay person has a fair idea about what's wrong with the tenure system? What would that mean?
Actually certain conservatives are interested in this because they feel that colleges and tenure are a stronghold of liberal influence, especially if they are trying to shut out conservative intellectuals such as Thomas Sowell. And Obama has galvanized them. It's interesting. I'm certainly not saying I want them to take over.

"That last sentence provides a succinct explanation of why it was necessary for Bishop to start punching a random woman at an iHop who had made the error of taking thelast booster seat, while repeatedly screaming "I am Dr. Amy Bishop!" It also explains why it was necessary for her to level a shotgun at her brother's chest and pull the trigger. It also explains why there are scores of cases exactly like Amy Bishop's across the United States, every year."

If you took all of the mentally unbalanced people out of our workforce, I think our GDP would decline noticeably.

By steven buonocore (not verified) on 23 Feb 2010 #permalink

"Fortunately, things are completely different in the private sector."

So why does this matter? Because if your private sector employer, i.e. Wal-Mart, or Dupont, exploits you, you are paying taxes to a government that considers it your responsibility to avoid exploitative transactions. Whereas, if you teach at a state-run university that exploits you, you are paying taxes to the state so they will have the means to exploit you. This part is compulsory.

By Steven Buonocore (not verified) on 23 Feb 2010 #permalink

Evgeni and Steven's comments are penetrating, although I obviously disagree with some aspects of what they've written above.

Evgeni's comments on the assessment of scientific performance are particularly trenchant. It's a tough problem, and I certainly do not know how to fix it. For me the acid test is this: if I read one paper by a given scientist, does it make me want to spend the time to read another one by the same person? I do know that the paper of my own that I like best is by far the most highly cited, but my second-favorite has not gotten the notice that it should have. No accounting for taste, I guess!

My problem with the tenure system is that at most places it is up-or-out. That is, if you don't have tenure by the end of your sixth year, many universities are compelled to fire you. So my problem is not with tenure per se, but with the necessarily severe consequences of not getting it.

This is where I see a huge problem. I would probably be willing to jettison the tenure system just to destroy the up-or-out requirement. Of course, this very requirement exists at the behest of the very professional guild that "represents" me, the American Association of University Professors. Tenure doesn't mean much to me because I pay at least half of my salary from grants. If the grants go away for a long time, it hardly matters whether I have tenure; I would have to choose between my mortgage and dinner, and I would therefore have to seriously consider a different line of work.

Up-or-out is, in a way, the opposite of the problem that concerns Steven, that universities "string along" people on the tenure track. In fact, the main argument advanced in favor of "up-or-out" is that it limits a university's ability to string people along.

In any case my experience, which is in biological science, is that *most* departments go out of their way to do the right things. The overwhelming desire is to: (1) do the smallest number of job searches possible, because they are horribly time-, energy-, and $-intensive for those who run the searches; and (2) to hire people who will succeed, so as to optimize (1). This is how a good Department, or a good institution, is run.

There are, of course, places that hire more people than they plan to tenure, and allow those hired to battle it out. These tend to be places that *think* they are elite (some are, though not for this reason, and some are not, and are engaging in self-deception).

Certain departments are notorious for this execrable practice, and if you're a postdoc looking for a position, I'd say that it is incumbent on you to ask around before you accept a job in such a department. You can tell a great deal about a place simply by talking to the junior faculty. One place I interviewed had five assistant professors, and four of them were manifestly miserable; when I returned a few years later for a visit, only the happy one had been promoted, and the rest were gone. I would have left science before joining that group. This bears on some of Steven's points. Different places are different. Some are decent, some awful. And plenty of elite Departments are also decent ones. UCSF Biochemistry-Biophysics, for example, is one of the best in its field, anywhere in the world, has a tenure rate in excess of 80%.

I think that in this context it's important to note that Amy Bishop was NOT an adjunct or a visiting professor. She was solidly on the tenure track, in a Department where my guess is that tenure rates are very high, and one has to pretty much blow it to not get tenure. Publishing a paper with three of your kids as coauthor (and your 12-year-old daughter in the lead), might not be enough to do it, but it might suggest a pattern of strange behavior. Of course, we don't have her tenure dossier or personnel file, but from what we now know about other prior and subsequent acts, it is not hard, at all, to imagine that there were many other good reasons to not tenure her. There's no evidence that she was systematically exploited or mistreated. It's possible, of course. But I think that for many people she's a kind of inkblot in which they see themselves.

Regarding Steven's post @157, I'm not sure I get the point. Is Steven looking only at State Schools, like UAH or UCLA, or is he thinking about private schools like USC or Notre Dame as well?

Dear Spiny (#158), many thanks for presenting your standpoint in detail.

The difference between what you and me would like to express is purely semantic again ! The "up-or-out" principle you discuss, which I would rather coin as "all-or-nothing", is exactly what bothers me as well.

I have spent practically all of my professional life in the regime you're spending yours (except for the initial 7 years of my career in the former USSR). Fortunately, I've very early recognized that all these damned "quota-hires", "tenure-tracks" etc. are just traps for gullible folks, who cannot help but desperately hope they'll definitely reach the Holy Grail at the "end of tunnel". I suspect, this sounds like where Amy Bishop was situated as well ... I feel regret for such guys, because this is a sort of typical "tunnel vision" syndrome. Indeed, the only profiteers in this field are "academic schmucks", that is, parasites who just use and peruse the fruits of the research done by others solely to increase their own social recognition. When researchers start to be somehow unnecessary or - oh, my Goodness ! - they start to be spiteful or petulant (for the fully understandble reasons, actually !) - they are cruelly thrown away by the "schmucks". And this is how and where the "tenure decision" is frequently used !

I know several heroes (no irony at all !) like you, dear Spiny, who buoy up themselves with a considerable number of grants.

Please do not misunderstand me - I am not wishing you this kind of continuation of your story - but, please, remember always that awarding grants is firmly in the hands of "schmuck". Look: one close colleague of mine whom I know personally for a long time (I will not disclose the specifics) was doing well with his grants during several years. But then the "schmuck" (a very definite person !) has successfully arranged for closing virtually all the grant sources for him, because of some personal problem between them ... That was a terrific lesson for me ! And there are lots of such stories all over the world !

Besides, there is a big general problem - the priorities of scientific research practically in all areas are slowly, but visibly, changing during approximately each decade. The active professional life of a typical researcher adds up to several decades. The flexibility and sharpness of the reaction is usually impeded with the age ... Can you follow my point ?

As for me, I hope I've found the optimum solution to this drastic problem: since about 1 year I am on a permanent, non-administrative position in industry and holding honorary positions in academia in several places all over the world. I am delighted and happy to be not more on the university or research institution payrolls, guys ! Now I can fully enjoy the real taste of independent, impassionated research ...

Sure, everybody chooses his/her own way, but the problem is that the modern academia cannot offer a real multitude of the ways ...

As concerns Steven's post (#157) and your reaction to it - I am not sure that the formal auspices under which this or that university/research institution is functioning play a central role - the people populating these institutions, the over-all moral spirit created by these people - this is the only aspect which matters and counts ...

What does post #157 mean? It's not exclusively about tenure, but since you asked:
It's one thing to say "if you don't care for the exploitative practices of academia, you can work in retail, or for a company, where you'll likely encounter the same thing.
(Government is under no obligation to prevent exploitation under capitalism.)
But it's another thing to say "if you don't care for the exploitative practices in private colleges, you can opt to teach in a state run unversity, where the exploitation is even more pronounced."
(The government should not be in the business of producing exploitation.)
I realize "exploitation" may be in the eye of the beholder. It certainly cannot be a "proven fact." On the other hand, it is not so often disputed.
Some of the practices in academia are more than "poorly run departments," as Spiny characterizes. They are harmful policies carried out by people with unbecoming motives.

By steven buonocore (not verified) on 24 Feb 2010 #permalink

Spiney #147, I mostly agree with you about Kuhn, and that the idea of a paradigm shift is mostly overused. There are degrees of this, but in hindsight the progression of science always looks linear and progressive. This is the property of how science history is written about, not about how science is done in real time.

A good example is Barbara McClintock. She discovered transposition and received the 1983 Nobel Prize for it for research she did in the 1940's. She stopped publishing that work in the 1950's because people did not understand it, and their lack of understanding was distracting them from her other work.

If her work had become accepted in the 1940's, it would have been a paradigm shift. That it wasn't accepted until the 1970's allowed time for the paradigms in the field to shift so that it wasn't. It fit into the paradigms in the 1970's, it didn't fit in the 1940's.

Watson-Crick wasn't a Kuhnian paradigm shift. No paradigms had to be abandoned or changed for it to be adopted. In the 1940's, the idea that genes could control their own expression via mechanisms like transposition was not capable of being considered. If Barbara McClintock had only been working on transposition, her career would have ended in the 1950's. She likely would not have been able to sustain herself using work that no one else accepted.

Would Barbara McClintock have been able to get tenure in 1950 based on her work in transposition in the 1940's? Probably not. No one understood it, no one thought it was any good.

The damage that these practices cause is not small. The damage is mostly invisible because it is the loss of productivity, the loss of work not done, discoveries not made, progress not having happened, treatments not being developed.

There was some work done on selective breeding of chickens to maximize egg production. When chickens in a hen house were selected for individual productivity (the chickens with the most eggs being selected for the next generation); perversely, the productivity of the entire hen house declined over time.

A hen could be the âmost productiveâ hen, either by increasing her own egg production, or by reducing the egg production of her house-mates. Selecting the individuals that produced the most eggs didn't maximize egg production of the whole house, it selected for individuals who sabotaged the productivity of their house-mates. It selected (in Evgeni's terms) for schmucks.

That is what our current funding hyper-competition is doing, selecting for schmucks.

Dear Daedalus2u,

Thank for your very apt example with hens and chickens !

I agree for 100% - the whole system of "research grants", "tenures", "tenure-tracks", "quota-hires" has outlived its usefulness and must be repaired. No question here !

The question is - what could be suggested as a viable alternative ? I am thinking on this all the time, but still have no interesting proposal.

Because any competition requires referees - and who will be the referees ?

The conclusion by Delyagin in his paper translated by me and posted on SCIENCEBLOG.COM was - we have most probably to wait till the mankind will be forced to somehow refurbish its "cognitive instruments" ... Well, this is just what the world's history suggests ... Any other interesting suggestions ?

Respectfully yours,

Evgeni B Starikov (aka Donquixote5)

I'm checking this site out again even though some of the discussion seems misses the point in some posts. A.B. is a murderer who tragically got down to our school and killed Dr. Gopi Podila, Dr Maria Ragland Davis and Dr. Adriel Johnson. I find it interesting that her husband seems to be now saying that there are no credible witnesses because "they were all against her and had a grudge against her." I would assume so, especially the ones in the room who were being shot at.

The question should be, "Should Harvard be liable for releasing a murderer (1986 murder of brother) and someone who is potentially dangerous (1993 pipe bomb suspect to adviser) to an unsuspecting population?" I'm sure she got rave reviews even after she got fired from Harvard. Why didn't someone at Harvard warn someone down here that she was a time bomb waiting to happen? They could have had the courtesy to do it after they got rid of her. She also lied about still working at Harvard for 2 years after she was fired and working at UA, which I guess is a better school since they are known for football. UAH should have checked this inconsistency a little closer; except, no arrests or murders exist in her records.

A.B. was dangerous 24 years ago and "her continuously getting off despite her bad behavior" (to quote a prominent local attorney) only contributed to her mindset that murder an okay reaction for not getting what she wanted. I've stopped following the news about her because the more I learn, the more toxic I find this individual.

Could DHR, the police, or anybody have stopped this senseless violence? Surely her husband could tell that something was off with A.B. The question now is - is her husband an accomplice? What did he know and when about her getting a gun? Usually there are controls in families, a conscience that will click somewhere. No, her mother got her off, presumably because "my baby didn't mean to kill her brother" and I don't want to "lose" another child. Well, Mrs. B., I believe you lost your daughter when you let her go home without an investigation; some of Dr. Gopi Podila, Dr Maria Ragland Davis and Dr. Adriel Johnson's blood is on your hands. Husband, most likely, knows of her vile temper, but takes her shooting to the range. Hummmm, something is just off.

Also, because she and so many of you underestimate the quality of work down here, she fixated on her on deficiency because, "How dare this substandard school reject me...I went to Harvard..." When it was the prestigious name that really is about the only thing that got her in the door. It got her in the door, but was not even enough to make up for everything else. She sorely underestimated UAHuntsvile and sorely overestimated herself. Yes, it jabbed at her ego so much; anger/hate consumed her.

Was OJ guilty of Nicole and Ronald Goldman's murders? Should he still be able to play football? Maybe this might bring it down to what it is all about.

But then again, A.B. was doing such great NO research that could save so many lives. Well, maybe her research could be used on Dr. Gopi Podila, Dr Maria Ragland Davis and Dr. Adriel Johnson, who are dead, or Dr. Leahy, who is still in critical condition and getting reconstructive surgery to put his face back together. Maybe NO treatments could bring them back to life and restore the holes in their head - now that would be brilliant.

No, A.B. is not that; thank you Spiny. Please, she ain't no Barbara McClintock. A.B. will be remembered in history for one thing.


Dear BeBe,

your anger is absolutely understandable and rightful. There is never an excuse for any murder, and our thoughts and prayers are with the families and colleagues of those innocent people who fatally suffered from this rampage !

But, I am sorry, you are mixing up several issues here.

1. Amy Bishop's personality. How this terrible crime could take place is not yet clear. This will be, I hope, carefully investigated by police and psychiatrists.

There is an excellent account on Amy Bishop here:…

Many witnesses tell their stories, the whole picture turns out to be very consistent, and I personally could not see from what I have read over there, that she was "a devil of a woman". Instead, the story seems to be much more complicated than you suggest.

2. The quality of Amy Bishop's work. Yes, I agree that with her absurd and violent actions she will be remembered only as a murderer. But after a considerable time will elapse - and all the emotions will evaporate - her work will be re-read - and nobody knows how it will be estimated in the future ... Scientific research is well known to be extremely difficult to estimate.

3. Drawbacks of the UAH administrative system and of the modern academia as a whole. If Amy Bishop was so well known as a "difficult case", why the UAH administration was keeping silence all the time she was working there ? She had to be either sent to some anger management courses or likewise - and if no more measures could be taken to normalize her behaviour - she should have been fired. In another vein, this Internet site is discussing the general nature of the tenure decisions - this common practice also seems to have many essential flaws in itself.

Finally, once again, I sincerely hope that this particular horrible case will be investigated from many standpoints and in full detail. And our task, to my mind, ought to consist in learning from this tragedy and doing all our best to prevent similar drastic outliers in the future.

Respectfully yours,

Evgeni B Starikov

The chicken and egg theory mentioned in #161 is very interesting. I would like to know what would have happened if the experiment were done differently. In scenario 1: the actual selection criteria were subjective rather than based on the stated âegg productionâ criteria. In scenario 2: the hen was either fed or not fed; the selection process determining which hen will receive food is totally not understood and canât be rationalized. I have observed that in a top 40 university, people get promoted without one senior authorship research paper, while others with sufficient high-quality papers get kicked out. Does scenario 2 sounds familiar to you? NIH grant is highly competitive to the majority of researchers, and the payline is as low as 1%, while for a small group of people, the payline is 100%.

By Quest Telling (not verified) on 25 Feb 2010 #permalink

Quest, the scenerio I mentioned isn't a "theory", it is data. They did the experiment and that is what they measured. The conclusion is that by focussing on individual selection based on individual productivity, chickens were able to "game" the system and "succeed" at being the most productive by tearing all the other chickens down.

This is the problem with any selection process. Any selection process using any metric for selection will also select for gaming the system. The harder and more stringent the selection criteria, the greater the selection for gaming the system. The more transparent a process is, the less oportunity there is for gaming the system.

I agree with the data. At least in this experimental system the hens appear to be given the same living conditions. We may be able to design metrics to reduce the opportunities for gaming the system. However, I am more concerned with what will happen to the system if hens were differentially treated.

By Quest Telling (not verified) on 25 Feb 2010 #permalink

RE: "Should Harvard be liable for releasing a murderer (1986 murder of brother) and someone who is potentially dangerous (1993 pipe bomb suspect to adviser) to an unsuspecting population?"
NO, not liable: "murder" of her brother would have been considered, at the time, an unsubstantiated accusation.
Pipe bomb accusation: innocent until proven guilty.
Harvard didn't "release" Bishop unless they were either her legal guardians or holding her captive.
In addition I think there's a law against speaking or acting in such a way that is intended to interfere with the free exchange of goods or services between two independent parties.
If anyone asked Harvard for a letter of recommendation, then they would have been within their rights to say anything they knew or believed about Bishop. What happened there, one may wonder?
Certainly everyone, including everyone at Harvard, is devastated by the horrible events.
Bishop's husband can say what he wants. Good luck to him.

By steven buonocore (not verified) on 26 Feb 2010 #permalink

Then again you generally don't ask for a letter of recommendation from someone unless you expect a positive one.

By steven buonocore (not verified) on 26 Feb 2010 #permalink

I totally agree with Steven, you generally do not request a recommendation letter unless its a good one! Thanks for this, I love the blog and it was a great post. :)

Why would anyone request a letter of recommendation unless if it was a good one? Of course you always try to get the best ones first, that make you look as best as you can.