Crazy for Tenure

Not getting tenure allegedly drove Alabama professor Amy Bishop to murder her colleagues. Law professor Adam Winkler on the fraught process that can make or break a teacher's life.

Last week, a Harvard-trained neuroscientist at the University of Alabama Huntsville stood up during a faculty meeting, drew a 9mm handgun, killed three of her colleagues and wounded three others. When journalists looked into Professor Amy Bishop’s past, they found a troubled woman with a history of violence that seemed to explain her unexplainable act. But there seems to be another reason Professor Bishop shot her colleagues: tenure.

To be more precise, denial of tenure. Her department had voted against her and the university administration, which makes the ultimate decisions on all promotions and hiring, agreed. Bishop would have to find work elsewhere. Tenure in American colleges and universities is “up or out.” If you are not promoted to tenure after a set number of years—ranging roughly from four to eight depending on the school—you have to leave. Reports suggest Bishop decided to get revenge before she departed. She apparently targeted people in her department she thought responsible for denying her tenure.

A tenure denial can be a career killer. Many professors find that no other university will offer them a job. The old adage “publish or perish” isn’t hyperbole.

Amy Bishop is hardly the only person to react to a tenure decision with extreme behavior. In an eerily similar incident in 1992, Valery Fabrikant, an engineering professor at Concordia University, shot and killed four colleagues after being turned down for tenure. Other rejected professors have committed suicide. A few years ago, James Sherley, a professor at MIT, protested his tenure denial by going on a hunger strike.

Nor is the vengeful professor scenario particularly new. A movie from 1942 called The Mad Monster tells the story of a professor who turns one of his students into a werewolf to terrorize the faculty who denied him tenure. The mere possibility of a tenure denial can render the intelligent scholar a fool. One person I know plotted to secretly—and illegally—record the faculty meeting where his tenure case would be discussed to find out what people were saying about him. And he was a law professor.

What is it about tenure that can push some people over the edge?

Tenure is usually said to be necessary for academic freedom. Scholars, the argument goes, can write about any topic without fear of reprisal from university officials. The truth is only a handful of professors write in areas controversial enough to incite university interference. Most professors write about cold-button issues like animal behavior, string theory, theoretical mathematics, or medieval Spanish poetry. This is not the stuff of great controversy. Professors usually can’t even persuade their own mothers to read their scholarship.

Kathleen J. Ferraro: Why Women KillWendy Murphy: Did Amy Bishop Murder Before?Tenure is most valued by professors as a form of compensation. Universities can pay a pittance because they throw in lifetime employment and the autonomy to write on whatever topic the professor wants. That immunity from the marketplace has tremendous value, especially for people whose interests aren’t prized by consumers. Without tenure, the medieval Spanish poetry professor has nowhere else to go.

A tenure denial can be a career killer. Many professors find that no other university will offer them a job. The old adage “publish or perish” isn’t hyperbole. An adverse tenure decision often marks the end of an academic career.

Today’s economic climate makes finding a new job that much more difficult. University endowments have been hit hard and public universities especially are struggling with severe budget cuts. Hiring at most schools is frozen. Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, says, “The most likely result of being denied tenure in this nonexistent job market is that you will not be able to continue teaching.... You probably can't get another job.”

Even for those lucky enough to find another job, the consequences of a tenure denial are severe. The professor usually has to uproot their entire family and move to a new city. In the major metropolitan areas, there are only a handful of universities and colleges—and almost certainly none looking at that very moment for a medieval Spanish poetry expert. A tenure denial means taking the kids out of school, saying goodbye to friends. It also means forcing your spouse to quit their job, too. If he is also a professor, good luck finding two jobs.

While lots of people have to relocate for work, most don’t have to wear a scarlet letter for the rest of their careers. Other people can say they were laid off because of a bad economy or they quit to pursue new opportunities. Everyone knows, however, that a professor denied tenure has been judged by his peers to be not good enough.

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The tenure process is made more traumatic by the secrecy that surrounds it. An anonymous committee composed of other members of the professor’s department evaluates the professor’s scholarship, teaching, and service to the university. Letters are solicited from other scholars in the field, whose identities are kept from the professor. When the department meets to discuss the case, the discussion is confidential and the vote is tallied by secret ballot.

Studies show that workers whose performance is judged by transparent processes in which they are given a voice readily accept as fair even negative evaluations. Professors aren’t given the opportunity to defend themselves and the process is anything but transparent.

Tenure pressure doesn’t excuse Amy Bishop’s behavior in the least. She has only herself—and perhaps mental illness—to blame. Unfortunately, she blamed others. Facing the wrong end of publish or perish, she decided to take people down with her.

Adam Winkler is a constitutional law professor at UCLA.