Monday, February 15, 2010

No Excuse

Some readers want to know my take on the Amy Bishop Anderson tenure-denial mass murder, but I don't think there is much here that speaks to any general academic issues, not even those related to the anxieties of tenure denial or the travails of a female science professor (and mother of four children) or the 'pressure-cooker' environment of biotechnology (about which I know nothing).

I think this was the tragic action of an insane person.

This has been my opinion since I first heard the news, and has only been strengthened as more details emerged.

The initial news reports were incomplete and/or misleading. Some made it sound as if Dr. Bishop had just found out that moment in the faculty meeting that she had been denied tenure. I doubted that. It doesn't work that way.

Then reports were that she had been denied tenure the year before and had, earlier on the day of the murders, learned that she had lost her appeal to reverse the decision. Clearly this was a woman who had been under a lot of stress for a long time, but to shoot up a faculty meeting, including some people who clearly had no vote in her tenure decision, is insane and/or evil.

Even if the tenure denial had been extraordinarily unfair, reeking of sexism or anti-Harvardism or the petty dislike of an outspoken and difficult colleague, there is of course no justification for these murders. Even if the department chair had sprung the news on her in the faculty meeting, he didn't deserve to die. None of them did. Even after losing the appeal, she could have sued, she could have done a number of things besides get a gun.

Then I heard that she had shot her brother to death in 1986, allegedly by accident, but apparently during an argument. She has a history with rage and guns. Insanity.

The media coverage of this sad event has thus far followed the usual formula in the wake of such tragedies. Did anyone see this coming or was the murderer just a normal hockey-and-soccer mom until she snapped?

He and others who knew Dr. Bishop described her as a normal person, perhaps a little quirky but no more so than most scientists
. (NY Times, 2/14/10)

Was the murderer one of the scary quiet types?

She was a very outspoken person,” Mr. Reeves said, “and outspoken people don’t bottle things up." (NY Times, 2/14/10)

And that is a good thing?

But there have also been some unusual aspects of the coverage, owing to the fact that Bishop was a professor. For example, soon after the shootings, some websites/blogs reprinted Bishop's evaluations. I suppose it makes sense to look for any information possible to try to figure out what kind of person would have done such a thing, but can the twisted personality of a murderer be discerned from teaching evaluations?


Horrible teacher!

She is an excellent professor!

And these:

All she does is read information from the book.

She is smart, talks about more stuff than just the book.

She reads straight from the book.

Bishop uses the online stuff, the internet, powerpoint, from the book and some stuff not from the book.

Well, which one is it? Are these students talking about the same professor? Of course they are; these are typical evaluations. The New York Times and various bloggers writing about the incident decided to mention only the she-reads-from-the-book type evaluations, as if this shows there was something wrong with her. There was something very wrong with Amy Bishop, but this is not evident in her teaching evaluations nor in other reports of student complaints about her teaching.

No, we can't use teaching evaluations to predict who among us is capable of killing, but perhaps there were other signs, including what happened in 1986, and perhaps there is a way (though I doubt there is a will) to keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn't have them.


Anonymous said...

it is very disturbing. Also disturbing is the insinuation (or is it fact?) that her husband was complicit in the shootings and/or in her 1993 pipe-bomb attempt on a previous supervisor. It is one thing for an individual to be seriously mentally disturbed, but for a family member to be aware of this AND enable their violent actions, that is even less comprehensible.

RSB said...

CPP uncovered this:

Who knows if she was responsible, but adds another layer of sketch to her personality...

This case has captivated me, I think because I am new faculty and pre-tenure and thinking about the possibility that the grant money won't come through given the economy (although I will do everything I can to get funding!). I am mystified that one could take their job so seriously, and insanity seems like the most parsimonious explanation...

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Apparently, she was also a suspect in the attempted letter-bombing of a faculty member at Harvard who she suspected was going to render an unfavorable opinion of her PhD dissertation research, although no charges were filed in that case.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your post. I have been reading your blog for a few months and have commented a few times. I am a tenure-track faculty member at UAH. I'm not in the college of science, but my department shares an interdisciplinary PhD program with the biology and chemistry departments. I knew all of those involved, including Amy Bishop. She was very upset about her tenure decision, and according to her colleagues, was convinced that her appeal was going to succeed. She was a difficult person to talk to and deal with, and it only got worse after she was initially denied tenure last April. But no one thought she would do something like this, one reason being she has 4 children.

I've spoken with survivors, and they are convinced she would have shot everyone one in the room. But, when she stopped to reload, one person crawled under the table, grabbed her, and ultimately forced her out of the room.

They are all amazing people, and I was very fond of all those who died. It's just such a terrible tragedy, and if you could keep the victims, survivors, and their families in your thoughts or prayers, I know it will be felt.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I agree, an obviously insane person - nothing to be gained from analyzing this case.

A normal person considers the impact of their actions (at least on themselves) before the act. To do this, with four children...

Anonymous said...

Completely agree that this was insanity. Though not the type of insanity as in "insanity defense." She clearly knew what she was doing.

Additional insanity: In Arizona our State Legislature is moving toward allowing Professors to carry guns. But, not those Administrators. They're not allowed to carry guns. Well, unless they're teaching a class. They'd be able to carry guns then. But, only when they're teaching, not when they're 'administrating.' HELP!!

Anonymous said...

What about the seeming abudance of psychologically tenuous people within academia? I sometimes wonder if it is a refuge for the brilliant but crazy.

Anonymous said...

What is supposed to be so bad about teaching "straight from the book" anyway? The book is written by an expert in the field that presumably (based on the fact that we're using their book instead of other options) has a good sense of how to organize and present the material. Do the students want the professor to proclaim greater knowledge of the subject than the author?

John Vidale said...


To me as a scientist, it looks like a probabilistic situation, not a deterministic one. In this realization of the the world, she flipped out and killed some faculty. In the vast majority of cases indistinguishable from hers, the person would vent in a less destructive way.

I see no give-away that the violence was coming, only that she was a hothead. The shooting of her brother was ancient history, back during their adolescence.

If anything, she probably appeared, and perhaps was, less likely to go nuclear than several now around me do. Maybe more facts will emerge to render my view wrong, and I sort of hope it is.

A single case like this should not drive people to worry, just one among 100,000s of faculty.

Kate said...

This, combined with a recent murder of an Anthropology professor by his grad student, certainly does make me nervous. However in both cases it was quite obviously a case of complete insanity. CPP has already mentioned that in addition to the "accidental" shooting of her brother (can three shots be accidental?) she was likely the culprit of the pipe-bomb and it is increasingly looking like the Braintree MA police covered it up for some reason.

Bishop was insane and killed three coworkers. TWICE before that there were chances for someone to put her in jail or rehabilitate her or get her help. I'm angry that she wasn't caught before, because this is likely at least the third violent attack she has perpetrated.

Also, I wonder... how often does workplace violence occur? What are we missing? The Bishop case is remarkable because it's in higher ed and the perpetrator is a mother of four. So what about all the other folks who have been hurt that the media doesn't bother making into a national news story?

Anonymous said...

I agree with many of the commenters that she was insane. Unfortunately what I think will remain undiscussed is the pressure cooker of the tenure-track. The system is inhumane and when there are not successful outcomes, we leave those folks hanging and many times being shunned when they most need the support and are the most vulnerable. This in no way excuses Bishop's actions, but I think, in general, we can be more humane when tenure outcomes are not positive.

John Vidale said...

The most dangerous professions, fishing, timber, pilots, mountain guides, have on-the-job fatality rates of 100+ per 100,000 per year.

So far as I can tell, the danger for profs is <1. Being a prof is hardly nerve-wracking, and calling the tenure system inhumane surprising, given the far greater rate of uncertainty and firings (and going postal, I would guess) in almost all other industries.

Here's a typical compilation:

This case is fascinating but not a major problem for academia.

Alex said...

First, she suffered a major professional setback. Lots of people in lots of walks of life suffer those every day, and a very tiny fraction of them will snap and do something horrible in response. I don't think there's much we can infer about academia from this.

Second, regarding the bomb in 1993, my understanding is that she was cleared. High profile life science researchers receive these things from time to time, sadly, because there are all sorts of ideologues who hate them for one reason or another. When that happens, anyone and everyone with any connection to them will be questioned. Likewise, whatever might be said about the 1986 incident, it may look fishy but we weren't there and we don't know why it was deemed an accident.

Why am I downplaying the accusation in the past? Because I've seen too many instances where the mere act of being accused of a crime is confused with being guilty, and it has all sorts of horrible consequences that range from destruction of a reputation up to our current "Trials? We don't need no stinking trials!" approach to terrorism. The bottom line is that there's an incident in the present, and there appears to be more than enough evidence in the present to ascertain guilt or innocence in this case.

Moreover, there are lots of people who have had complicated pasts but were cleared of whatever they were accused of and have since lived normal, productive lives. Second guessing everyone's past is a recipe for disaster.

If somebody wants to argue that the 1986 of 1993 incidents should have been handled differently, that argument should be made based on what happened in 1986 or 1993. If you want to base the argument on what happened in 2010, keep in mind that there are lots more people who had a nasty situation in the past but were found innocent and have since done great things with their lives. What happened in 1986 or 1993 has to be evaluated based on what happened then, not what happened now.

Anonymous said...

Certainly, Bishop handled her situation in the worst possible way. As FSP indicated, there were other avenues through which she could have sought recourse.

I do not support the way in which Bishop handled her situation (I think it is disgusting, self-centered, and horrific), but I do think it's worth mentioning that many, many news articles about the case refer to her as "Ms. Bishop" and not "Dr. Bishop."

What does this mean, if anything? Does your training as a scientist no longer deserve mention once you do something as crazy as killing several of your colleagues? Or was the lack of recognition of her credentials one of the many things (including her lack of sanity) that culminated in her murdering her colleagues? Would a similar case involving a male professor result in news coverage that solely referred to him as a "Mr." and not a "Dr?"

Anonymous said...

Just as an example:
"Yes, I agree, an obviously insane person - nothing to be gained from analyzing this case."

Why are most of the people commenting on this event very quick to label Dr Bishop as insane? Over the internet diagnosis being inexact. Would those of a religious nature be calling her evil? The insane label doesn't help us understand this anymore than labelling her evil or the devil did it. Furthermore, mental illness is not synonymous with violence.

The Ms./Dr, issue: My understanding is that US news media regularly abjure the use of Dr when the person is not an MD and are not Martin Luther King. You'd think though that they could use her professorial title, perhaps? But then again mass murderers are seldom given much respect in the news media are they? I suppose Ted Kaczynski might be a male exemplar of the academic mass murderer. Did he get deferential treatment?

I've never heard of the university this happened at before yesterday, but I'd have to agree with CPP. She hasn't published anywhere near enough stuff for somebody at her career stage- which is perhaps a symptom that nobody could stand to work with her?. That coupled with the least collegial display of behaviour perhaps ever recorded...

The whole situation is so totally FUBAR to me that it's difficult to be coherent.


Foreign and Female in Science said...

What Dr. Bishop did should be condemned. It is inexcusable.

But am I the only one who finds that at a research university getting more funding, making new progress on a horrible disease and developing a new technique are no longer enough for tenure?

What is???

Ms.PhD said...

Interesting discussion.

Seems irrational to me that everyone seems to equate having children with making one incapable of violence or crime. Those two things have nothing to do with each other.

Cloud said...

MsPhD- I agree. Certainly, parents are capable of committing crimes and being violent. There are many examples.

But... I think I understand where that sentiment comes from. I have to confess that the part of the entire story that I am having the hardest time getting my head around is the fact that she has children, some of whom are still quite young. The thought of trying to explain why Mommy won't be coming home to a 9 year old breaks my heart, and I'm not even related to the kid. I simply cannot fathom doing something that would put my children in that position.

Of course, I can't really imagine being distraught enough to do what she did, children or no. But for some reason, the thought of my husband trying to explain it all to my children is even more horrifying. The part where I think "no professional or personal setback is sufficient to warrant such an action" is a cerebral reaction. The part about the kids, I feel in my gut. (And yes, I know- at least one of the victims had children, too, and I feel sick for them, too.)

Anonymous said...

It really seems as if she had a mental break of some kind, given the statement she gave right after the event:

"It didn't happen. There's no way."
"There's no way. They're still alive."

It seems she blacked out the event. That is not something that could happen "probabalistically" to anyone just becuase they're pissed about tenure. That is something that can happen to someone who has a psychological break. Obviously that doens't excuse her actions, but I think it's clearly the case that she had some mental issues (was insane).

John Vidale said...

@4:12pm anon

The test for insanity would be what she said BEFORE trying to gun down the entire faculty, not after. I could imagine anyone might be incoherent afterwards, no matter their initial condition.

Anonymous said...

FFS: ironically, by going on a rampage and killing her colleagues she has now made the strongest case possible for being denied tenure.

research university getting more funding, making new progress on a horrible disease and developing a new technique are no longer enough for tenure? What is???

How about: doing all that and being sufficiently collegial that your fellow professors need not fear for their lives when you are around?

To be clear, I have no doubts that her case was perhaps handled incorrectly, but the killings strongly suggest that the reservations from her department were not wholly unfounded.

Anonymous said...

in every profession there will be people who fall outside the range of "normal" behavior and go off the deep end or become violent when upset. it is just so sad that in all those cases including this one, that there were no warning signs (or at least none that were perceived by others as such) that the individual was about to become violent. some other similar incidents you read about in the news, the perpetrator had given signs such as writing or saying stuff to other people privately or even publicly like on on blogs or internet forums, in the days or weeks leading up to the event. But then again how seriously does one take such comments, or what if the individual is highly intelligent (like a harvard trained professor) and can self-censor to hide any giveaway signs.

Anonymous said...

This is anonymous #4 again. Keep watching the news and following the story. I think more is going to come out about her research "accomplishments." It's already been established that her husband was a coauthor on almost every paper she published. But, her minor chidren were also coauthors on several papers. I have also heard that her husband did "work" at UAH, but only because she hired him as a lab tech using her start-up funds. Not sure how she was able to do that, since I and others are not even able to hire GRAs with start-up funds. Anyway, my point is, it's possible she engaged in years of deception, manipulation, or distortion of her research accomplishments.

Spiny Norman said...

"Would a similar case involving a male professor result in news coverage that solely referred to him as a "Mr." and not a "Dr?"

At the new York times it would. Their style guide generally does not allow titles and specifies that most peoples' names should begin with Mr. or Ms. Thus you get wonderful silliness like "Mr. Eminem."

Anonymous said...

@Anon7>34:"I have also heard that her husband did "work" at UAH, but only because she hired him as a lab tech using her start-up funds."

there was a discussion on this blog very recently about spousal hires at academic institutions. I had thought it was unethical but the general consensus among the readership here seemed to say it was perfectly fine and necessary.

In other words, what you point out (if it's true) about Bishop's husband working in her lab as her lab tech, is not uncommon in academia.

Anonymous said...

Hiring your spouse as a lab tech may not be uncommon in academia, but at UAH, start up funds are not supposed to be spent on personnel. I am employed there, and I and other faculty cannot use start up funds to hire GRAs or post docs. The only exception is that they can be used to hire undergraduates at an hour salary, with no benefits.

Anonymous said...

Apparently she also assaulted a woman at an IHOP in Massachusetts while she was at Boston Children's Hospital.

Kimmy said...

Not being a scholar, or anyone with any psychological degrees I feel unqualified to post my gut feeling that she was a sociopath, and not insane.

Based on some of the students commenting about her being a great teacher, along with her behavior points that she was able to charm/convince several students into believing she was smarter than she actually was.

The fact that she wasn't able to fool everyone, and didn't get her tenure tells me that not only she was unstable, but she blamed others for what she lacked! In turn, her behavior was consistent to that of a sociopath. She acted out in violence.