The case of Amy Bishop, the University of Alabama professor accused of opening fire on her colleagues at a faculty meeting, is unique, and uniquely sad, but it also raises some general questions that are worth looking at. The questions are about tenure, the denial of which apparently set Bishop off. For the life of me, I can’t think of another career where one decision, made by a group of people who can act capriciously or at least unpredictably, can be such a lifetime make-or-break thing. A favorable decision, and you’re professionally set for life. An unfavorable one, and you’re kicked out into a lousy job market, with your own personal stigma of being damaged goods.
One other thing about tenure, and academic hiring itself, is that it is often more about personality than it should be. You get a strong sense of this if your read between the lines of the New York Times article about the incident, and even if you read the lines themselves. One of Bishop’s colleagues, Krishnan Chittur,
said Dr. Bishop was a respected scientist who nevertheless had trouble getting along with colleagues. As members of the biotechnology program, students have to pass core classes in biology, chemistry and chemical engineering. But Dr. Bishop became convinced, he said, that the chemical engineering professors were trying to keep biology students from succeeding by making the classes too difficult.
“It was one of those things that ultimately became irrational with her, in my opinion,” Dr. Chittur said.
Some students also had problems with Dr. Bishop’s teaching style, saying she simply read from the book in class but then tested them on material that she had not covered. Nursing students repeatedly complained to Dr. Podila, the department chairman, as well as to the dean, and even sent a petition, said Caitlin Phillips, a junior in the nursing program, who took two courses with Dr. Bishop in her sophomore year
She was “very socially awkward with students” and never made eye contact during personal conversations, Ms. Phillips said. “We all had kind of a problem with her. She never really taught much. She just read straight from the book.”
Well, yeah. For all I know, Ms. Phillips is correct and Bishop was a crummy teacher. But I also know of cases where students cannot seem to deal with it if a prof doesn’t make eye contact and bons mots with the aplomb of an Amway salesman.
If tenure is going to continue–by no means a sure thing–it’s got to be reformed. And I would say social skills should be, if anything, a very minor part of any decision about granting it.