Shooting rampage in Alabama – over tenure

Stress, isolation, anti-social problems not confined to students


The latest set of campus murders involves an assistant professor of biology at the University of Alabama-Huntsville. She is accused in the deaths of three of her colleagues, with three more reported injured. Reports and details are still coming in or being confirmed, but there are strong suggestions that her actions had something to do with her tenure review and the likelihood she had not passed it.

For the full story on CNN — no doubt to be updated as details emerge — check here:

A Harvard-educated biology professor has been charged with capital murder after the shooting deaths of three faculty members at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, authorities said Saturday.

There are layers to this story that will no doubt receive a lot of attention. There’s the relative rarity of a female mass shooter, for instance. And there’s the reported incident in her past where her brother was killed in a shotgun accident. And then there’s America’s strange fascination with Harvard — seriously, a lot of the comments go along the lines of “why would someone who went to Harvard throw away her life…?” As if attending that one institution somehow guarantees lifelong emotional and psychological stability. But the real story, for me, is in the tenure issue.

The University of Alabama-Huntsville is a tier three undergraduate college in the U.S. (read: not that good) that is already on the margins of professional success for a career academic. Don’t get me wrong — it’s a good gig, especially considering the state of the job market out there. But people who are bounced from the tenure track at an institution like that don’t land on their feet. Someone out on the job market again, in her mid-40’s, Harvard-educated or not, is in a bad place. People who are looking at this from the outside may not get that, but if the details regarding tenure denial are accurate, then this woman was indeed facing the probable end of her career.

I do not for an instant want to excuse this woman’s actions or to paint them as understandable. Most of us, in life, absorb blows to our egos and to our ambitions and respond with varying degrees of resiliency but under no circumstances do we react with violence. I would never excuse that. But when we talk about your “typical” campus shooter — some over-stressed kid who was just kicked out and can’t face up to the failure — we do address the subject with some degree of comprehension. We know, at least, why he snapped. And in that same sense, I think it’s important to know why this woman snapped.

Academia is vicious. Harvard or not, there are unemployed academics all over the place. I mean “unemployed” in the sense that they are utterly unable to secure the sorts of jobs their training and expectations revolve around. Of course they can work at Starbucks just as foreign-trained doctors can drive taxi cabs. Call them terminally marginalized as employees, if you prefer. But by any definition their situation sucks. And as we relate to students and the pressures they face — as explanation if not as excuse for their actions — I think we need to extend the same to academics.

People are describing this woman as odd, anti-social, and in similar terms. I’m sure it all seems obvious in hindsight — just like that quiet guy next door who kept to himself but never seemed to have any friends. Many academics are odd, so I can’t imagine how you’d work up a profile on that basis. I am not even in favour of profiling, necessarily. I remember in the wake of Columbine that any kid in a trenchcoat was suddenly suspect. How is that useful?

In any event, the fact remains that when you put people under enough stress and incubate the sense (sometimes justified) that they are being isolated then someone, eventually, is going to snap. The stress and isolation associated with students and their education is well-recognized. The stress and isolation associated with professional academia, and especially the large numbers of underemployed and marginalized academics operating at the fringes of the profession, is less well recognized.

I truly hope this never happens again, and certainly not any time soon. But I also have to admit that I wouldn’t be surprised if it did.


Questions are welcome at jeff.rybak@utoronto.ca. Even the ones I don’t post will still receive answers, and where I do use them here I’ll remove identifying information.


Shooting rampage in Alabama – over tenure

  1. I wish this incident struck me as unusual, but here’s the rub: I expect to read these kind of headlines concerning shooting rampages. It would be so easy to get on a kick about the lack of social cohesion in the modern Western world (and I’m as white a Christian as they come for anybody looking to make an Islamic connection here…, but that would ring trite.

    Bottom line: Our economic, social, and political fabrics are almost entirely frayed. To use the vernacular, something’s gotta give. Rome’s time ended, the dominion of the Pharaohs ended and so too shall gross-Consumerism. You think job-loss stress is bad, wait until people start running out of fuel and water. I know I sound cynical, but sometimes a cold dose of reality is what sets us back on the right track.

  2. If I was a Harvard Academic denied tenure by a gaggle of affirmative action hires, I’d likely blow my top too, but I wouldn’t blow their heads off.

  3. I’ve read a number of articles about this shooting – I think it has interested me because my husband went through a similar denial of tenure at a Canadian university a number of years ago. In any case, this article is very insightful, and I agree with much of it.

    However, I think it is important to understand that a denial of tenure may certainly FEEL like the end of the career – but in many cases it is not. My husband went on to get a very good position at a U.S. university, and we have been very happy. He has tenure now.

    And the day his last appeal was denied was horrible – one of the worst days of my life, and to be sure the same is true for him. But what we did was go out to the local pub and get utterly loaded that night. And the next day, through hangovers, looked around and decided what to do next. It wasn’t a great time for us, but we survived.

    One thing that hasn’t been mentioned anywhere is that the University claimed the rights to the invention that her start-up company was based on. The meeting Friday morning was her last tenure appeal, but during that meeting the final ownership of the invention was asserted.(I picked this up from a message board where an anonymous UAH person posted – obviously not the most credible source but somebody should be looking into that to get something quotable.) I think that University ownership of faculty intellectual property is really the big story here, not tenure. When your research is your livelihood, ownership of your work matters tremendously.

  4. To be clear, I’ve heard no authority at all for the suggestion that she was denied tenure due to affirmative action. I also reject, as symptomatic of the very confusion I was writing about, the suggestion that simply because she graduated from Harvard she must have deserved tenure. I have no idea of her relative accomplishments in academia – and the very nature of academia dictates that only other professionals working in her field are even qualified to judge. But there are Ivy League PhDs on the job market who can’t secure positions anywhere. It is by no means a unique situation.

    I find the intellectual property angle to be immensely interesting also, and thank you for that. It is especially true in the sciences that one’s career is tied not only to one’s university appointment but also to one’s marketable research work. As more on that topic comes to light it should prove very interesting.

  5. As a current doctoral candidate, I am well aware of the pressure to land a tenured position. Any tenured position. This semester I am teaching seven classes at four different colleges. Gypsy adjunct is not my career goal; it’s no life for anyone. Faced with the possibility that this was all there was, I’d probably snap, too!

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