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.
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.
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