Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Why do college tenure committees always attract such assholes?

It's been a while.  Nice to hear from several of you.  The whole Amy Bishop tenure-denial/shooting thing continues to burn, but now is simmering down.  It's funny to read story after story about how oh no tenure had nothing to do with it, tenure needs to be abolished (the right-wing types there mainly), her research wasn't good enough anyhow, it all happened last year, etc. etc.  She was a homicidal nut yes we all concede that.  Not your normal kind of person.  People everyday deal with far worse than tenure denial and never go off on shooting sprees.  Of course, conceded, yes, I agree.  But to pretend the denial was not a factor, I just don't get that.  Everyone, even in the educational community (e.g. the blogs on Insidehighered, the Chronicle, etc.) seems to want to go to extremes to minimize the tenure-denial (possible) contribution.  I keep adding links to my delicous tag related to this story--well up in the high 30s in links now--and most of those entries have a similar theme.

But let's move on for the time being at least.  Blogger user mmusgrove writes in a comment on this blog:
I got through the process successfully at the new job, but I still can't look closely at the process. I can't read anyone else's dossier, for example.
This is a statement I can very much agree with.  Even though I did not make it through my second tenure application, I could see that if I had made it, it would have been very difficult to serve on a P&T committee.  I imagine I'd be overly generous by way of compensation, knowing the living hell that awaits those flushed out of the system.  But--therein lies the problem.  There is a self-selection effect for college tenure committees.  Those people who have actual human emotions and sympathy tend to select themselves out of the process.  Or they are selected out by their peers.  This then leads to a preponderance of assholes on the college committee.  I don't think it happens as much at the department level.  At that level there is a enough forced sharing around of responsibilities that there is at least a chance that you might get someone with actual humanity involved occasionally.  At the college level, it is usually an elected position.  Someone has to say to themselves "Ya, I WANT to do that."

Another corollary of this is that when you look at smaller colleges, then the department often does not have ANY official role, other than to help the candidate prepare the documents and write supporting letters.  That was my situation.  There was no actual vote in my department, it was not an actual official part of the process. As such, the college level committee came to have much more importance.

The thing is I can remember having this sense going way back, before I was even in a tenure-track position.  You'd meet faculty members and the nice ones, the reasonable ones, you'd find out they were always on the library committee or the athletics committee, or something like that.  The raging assholes always somehow find a home on the tenure committee.

This is part of a more general phenomenon, IMO.  I've always said (humorously--mainly!) that you have to watch professors always when you deal with them.  They can seem nice on the outside, but inside most professors is a hidden wellspring of bitterness and retribution that can come out at unexpected times.  I don't know if I was that way when I was a professor.  I hope not.  But then again the system selected me out.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A positive suggestion about tenure denial--not much, but better than nothing

Sorry, I had forgotten to post this. It came up in an email exchange....

There is not much that can be done to help the tenure system; it is what it is, but from my point of view, I would have appreciated some access to confidential, free, *independent* counseling.  I have toyed with sending something to my most recent school's HR officer and suggesting that.  The key is that it has to be set up so as to be clearly completely independent from the institution, free, and (very important) untraceable, so the candidates family etc. do not have to find out.  It's pretty hard to arrange such a service--I know of no institution which does--but it might have helped me if I had that opportunity to at least unload my troubles with a neutral observer. 

The biggest problem about it (being denied) ultimately, and this is why I started the blog, is that if you plan to get on with your life you learn that you have to stop talking about it, you have to do all you can to hide the whole event, or at least obscure it to the casual outside observer.  It could have helped me (a little) if I had had access to clearly independent counseling.   It's not much, I know, but better than nothing.

Again: the voices of tenure denial

Thanks for the input in the last few days.  I appreciate the comments and emails.

I am indebted to Glen McGhee for pointing out the 1952 essay by Erving Goffman, "On Cooling the Mark Out."  I intend to post more in depth about this essay (and the many related essays it spawned) at a later date

I don't intend to just be a firebrand or encourage people to storm the barricades.  I created this blog because I wanted a place for people to be able to TALK about tenure denial, theirs and others. I found it was very hard to find any avenue in my life to do this.  But I'm way past fighting the battle over again at this point.

It is the nature of the Internet that people vie for exposure in a developing story.  I certainly have seen this in the last few days with the UAH shooting story.  Without (I hope) being gratuitous about it I'll admit that I was moved to post my comments, and right away, because I hoped that this blog might get picked up in the overall noise surrounding that story.  That has to some extent happened, which is good as now I know that at least a few people have read some of the posts!

But I repeat my invitation---share your stories.  I want to hear them.  I will gladly post them here.  I'm all about keeping anonymity (to the extent that that is possible nowadays on the Web).  Send me more, either by email or comments.  I'd like to see some multiple perspectives.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The end of the Amy Bishop story?

Well, the Amy Bishop story is apparently winding down now.  Now all the stories are leading or featuring very prominently her previous killing of her brother, which now, at least in the press, is looking pretty bad.  The NY Times has a statement from the Braintree Mass. police department indicating that the release of Bishop "did not sit well" with the police department.

So, it appears that the tenure denial aspect of this event will become of lesser interest, and this whole episode will just merge into all the other crazy mass killings, which is a shame.  Of course, a bad event like a tenure denial doesn't lead a normal person to homicide.  In these pathological multiple murder cases that is never the point.  You need a confluence of multiple events to make them happen.  In this case it looks like it was the combination of the instability of Bishop AND the tenure denial which was the ultimate trigger of what happened.  OF COURSE a normal person would not go off killing people just because they were denied tenure.  That's not the point at all.

But look at Bishop's situation.  Sure, she was deranged, but not in a hugely major way (like say Fabrikant was).  She was able to get through Harvard grad. school, get married, have four kids, land a faculty job, and start up a biotech company.  She was unstable, but she was a high-functioning unstable person. 

But it can't be denied that a tenure denial is a huge stressor.  And I don't think this has been recognized enough.  The length of time involved in the process--usually at least six years--and the fact that it is presented to the candidate as a deep, careful, reasoned judgement from one's peers, this makes it not like other common stress events in one's life, like death of a loved one, or losing a job or having a business fail.  All those other events have elements of outside randomness to them.  You can rationalize that there was (at least partially) nothing that could have been done about the situation.  But I have been through two denials and I know that the committees always make their absolute best effort to present it to you as a careful, dispassionate, expert judgement of your entire career.  And you are found wanting.  The ENTIRE thing is all you, all your fault.  I don't mean that that IS true, but that is how the administrators and faculty members make it out to you.

In such a situation, it takes an incredibe force of will and personality to NOT have fleeting thoughts of (at least) suicide, if not homicide.  Of course--of course!--normal people do not act on such thoughts.  But in my entire life, given all the events which have come down on me, it was only during the denials that these kinds of thoughts came to the fore in a way sufficient enough that I clearly remembered it happening. 

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Following the UAH shooting story

Again, I am putting links on my delicious page as the story develops.  See .

It has come out that apparently she shot her brother when she was younger,
though apparently that was clearly an accident.

The most depressing thing about this is that now the press is downplaying the tenure denial aspect of it as a possible main motive for the murders, presumably led by Fox News's odious story:

From Fox News, here is their lead-in at,2933,585682,00.html
Motive in Question as Professor Faces Murder Charge in Alabama Campus Shooting
HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — There "may never be a clear answer" as to why a biology professor at the University of Alabama in Huntsville allegedlyvshot and killed three colleagues and wounded thre others, campus police said Saturday in a news conference.

If you read this article in detail, you see they have a few new interviews, but absolutely NO evidence of a motive other than the denial.

University of Alabama shooting

See the NY Times article today, Professor Is Charged After 3 Are Killed in Alabama.  This is an amazing and horrific case where a tenure denial has (apparently) led to violent retribution by the one who was denied.  We don't know all the facts yet but the Times says that she was denied tenure recently and she went to a faculty meeting with a gun and killed and injured several people, all other faculty members.

I want to post about this more later, but as someone who is trying to reach out to others who have been denied tenure, let me just make clear--while I am interested in the issues this will raise related to tenure denials, this was an absolutely bloody and uncalled for murder.  I have no sympathy for the perpetrator.  My guess is that since this is a clear cut case with several witnesses, it was clearly premeditated, and is in the south, she will be executed.

One of the frustrating things about the NY Times article is that it does NOT mention the denial first as the possible spark for the killings.  Instead it discusses the "pressure cooker" of biotech startups.

I am assembling links related to this story on my delicious site, see  Now I notice that the LA Times is saying one of the victims was a staff member.

I will be very interested to see just how random her victims were.  Was she in there to get revenge on certain people?  Or was she also just randomly killing people?

As I said, this is clearly a crazy act by a crazy person, but in both of my denials I'd be lying if I didn't say that I did have thoughts like this.  In my case (and I suspect in most cases) they ran more to the just plain suicide bent.  But I hope this case does raise some discussion about this important issue.  A tenure denial was once described by someone on as like having a nuclear bomb descend on your house.  It does feel like that.  It is like everything you worked for has been destroyed.  And not by something out of your control, like being layed off or having a business fail.  This is a long, reasoned judgement by your peers and they have decided you need to be out.

Monday, January 4, 2010


So it is closing in on two years since this all went down, the second denial I mean.  I am working on setting up a meeting with the two tenured professors who supported me, primarily for the purpose of making sure we are organized if some teaching opportunity should come up in the next year or so.  I am not talking about anything full-time, but I am currently working in an IT support position at the main state university here, about an hours drive away from the small, church-related liberal arts college that flushed me out two years ago.  So, I am hoping that some opportunity might present itself to teach a class here.  That was the biggest frustration for me after the second denial; as it was all about teaching, and it was from an essentially unknown very small college, I saw it as just about driving a stake into the chance that I would ever be able to be in the classroom again.

These two people I am going to meet with, they were the two who supported me in my tenure application and in the appeal process.  Recall, this liberal arts college has a small department and only in the range of 4-6 fulltime faculty.  These two were the only tenured faculty members there during my tenure application.  One was chair for the first part of my six years, the other chair during the second part.  (Another tenured member retired a year before I put my dossier forward, and another member was on the same track as me and got tenure the same year I was denied.)

Excuse me--a digression; I promise I will get back to what I was going to say--I have not mentioned yet that one of the important details of my situation was that there was another faculty member in my department who came up for tenure the same year as I did.  And this was a person who was killing all along the board--teaching, research, and service.  Let's put it this way: they were using her in the fundraising letters before she even applied for tenure.  So she was a lock; I knew that.  But I had been led to believe that the denial rate was very small at this obscure, cash-strapped private school.  It was--before we got the new president, dean, and division chair.  So there is a whole world of hurt we could go over about the RYS (rising young star) situation and as it impacted me.  For now, I will leave it at this: the salient part of that whole situation was that she was the kind of person who was very passive aggressive, always playing the victim.  Cutting down colleagues in the department or the College but never to their face.   Before this happened I thought I had her support (or at least that she was neutral), but now I am pretty sure that was not the case.

OK, back to this meeting with the two people who supported me.  As I said, I want to try to plan out a strategy with them if a single-class teaching opportunity comes up.  It will be an uphill battle as the tenure decision letter mentioned only teaching as the reason for the denial.  It we are going to overcome that, even to convince a department chair that it makes sense to take a chance on me for even a single course, it will take some over-the-top kinds of things being said, not just in letters, but probably phone calls, etc.

Now, the question is, what else?  I have pretty much avoided much contact with them since this all went down, it being just too painful and I wanted to get some distance from it.  And the other point being it is pretty pointless from my point of view socializing with them without talking about it.  I mean if we avoid it totally that seems artificial and if we do talk about it I can't imagine it being too enjoyable for them.  OK.  But now what I have been thinking about is should I make some effort (perhaps with their help) to try to get closure to some kind of closure on this?

There are a couple of options this might take.  One is I write a letter to the editor of the paper or something and lay out everything, naming names, etc. and point out that in my opinion the revered church school is morally bankrupt.  Again, not because of the decision but because of the complete abandoment by the community which portrays itself as so inclusive and compassionate.  There is another possible option.  My next-to-last year at the college there was a very divisive denial in the humanties division.  That one was all about research.  The people over there got so up in arms they had an article in the student newspaper and the chair came before the faculty at a monthly meeting and he laid out all of his beefs for everyone to hear.  The admin. did not respond to this at all, they just allowed the presentation.  And now, get this, it turns out they did NOT fire the guy!  They found him a non-tenured instructor position!  Fer crissakes!  They get to rail before the whole faculty about their denial and the guy is still employed there.

My case, by contrast, I think there are people there who don't even realize I'm gone.  Or if they do realize it, they might think it was my idea.  I am constantly meeting people in the grocery store and amazed by the complete misconceptions they have about what happened.  So I am contemplating asking the two faculty members who supported me if they would consider asking the admin. to make a similar presentation at a regular faculty meeting.  The idea is that this presentation would say that the point of it is most emphatically NOT to address the denial, but to address the atrocious behavior of the college afterward.  You could argue that this is a win-win.  I could get some catharsis, knowing that at least my story got out to the faculty, and they (the admin.) could feel good that this story did not go out to the public at large.

But...what do you think?  It  probably is a mistake to do something like that.  At this point, I'm just contemplating discussing it, not getting close to doing it.  It will be interesting to see what my two former colleagues say.