Questions about how universities handle tenure decisions have arisen after Amy Bishop, a professor at the University of Alabama Huntsville campus, was accused of killing three colleagues from the university’s biology department earlier this month.
Bishop reportedly was denied tenure—a distinction that ensures job security in academia—and complained about the university’s decision for months before the shootings, colleagues said in interviews with the Associated Press (AP).
Higher-ed administrators say the tedious six-year tenure process can be fraught with anxiety, and if candidates expect to earn tenure and are denied by campus officials, reactions can be unpredictable.
Votes cast by committee members who grant and deny tenure at UAH were not made public. Less than a week after the shootings, Bishop’s former students told the AP they signed a petition and complained to no avail about Bishop’s classroom conduct—complaints that could have been considered during her tenure evaluation.
The students said Bishop never made eye contact during conversations, taught by reading out of a textbook, and made frequent references to Harvard University, her beloved alma mater.
“We could tell something was off, that she was not like other teachers,” said nursing student Caitlin Phillips.
University President David Williams said student evaluations were one of many factors in the tenure evaluation process, but he was unaware of any student petition against Bishop.
Maintaining communication between committees assigned to evaluate tenure candidates and those seeking the distinction is critical in preparing both sides for the momentous decision, said Julie Underwood, dean of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Education.
“The worst thing is when [tenure candidates are] anxious or when they’re blindsided,” Underwood said. “You show them the path and give them support along the way so there are no surprises in the end.”
Underwood added: “The worst kind of position is when you’re in limbo and you’re anxious. That’s a bad situation, and it doesn’t do anything for people’s stress levels. They know they might be in a place of some trouble, but they’re not quite sure why … or how to correct it.”
At Wisconsin, she said, candidates meet regularly with committees that closely track their path to tenure, offering written evaluations that detail what officials approve of and what improvements must be made.
Colleges and universities should give tenure candidates “what they need to do to get back on the path or move forward on that path,” Underwood said.
Patrick Fiel, public safety advisor for ADT Security Services, which works with 15,000 schools and 1,300 colleges nationwide, said that when campus administrators are ready to hand down tenure rejections or other negative news to employees, they should have security personnel nearby in case of a violent reaction.
“Any time you’re going to talk to a person and you know it’s going to be negative, there are measures you can and should take,” said Fiel, former executive director of school security for the Washington, D.C. public school system. “You never know how people are going to react … and in those situations, security should be in the immediate vicinity. Someone with authority should be there, other than the administrator.”
Meanwhile, questions also have arisen about whether UAH should have known about previous instances of violence in Bishop’s past.
The U.S. attorney’s office in Boston said Feb. 24 that it was reviewing its investigation into an attempted mail bombing, an inquiry in which authorities once questioned Bishop.
Bishop and her husband were questioned, but not charged, in the 1993 attempted bombing. Paul Rosenberg received the bomb, which did not explode, shortly after Bishop quit her job at Children’s Hospital following a poor review by Rosenberg.
In the 1993 case, Rosenberg told authorities that Bishop had resigned her job as a post doctorate research fellow with him around the time he was mailed the pipe bomb. Rosenberg said that “he had been instrumental in her leaving, because he had felt she could not meet the standards required for the work,” according to a report by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.
A witness also told the ATF that Bishop’s husband, James Anderson, said “he wanted to get back at victim Dr. Rosenberg and that he wanted to shoot him, bomb him, stab him, or strangle Rosenberg.”
In 2002, Bishop was charged with assault, battery, and disorderly conduct after a tirade at the International House of Pancakes in Peabody, Mass. Peabody police Capt. Dennis Bonaiuto said Bishop became incensed when she found out another woman had received the restaurant’s last booster seat.
Bishop hit the woman while shouting, “I am Dr. Amy Bishop,” according to the police report.
Anderson responded to media reports of Bishop’s legal troubles, saying the incidents were being exaggerated in the wake of the UAH shootings.
“It was way overblown,” he said. “Someone trying to make something out of nothing.”
Security experts questioned UAH’s apparent lack of a comprehensive background check on Bishop before she was hired in 2003. Reviewing resumes and conducting interviews are important parts of evaluating applicants, Fiel said, but contacting family, friends, and former colleagues should become common practice before hires are finalized.
“You have get the jobs filled so they can start their work, but from a security standpoint, we want to get that background completed so we can make sure everything is accurate,” he said. “You can’t just judge a person based on the resume in front of you.”
Fiel encouraged campus officials to conduct annual background checks on employees to spot any legal red flags. Yearly evaluations, he said, would have warned UAH officials about Bishop before she allegedly shot and killed her colleagues.
“She had a history of violence,” he said. “Talking to people who knew her would have brought that information out before it was too late. … You have to know each and every one of your employees as best as you can.”
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