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.
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