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General News    H3'ed 3/4/10

New York Times Displays Shoddy Reporting on Amy Bishop Story

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Message Roger Shuler
Cross Posted at Legal Schnauzer
People hoping to gain a deeper understanding of the recent tragic events on the campus at the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) are not likely to find it from reporting in The New York Times, purportedly the nation's leading newspaper.

The Times has invested considerable resources on the UAH shootings, which left three faculty members dead and three others wounded. Much of the reporting has focused on the background of biology faculty member Amy Bishop, who has been charged with capital murder, and the denial of tenure that apparently sparked the shootings.

It's an important national story, and The Times deserves credit for giving it major attention. But the newspaper's reporting on the Huntsville story has been sloppy, superficial, and at times almost nonsensical.

Consider a story titled "A Murder Suspect's Worth to Science," by reporter Gina Kolata. The story focuses on hundreds of comments posted on the Internet about the UAH shootings, some asking questions about the tenure process, some noting the extraordinary stresses of academic life, and some wondering if Bishop was treated fairly and according to procedures.

Kolata dismisses such questions with the following paragraph:

In fact, scientists who have looked at Dr. Bishop's rà sumà said they saw no evidence of genius, no evidence of a cure for diseases like A.L.S., no evidence that she even could have gotten tenure at a major university.

But Kolata relies on a curious set of sources to reach this conclusion, leaving her story with some serious holes for anyone familiar with the University of Alabama System--as I am, having worked there for 19 years.

Consider a number of key points made in the story:

* Kolata dismisses Bishop's research on amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease--The article states that Bishop's theories haven't been proven and didn't originate with her. But what is that supposed to mean? The whole idea of research is to work on ideas that haven't been proven. If the idea has been proven, there is no need to research it. And my understanding is that the vast majority of scientific research builds on the work of others. If Bishop was working on an unproven theory, based on the work of the others, she has plenty of company.

* Kolata quotes a scientist who says Bishop's work wasn't groundbreaking: That's not the issue is it? The tenure process is supposed to be about a candidate's potential for contributing to the academic environment. Are we to believe that the University of Alabama only grants tenure to junior faculty members who conduct "groundbreaking" research? If that were the case, there would be few full professors in the UA System.

* Kolata dismisses the number of publications in Bishop's record: But what about the quality of those publications? Tenure is not just about quantity. Did Kolata's sources actually read the articles? And how did Bishop's publications, both in quantity and quality, compare to others who recently have received tenure at UAH?

* Kolata cites a researcher who notes that Bishop doesn't appear to be the senior researcher on her papers: Does this tell us anything useful? How many assistant professors are going to be in the senior position? Don't those spots usually go to someone who already has tenure? Again, does this say anything meaningful about Amy Bishop's qualifications?

* Kolata quotes someone from Columbia University, saying Bishop wouldn't be considered for tenure there: How is this relevant? Bishop was at UAH, not Columbia. How do grant dollars at Columbia compare to those at UAH? Would a junior faculty member at Columbia, an Ivy League school, have a huge advantage over a counterpart at UAH? Almost certainly yes. How does a teaching load at Columbia compare to the heavy teaching load Bishop had at UAH, where she taught five classes? Would a junior faculty member at Columbia have more time for research than a counterpart at UAH? Almost certainly yes.

* Kolata dismisses Bishop's invention of a cell-incubator, quoting scientists who saw no need for it: This conflicts with published reports indicating the invention has generated $1.25 million in investment funds. Apparently, somebody sees a need for it. Did Kolata think to ask some of the investors who seem to consider the invention worthwhile? If the invention was worthless, why did UAH President David Williams say on his blog in fall 2008, "This remarkable technology will change the way biological and medical research is conducted"? Williams has a background in engineering and was a vice provost for research before coming to UAH. Shouldn't he know a thing or two about the potential for new technology?

The tone of the Times' coverage seems to be, "Move along, children, there is no story here, no reason to ask questions about the tenure process or the University of Alabama's handling of this situation." It's almost elitist and condescending toward those who might ask questions about administrators in higher education.

If I were an editor, and Kolata turned in this story, I can think of quite a few questions I would have for her:

* Has she compared Bishop's record to those who did achieve tenure in roughly the same time frame?

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I live in Birmingham, Alabama, and work in higher education. I became interested in justice-related issues after experiencing gross judicial corruption in Alabama state courts. This corruption has a strong political component. The corrupt judges are (more...)
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