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General News    H3'ed 2/19/10

What Role Did "Crazy" Comment Play in Alabama Shootings?

By       (Page 1 of 2 pages)   8 comments
Message Roger Shuler
Cross Posted at Legal Schnauzer
The story of last Friday's fatal shootings on the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) campus has taken a number of twists and turns, most of them focusing on the background of neuroscientist Amy Bishop, who has been charged in the case. But perhaps the most stunning development since news of the shootings first broke came in a report two days ago from The Chronicle of Higher Education.

An anonymous UAH faculty member, who served on Bishop's tenure committee, told the Chronicle that he had concerns about Bishop's mental health. He said that at least twice in official settings he had expressed the view that Bishop was "crazy." The Chronicle story hints that the faculty member's assessment played a role in the university's ultimate decision to deny Bishop tenure--and that apparently was the issue that sparked the shootings.

That a faculty member, who apparently has no credentials for assessing anyone's mental health, would make such a statement is unfortunate. That UAH officials might have given it any weight, effectively ruining Amy Bishop's academic teaching career, is appalling. For that, we all are losers because Bishop had shown that she is a scientist of considerable promise.

It is not known what discipline the anonymous faculty member practices. But given that he served on a tenure-review committee, it appears that he held senior status. The Chronicle article states that several of Bishop's colleagues found her to be strange, but one veteran said she was not the strangest academic he had encountered in a long career.

I know from my own experience of working in higher education for 19 years that if every "strange" or "crazy" person was denied tenure, there would be few full professors on university campuses.

One colleague, however, thought he found something dark about Bishop. Reporters Thomas Bartlett and Robin Wilson write:

Another professor, however, has long been wary of Ms. Bishop. He asked The Chronicle not to use his name because, considering recent events, he is worried about his own safety. The professor, who was a member of Ms. Bishop's tenure-review committee, said he first became concerned about Ms. Bishop's mental health "about five minutes after I met her."

It's comforting to know that this professor was confident in his ability to make snap judgments. And he was so confident that he shared his views in an official capacity, during a process that would essentially make or break Amy Bishop's academic career. The Chronicle reports:

The professor said that during a meeting of the tenure-review committee, he expressed his opinion that Ms. Bishop was "crazy." Word of what he said made it back to Ms. Bishop. In September, after her tenure denial, she filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging gender discrimination. The professor's remark was going to be used as possible evidence in that case.

Did UAH officials take this snap judgment seriously? Oh, yes:

It was then, the professor said, that the associate provost of the university, John Severn, came to him and asked whether he truly believed what he had said about Ms. Bishop. (Reached by phone, Mr. Severn declined to comment.) The professor was given the opportunity to back off the claim, or to say it was a flippant remark. But he didn't. "I said she was crazy multiple times and I stand by that," the professor said. "This woman has a pattern of erratic behavior. She did things that weren't normal."

On what did the professor base his assessment? Not much:

No one incident stands out, the professor said, but a series of interactions caused him to think she was "out of touch with reality." Once, he said, she "went ballistic" when a grant application being filed on her behalf was turned in late. The professor said he avoided Ms. Bishop whenever he saw her, on or off the campus. When he spotted her not long ago at a Barnes & Noble bookstore, he made sure he was out of sight until she had left the store. He even skipped a faculty retreat because he knew she would be there.

The professor makes clear that he never told university officials he thought Bishop was potentially violent. He says officials appeared to mainly be concerned about legal fallout of a possible lawsuit by Bishop.

So what did they do? They effectively fired Bishop, even though her record--as we know it at this point--indicates she was a productive researcher who probably met the criteria for tenure.

Here is "management" as it apparently is practiced in the University of Alabama System: A faculty member makes a grossly inappropriate comment that gets back to its target and causes you to worry about a lawsuit. Your response is to effectively fire the person who was victimized by the comment.

Makes a lot of sense, doesn't it?

Now three people are dead, and if it's legal fallout UAH officials were concerned about, they will have plenty of that in the weeks and months ahead.

I worked in the University of Alabama System for 19 years--and was the victim of a wrongful termination that currently is under EEOC investigation--so it takes a pretty stupid administrative act to shock me. But this latest news from UAH leaves even me feeling numb.

The story does not clearly state this, but it appears that the anonymous professor's assessment might have been the deciding factor in denying Amy Bishop tenure. It remains unclear when Bishop's appeal was completed and a final decision was reached.

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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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