Saturday, February 13, 2010

Tenure, Life and Death [updated]

The academic lifestyle is often portrayed as an easy, relaxed way of being.  Yesterday's events at U of Alabama-Huntsville suggest otherwise.  A woman was denied tenure, and she reacted with extreme violence, killing three and seriously wounding three others.

Tenure is often treated as a life or death decision because of the job security that is either gained or lost, but people can bounce back from being denied tenure to get good academic jobs elsewhere or good jobs beyond the academic world.  I have several friends who went through incredibly stressful experiences but moved on and are happy and successful.  I have had my own career hit a variety of stumbles along the way, provoking not just a little anger.

So, analysts may focus on the current academic job market and the stress it induces.  They may consider whether tenure is an appropriate means to protect academic freedom, given its impact not just on individuals but also on the incentives of all involved.  But what is relatively clear, even this early in course of events, is that individuals can go "postal" in any occupation.  Most people do not react to job stresses and job losses by killing people, so the roots of yesterday's events lay in individual psychology much more so than in the system, even if the system is flawed.  Lots of people get denied tenure.  Lots of people have lost their jobs over the past year or two, but violence remains quite rare thankfully.

Perhaps we need to think about how to make the tenure process more humane and less stressful, but we should do that because it is the right thing to do, not because of this singular event.

So, those are my quick and dirty and ill-informed first thoughts to these events.

UPDATED:  See here for six takes on this by a bunch of academics.


Brandon Valeriano said...

I am not sure I agree completely. Yes, it had to do with psychology and resiliency but defects in those areas compounded with a sense of injustice or unfairness can interact to lead to outcomes like this. She probably felt like she had no control, that people are judging her that do not deserve to judge her, that she was not given enough warning, etc.

Steve Saideman said...

Lots of people feel that way--nost do not shoot anyone.

And this woman has a history:
"The biology professor charged in the shooting deaths Friday of three faculty members at the University of Alabama in Huntsville fatally shot her brother more than 23 years ago, police said Saturday." via CNN

Anonymous said...

The story of how this woman got away with murdering her brother -- apparently with the help of her mother -- is amazing and should lead Congressman Delahunt, then the D.A. in Braintree, MA, to retire. I imagine that if she had been a boy who killed his sister or an African-American or Latino/Latina, she would have gone to jail for shooting her brother to death. Just shows the benefit that she got from being a bright white girl in a suburb.