I’m sure you’ve all heard about Amy Bishop, the University of Alabama biology professor who, on Friday, opened fire during a faculty meeting, killing three of her colleagues and wounding two more professors and a staff person. (I would say “allegedly,” innocent-until-proven-guilty, etc., but there doesn’t seem to be any doubt that she did it.)
While there are clearly many different things going on here (for example, she apparently shot and killed her brother some twenty-odd years ago), the one that keeps playing in the media is this: She was turned down for tenure the previous year, had filed appeals, and had recently found out her appeals were denied.
In other words, tenure denial made her do it.
Now, I’m not the person to look towards for defenses of tenure. It’s too weighty, too all-or-nothing, too vague and subject to the personalities at hand, and too overly identified with “academic freedom” when that either means 1) “I reject all communal governance and say fuck you when you want me to teach to some departmental goals”; or 2) everyone who doesn’t have tenure is getting exploited even more than before.
So yeah, I’m not actually a big fan of tenure, especially as it’s now practiced. But using this tragedy as an “object lesson” in “why we need to rethink tenure” is making my stomach turn.
People are denied tenure all the time, unfortunate and problematic as that is. They don’t turn around and shoot their colleagues. So, while I would argue we do need to rethink tenure, it’s not because it makes people snap and shoot their department chair. It’s because it’s part and parcel of a system that is unsustainable and which sacrifices excellent scholars on the altar of unreasonable expectations.