Monday, February 15, 2010

To tenure or not to tenure?

Every college professor in the country has probably been riveted to the story of the biology prof at UA-Huntsville who shot six of her colleagues, killing three. I'm sure a lot of dark humor has been shared, behind closed doors, and will be. It is of course not a laughing matter. If anyone in my presence blames the victim, they will get an earful. Lots of profs are denied tenure every year, and I know some of them; this is the first to my knowledge that killed over it.

Tenure is a mystery to nonacademics. The idea that it means a life-time job is wrong. A tenured professor, at least in Georgia, can still be dismissed for due cause, it's just harder to do. And we have post-tenure review every so many years to make sure we are keeping up professionally. So this idea that a professor gets tenure and becomes a bum is wildly incorrect.

I am sure there is, at most places, more personality and politics in the process than there should be. In my experience at my college, that was not so; everything about the tenure process was fair, and clear, and well-communicated and executed. No complaints here, and I attained it within three years because of all my experience and despite not having a terminal degree (doctorate in most cases). On the other hand, I worked hard for it, even started doctoral work that diminished my health; I did lots of professional development and institutional service as well. On the last pre-tenure committee I was on (and chaired), an "old-timer" was asked if anyone at our college had ever been denied tenure, and he couldn't remember one. I think that's because our college is careful about whom it hires, and anyone who doesn't want to stay there teaching a 5-4 load and doing tons of other jobs will go on to greener pastures after a few years; it often happens with young Ph.D.s.

I doubt all the inside info about Bishop-Anderson at UA-H will ever be known, but I don't doubt that sometime in the future we will have to sit through a workshop on "tenure civility" or some such topic as we have had to do in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech tragedy. I'm also sure that there will be sniggery jokes about the pregnant question, "do you want to be on my pre-tenure committee?" All that being said, a killer is a killer is a killer. Even if Bishop-Anderson didn't get a fair hearing, nothing justifies murder. A colleague today said maybe the others were jealous of her because she was a Harvard Ph.D. in neurobiology--definitely nothing to sneeze at. Maybe; it doesn't matter. UA-H is not exactly a highly thought of research institution. It probably just wasn't a good fit and she failed to realize it. Now she won't have to worry about a permanent place at an institution, sadly. And she has left dozens of family members with grief and lifelong problems due to her stupidity and selfishness.

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