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Professors say tenure fights create high-stress situations

Bishop case puts focus on mental health monitoring

By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / February 18, 2010

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As the Amy Bishop investigation continues, local professors say that the sensational twists and turns in the case should not obscure the role that the intense competition for tenure seems to have played in last week’s shooting at the University of Alabama campus in Huntsville.

“I hope that this event will encourage us to look at the impact of academic culture on individual behavior,’’ said David Yamada, director of the New Workplace Institute at Suffolk University Law School. “My concern is that the increasingly bizarre nature behind Amy Bishop’s personal story may allow us to let ourselves off the hook in using this as a wake-up call to take faculty mental health issues more seriously.’’

To be sure, Yamada and others acknowledge, the Alabama case is extreme - with three professors dead and three other university employees injured. But the shootings cast a new, grim light on the perils of the tenure process. The stakes are high: Achieving tenure is the closest one gets to lifelong employment. A denial means having to pack up and leave, often facing diminished employment opportunities elsewhere.

Bishop, a Harvard-trained neuroscientist who had been denied tenure, has been accused of opening fire at a faculty meeting last Friday.

A day after the shootings, Yamada recommended in his blog, “Minding the Workplace,’’ that universities examine their tenure policies. College officials should make sure policies are fair and transparent, he said. And, for everyone’s safety, they should be more attuned to professors’ psychological health.

“Sadly, it often takes these headline-making tragedies to get us to do what we should’ve been doing all along,’’ he wrote. Yamada and others interviewed for this story said they were not making judgments about how the university handled Bishop’s case, because they do not know the details.

But James Alan Fox, a professor of criminology, law, and public policy at Northeastern University, said that it is important to take a closer look at the stress of academia and reevaluate the gut-wrenching tenure process, which is typically drawn out over six or seven years.

Faculty spend months compiling their research, publications, teaching philosophies, self-assessments, and other documents that support their case for tenure, portfolios that can stack two or three feet high, academics said. They feel pressure to achieve; pressure from being under intense scrutiny, often by anonymous peers; pressure contemplating the possibilities of failure and having to uproot themselves or their families to find jobs elsewhere.

Those denied tenure usually face the awkward situation of remaining at a university for a final year to teach and seek other jobs. During that time, their colleagues can treat them cooly, said Gregory Scholtz, director of the department of academic freedom, tenure, and governance at the American Association of University Professors. At some universities, he said, professors are turned down for tenure without being given a reason why. Counseling would be helpful for those faced with rejection, but is not common, Scholtz said.

Being turned down for tenure is a huge disruption in one’s career, often leading to feelings of disappointment, depression, and humiliation, said Bonnie Teitleman, director of the faculty and staff assistance office at Boston University, which provides counseling as well as career advice.

Since the Virginia Tech shootings, universities across the country have ramped up their mental health services to ward off potential violence and faculty have been trained to pay attention to and report students who show signs of distress, Teitleman said. That vigilance should be extended to their colleagues, she said.

At BU, faculty are instructed to watch for excessive isolation, diminished personal hygiene, increased irritability, or other behavior changes and to alert Teitleman’s office.

Fox said those who don’t make tenure should receive mentoring and support finding another job during the final year of employment. Doing so could lessen the risk of violence, he said, and also tamp down more common expressions of anger - yelling or withdrawing from colleagues - when a professor does not receive tenure.

“With reports of Bishop’s quirky demeanor and social awkwardness, it would be all too easy to dismiss this violent episode as just some ‘nut’ who couldn’t handle the pressure of publish or perish,’’ Fox wrote in a Sunday column for the Chronicle of Higher Education about tenure and the workplace avenger.

“But to define this tragedy as just a case of psychopathology would discourage a closer look at contributing forces.’’

Fox suggested that tenure committees, composed of tenured faculty, be trained on the process of evaluating colleagues. And many professors said that candidates should also receive thorough, candid annual reviews prior to the tenure decision so they are not blind-sided by rejection.

“Give them a realistic picture early on, so people feel they have been treated fairly,’’ said Harvard professor Xiao-Li Meng, chairman of the statistics department.

At Harvard, tenure-track professors undergo an internal review after two years, an assessment that alerts them as to whether they are on the right track, Meng said.

“You don’t want to give people any last-minute surprises,’’ Meng said. “That’s what usually drives people crazy.’’

Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com.