Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Deadly Professor

Tenure Decision: Denied

For most academics, a tenured position is the goal. Tenure guarantees job stability, meaning that a professor needn't worry about being fired for disagreeing with university officials or for pursuing an uncharted line of research, for example. For young academics today, it means an end to scrambling to cobble together enough lecturer positions to survive and shuffling from one fellowship or short-term research position to another. Getting there requires a lot of work: teaching, research, publishing, and faculty service.

Amy Bishop's track record at the University of Alabama in Huntsville was mixed. She dutifully became her department's representative to the Faculty Senate. She won a National Institutes of Health grant to investigate genetic resistance to nitric oxide. But she published only six papers while at UAH, roughly half the number that a biologist seeking tenure would typically be expected to produce, and these weren't in the field's most important journals. Strangely, she listed her three children as the lead authors on a paper on laboratory-grown nerve cells and antidepressants; she was the fourth author, her husband, a computer engineer, the fifth.

And some of UAH's faculty and students simply found her difficult. She failed to impress the tenure committee at the lecture she gave as part of the tenure evaluation. Some of her students signed a petition protesting the decision when she was denied tenure; others had already signed a petition saying she was an ineffective teacher. Graduate students regularly transferred out of her lab or were dismissed. One student she dismissed filed a grievance against her, after Bishop called the police in a frenzied attempt to get keys and notebooks back from a student dismissed only hours before.

In March 2009 the university denied Amy Bishop tenure. She'd need to start another job after classes ended in spring 2010.

She filed an appeal and complained to anyone who would listen. Already older than most professors seeking tenure, Bishop seems to have thought that after all of her work in Boston tenure at a southern state university was well within her grasp, maybe even hers by right.

Beyond the stress and ego at play in the tenure fight, Bishop may have been worried about her family's financial state as well. Husband James Anderson was working only part time; Bishop was the breadwinner. BizTech, the company Anderson worked for, secured over a million dollars to develop a cell incubator Bishop designed. BizTech's CEO, Dick Reeves, reportedly expected Bishop to make a lot of money through the incubator, and he insisted that the tenure denial shouldn't have caused her any financial anxiety. But other experts say the industry has no real need for a $30,000 device that essentially functions as a Petri dish.

Relations with her colleagues continued to deteriorate. Anderson claimed biology faculty members sent his wife nasty emails. In September 2009 Bishop filed a complaint with the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Someone on her departmental tenure committee had called her "crazy" in her tenure review, and would not retract the statement when an administrator gave him a chance to back down. The anonymous professor maintained that Bishop's unstable mental health was apparent on their first meeting.

The EEOC is still looking into that complaint. But in November 2009 the University of Alabama in Huntsville denied Amy Bishop's tenure appeal.