Saturday, February 27, 2010

Some Academic Reactions To The Academic Killer

The story about the University of Alabama professor who shot and killed three colleagues because she was denied tenure understandably created waves within the academe. The Chronicle on Higher Education has run some reactions from graduate students, professors and administrators on what this means going forward, and what is says about the rigors of the process of tenure and hiring in general.

I served on the hiring committee this year at Chicago, and while confidentiality concerns keep me from revealing anything of substance that happened, I can safely say that I gained a greater appreciation for the sheer difficulty of getting an academic job (at least in the U.S.). You won't believe the quality of the CVs and dissertations that we rejected simply out of hand. Moreover, with the recession hitting university endowments hard (more than 30% on average), and hiring freezes in place, it doesn't look to be getting better any time soon.

Anyway, I wanted to highlight one section from the above link. Here's John Cavanaugh, Chancellor of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education:

We have done an overall poor job of providing the support and mentoring appropriate for such major, stressful, career make-or-break situations as dissertation defenses and tenure votes, despite the fact that we have considerable (faculty) expertise and a burgeoning research literature about individual differences in coping with stress. It is time to end any tolerance for the notion that "we eat our young" and that such intellectual brutality is somehow an indicator of rigor.

How? First, we must not use the notion that "we have to uphold our standards of excellence" as a thinly veiled code for professional hazing.

Second, we need to do a reality check regarding the criteria for "passing." If a majority of those voting on a tenure case, for example, would not meet the criteria in play, then a serious review of the criteria is in order. How many times do we hear colleagues admit their relief that it is not them on the docket because they "would not make it"?

Third, if rising scholars need to give up any semblance of a normal life to obtain a doctorate or tenure, then that program's values are out of alignment. I, for one, do not want institutions full of people who sold their souls for a degree or for tenure. I want balanced, well-rounded scholars. Funny thing about that—isn't that exactly what we say in our marketing materials: that we want to produce in our undergraduate programs well-rounded, educated graduates?

Fourth, we need to become as good at providing career and emotional support as we are at criticizing performance (a very highly honed skill in most academics). However, research and experience show that the ability to cope with failure varies a great deal across people and situations. Let's tap our colleagues' expertise in understanding what people need and how to provide support and teach mentors how to give it effectively.

Finally, let's reward our young scholars for having the good sense and insight to ask for support and mentorship in the first place, rather than viewing it as a sign of weakness. We may not be able to prevent another situation like what occurred in Huntsville, especially given the freedom to carry weapons in most states. But we can certainly learn from it and do our best to help those who are overly stressed. Someday they will take our place. Let's give them the best chance for success.

I agree with every word. It's really hard to get across to people outside academia how stressful and mentally debilitating this environment is. Everybody has their own coping mechanisms, but's hard. At every step -- getting into grad school, defending your proposal, defending your dissertation, getting a job, getting tenure -- it's hard.


right side of the river said...

Not to discount the hard road to achieving tenure at all, but this Amy Bishop woman was a nutcase. She shot her brother to death in 1986 but was let off after police found it to be an 'accident'. She was also a suspect in a case where a professor in a lab that she worked came home to a nice little mail bomb waiting for him, not long after the two had had a confrontation.

Ahsan said...

Agreed, she should not be held up as some sort of evidence for the difficulties in academia, mainly because, as you say, she was already sort of nuts.

Nabeel said...

You're scaring me. I just applied for grad school!

Butters said...

Great post. I think I'm not going into academia now.

Ahsan said...

Hahah sorry for scaring you both. But in all seriousness, it is not a decision one should take lightly.