An academic life punctuated by bullets, part 2

Posted By Pamela on Feb 13, 2010 | 8 comments

There are some titles that should never be reused. This is part 2 of this post I wrote in 2007. This older post is better than this one. Please read the older post here.

Earlier this evening I got an IM from a friend alerting me that this afternoon there had been a shooting at the University of Alabama Huntsville. Details are sketchy, but it looks like a faculty member who was recently denied tenure went into the biology faculty meeting and shot 6 people, killing 3 of the 6.

On twitter I’ve seen people express mystification at how this could happen.

Like I said a few years ago, about another school shooting, what really surprises me is how rarely it happens.

Academia as a system is deeply flawed in a lot of ways. One of the ways it is flawed is how the tenure system gets employed. For those of you who don’t know what it means to have tenure, it means you are a God. You can never again be fired without really significant cause (felony criminal charges, embezzling from a grant, cheating on your wife with an undergrad who gets pregnant, etc). Faculty with tenure often abuse their power, assigning junior faculty the largest classes, the worst committee tasks, and the hardest/most time consuming service assignments (like running outreach events). These young faculty, under the weight of these assignments, are required to spend 3 to 6 years demonstrating they are excellent researchers, excellent teachers, and solid community members. People do crack. But rather than take the time off to take care of themselves, they push on, because if only they can get tenure, they will never have to worry about finding a job ever again.

And we are all taught early on that we are failures if we don’t get tenure.

I don’t have tenure. (But then, I haven’t really looked for it)

A few years ago I was attending a meeting of the American Association of Physics Teachers. I was giving workshops on doing real science in the classroom, and giving talks on other research I’d done. I was trying to liveblog what I could in the midst of all this. All the presentations went well, the blogging went well, but I spent each night of the conference in my room in tears. Over and over the same thing happened – I’d give a great talk/workshop/etc and then some gray haired males (and it was always gray haired males) would come up to me to talk about my work, and then ask “So, when did you get tenure?” I’d explain I’m just an assistant prof. They’d say, “Oh, I’m sure you’ll do fine when you go up for tenure!” But I’m not tenure track. And when they heard this, they always asked – what did you do wrong? who did you piss off? – or some version of that same question.

It was always assumed that there is something wrong with me that I didn’t have tenure. I’d only had my PhD 5 years at that point. I’d only applied once for a tenure-track position and I didn’t get that one position. But because I wasn’t inline to join them as Gods in the top of the Ivory Tower, I was (and I guess I still am) a failure. It is this type of “What is wrong with you?” attitude, that breaks people. I simply went back to my room and cried myself out at the end of every day. I can see where someone less emotionally stable would on day 2 or 3 of the meeting start punching people or worse.

I wish this was a one off attitude problem, but as someone without tenure I know it’s not.

The people I know who’ve been denied tenure have generally had to completely start over or mostly start over at a new university. This means facing a second 3 to 6 years of being hazed, of working too hard and never sleeping. It means facing a second 3 to 6 years of postponing children and telling your spouse, “I’m sorry,” over and over and over again as you crawl into bed too late because of the grant deadlines, and then again as you accidently wake them as you get out of bed at 5am to grade, because 5am is the only hour left empty in the day. It means another 3-6 years of knowing you can have everything taken away at any moment yet again.

I’m not sure this means anything to someone outside of academia. People loose jobs all the time and it is no big deal. But academics are essentially self-employed. We design our own research. We raise our own money through grants and donations to do that research. But all that money goes through the university. We are like small business owners who can get kicked out of our own business at any moment. If someone is denied tenure they loose all their equipment they raised money to purchase. They loose all their computers, software, money for staff, and everything else. They may not even get to keep the grants they’ve been awarded that still extend years into the future. It’s terrifying.

Academia is a field that eats its young. It is too often the regurgitated, half digested mass of a human that is left when it is over that gets tenure.

We need to revise the system. “Well, I survived” can no longer be the phrase of the day. There are too many brilliant people crying when they should be working to make our world better.

It shouldn’t take a broken woman shooting people to recognize the problems.




  1. The whole tenure thing is one reason I decided not to pursue a PhD after my master’s. I knew that one day I might want a family and a life outside the lab and this was going to be nearly impossible in academia. I’ve read several comments today that seem to want to blame the system. The system is flawed, but that is no excuse. She still made the decision to get a gun and kill those people. One of the victims was my first boss out of grad school and she was a great scientist. I’m having a hard time finding pity for the shooter. Lots of people get denied tenure and don’t to on a shooting spree.

  2. Well put. I to after earning a Masters from a university that did everything it could to stop me decided it was too much. We are wasting great minds on the alter of tenure. Thanks for having the guts at this stage of your career to write this and your other post.

  3. Nice post, and very well put. It’s sad that it takes something like this to knock some of our colleagues on the head to realize how ridiculous (and not in the best interest of good science) our practices are. I think many amazing scientists leave at various points because of the system, and this year I’m seeing someone’s struggle for tenure and it’s amazed me at how unfeeling and rigid it all is. Yet, despite all this and my abilities in other areas, I still want to be a tenured professor (not so much for the security, but hey, I’d take it). It’s a good system in the way it’s self-sustaining. They create we grad students who swallow the whole thing gladly.

    Maybe this will start a dialogue. Or maybe she’ll get labeled CRAZY and we can all pretend it’s ok.

  4. Well put. I had a colleague who frequently remarked that ‘tenure works to the advantage of the university’. I pursued a PhD because I thought I didn’t know enough. I graduated when I decided I could learn on my own. I chose an academic career because I liked teaching and doing my own research, and liked the freedom of ‘summer sabaticals’. At no point did I obsess about tenure, it’s highly over-rated. Do what you like to do and don’t sweat the small stuff. And above all, don’t let some thick headed JERK try to get under your skin and ruin your fun!

  5. Growing up the son of a college professor, I remember the late nights, the hard work, the nomadic lifestyle. We changed towns, schools, and lives once every three years like clockwork in the elusive search for tenure.

    The old man has a Chair now, and that’s great. But it was hell on our family getting there.

    Of course, I’m working on my PhD now.

  6. Wow, thank you, again. It’s important that those who have survived the tenure process don’t belittle the struggles of those going through it, or those who choose another path. Scary stuff… can’t I stay in grad school forever?

  7. Beautiful post. Well spoken. So true.

    I’m a grad student in astronomy. The chair of my department wants to increase the number of grad students here, but permanent tenured positions are not increasing… Academia is a pyramid scheme, and it is crushing as you try to move up the pyramid. I don’t know what I’m going to do after I get my PhD.

    (Sorry, but one other thing:
    If you choose to lose your moose, just set it loose and chase it with a goose. You will get what you chose, the moose will go, following its nose.)

  8. Stuff like this makes me cry im beer. I find it alarming that the way our society works is to beat down the very people that make our lives better and elevate the people that make our lives miserable.

    Only the sciences (engineering, physics, etc) can create true wealh. Every other profession consumes it (politicians, lawyers) or moves it from one place to another (investment brokers, bankers etc).

    Here we have people who are abstracted from reality due to the academic enviroment..They are our brightest minds and the “masters of their universe” need to look after them


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