Where science and tech meet creativity.

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.