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Eric Gorski, AP Education Writer, Published February 21 2010

Shooting puts tenure process in spotlight

While the circumstances behind the deadly shooting at the University of Alabama-Huntsville remain unclear, the Harvard-trained neurobiologist accused in the rampage was upset about being denied tenure – the academic world’s highly coveted form of job security.

The profile of Amy Bishop that is emerging suggests deep-seated emotional problems and a history of violence. But her vocal displeasure about being rejected in the period leading up to the attack has cast a spotlight on the increasingly pressure-packed quest for tenure at American colleges.

Within the academic world, there’s little debate that the trials of tenure have grown more intense in recent years – largely because there are fewer opportunities to gain an academic foothold, greater expectations for scholarly output, and an economic climate that is anything but rosy.

“You remember it almost like a death in the family,” said John Tisdale, a journalism professor who was denied tenure at Baylor University in 2002 for reasons that he said were never fully explained.

“I know this happens to people every day, so I don’t want to sound melodramatic ... It’s so traumatic. Your life is turned upside down. Obviously it’s a professional setback, but it’s personal, too.”

Decades ago, schools were hiring, and tenure was almost automatic. Now, cost-conscious colleges and universities are turning to part-time and adjunct faculty who will never get a shot at tenure. Some live like academic nomads, drifting from position to position with marginal pay or benefits.

Professors lucky enough to land tenure-track positions must endure rigorous scrutiny and, at times, an ambiguous process deciding their fate. Those who wash out wear the scarlet letter of academia. Although some fail to regain their footing, others go on to success in the classroom or the business world.

Tisdale joined Baylor University as adviser to the student newspaper in 1987 and earned his master’s and Ph.D. while working full time. He was put on the tenure track in 1996. Although his reviews were good and nothing seemed out of the ordinary, Tisdale lost his bid for tenure.

The former newspaper reporter and copy editor appealed the decision, but he also started a job search almost immediately. While he could have stayed at Baylor another year, he accepted a position at Texas Christian University and is now a tenured professor and associate director of the journalism school.

“You hate to say this, but failure is a great teacher, and you learn your lesson and go forward,” Tisdale said.

Bishop is accused in the attack that killed three fellow professors. Because of her field, she had brighter future career prospects than many other scholars rejected for tenure. According to one report, one of the victims was a professor who supported her tenure bid.

A tenure dispute being linked to violence, let alone deaths, is practically unheard of. In 1992, an associate professor who had been denied tenure at Concordia University in Montreal killed four colleagues.

It’s a shock to be denied tenure “when your entire sense of self and your intellectual life is tied into your perception of yourself as an academic,” said Cat Warren, a tenured associate professor of English at North Carolina State University. “It is a rigorous process, and it’s difficult.”

But, Warren added: “You have to admit, life these days is generally difficult. I mean, everybody works under stressful situations. There’s danger in drawing any sort of lesson from this clearly tragic case.”

Defenders of tenure, which makes firing and discipline difficult, say job protection gives professors the freedom to express ideas and conduct studies without fear of reprisal, ultimately benefiting students.

While the number of tenure-track positions grew by 7 percent between 1975 and 2007, non-tenure-track jobs more than tripled, according to the American Association of University Professors. The recession has turned up the pressure, said Cary Nelson, president of the association and a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“Your most coldly accurate expectation would be, if you don’t get tenure, you’d better look for another career,” he said.

William Tierney, director of the Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis at the University of Southern California, said tenure is stressful for all involved in part “because it is by its very nature marked by ambiguity. The criteria are not crystal clear about what it takes to get it.”

The typical criteria for awarding tenure are teaching, scholarship and service, meaning things like serving on committees and advising student groups. Some schools put a premium on scholarly publications and a professor’s success in landing research grants, while others make teaching a priority in awarding tenure.

Tierney said faculty can get conflicting messages from school presidents and department chairs about what’s important. Then, when someone is rejected for tenure after six years on campus and is given another year to stick around and job-hunt, “there is sort of a sense of dead man walking,” he said.

Experts say the bar is higher to achieve tenure, but that’s been the case for several years. In the 1960s, the concern was “tenure by default” – that faculty were being awarded for just sticking around, said Gregory Scholtz, director of the American Association of University Professors’ department of academic freedom, tenure, and governance.

Now, it’s not uncommon for tenure candidates to turn in portfolios 2 or 3 feet high stacked with teaching evaluations, syllabuses, examples of course materials, scholarship and explanations of their teaching philosophy, Scholtz said.

Along with citing deficiencies in the three traditional tenure criteria, schools turn down candidates because they cannot justify the hire financially, Scholtz said. Other faculty have been deemed not “collegial” enough – not getting along with others to a fault.

The fact that expectations have risen in the past 25 years for earning tenure is a positive development, said Ada Meloy, general counsel for the American Council on Education.

It’s believed most tenure-track professors achieve tenure, but there’s a dearth of solid data.

Academics denied tenure can have a hard time getting tenure-track positions elsewhere – unless they are coming from an Ivy League school or other elite institution.

Bishop was better positioned than, say, a classics professor denied tenure. While at Huntsville, she developed a new type of portable cell incubator and won $25,000 in a statewide business competition in 2007. The school has not disclosed why she was denied tenure.