Phi Beta Cons

Don’t Over-Generalize From the Huntsville Murders

One of the sad rituals following mass murder is the attempt to understand why the killer did what they did. The explanations all too often center around alleged stresses that pushed the killer “over the edge.” For years, teachers and parents falsely believed bullying caused the Columbine massacre. Recently, some explained the Fort Hood terrorist attack by arguing that Major Hasan essentially caught PTSD from returning soldiers and “snapped.”

And now, from the Chronicle of Higher Education, we have this:

The shooting deaths of three biology professors at the University of Alabama at Huntsville this month, allegedly by a colleague who had recently lost an appeal of her tenure denial, seemed to many observers to confirm the worst about faculty workplaces. In conversations on The Chronicle’s Web site and elsewhere, people have seized on the killings as evidence that academic life today is a petri dish for madness: The high stress of the tenure process, the pressures to be brilliant at research and teaching, the cloistered environment, the extent to which internal politics affect people’s careers—it’s a combination that could damage even psychologically healthy people.

Academic life as a “petri dish for madness”? We may have a winner for overstatement of the year. At this point, we don’t even know if Amy Bishop was mentally ill. Nor do we know if academic life had anything to do with her killing spree. After all, she killed her brother under suspicious circumstances years before she was a professor.

I sincerely doubt that the work environment at UAH was any worse than the work environment at a normal public university — and considerably less stressful than the work environment in, say, Afghanistan. Perhaps a thorough investigation will reveal the “real” reasons for the murders. Perhaps Amy Bishop is mentally ill, or perhaps she is, quite simply, evil. 

Let the investigation continue, mourn the fallen, be grateful for those who intervened, and — please — let’s not over-dramatize the academic workplace.

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