Tragic multiple shooting at the University of Alabama puts academic tenure review in the spotlight

The US news networks, Twitter, and now US-based science blogs are aflame with the story of American neuroscientist and nitric oxide researcher, Dr Amy Bishop, who is reported to have been charged with murder after a mass shooting at the University of Alabama campus at Huntsville yesterday (Friday) afternoon. Nature’s Great Beyond blog has also carried the story

The facts are obviously still emerging, but those that seem clear are:

– Three members of the UoA Faculty (academic staff) are dead, and three other people are in hospital, two in critical condition;

– Dr Bishop, a tenure-track Assistant Professor in the Department, has been charged with capital murder;

– The shootings occurred at a Faculty (staff) meeting around 4 pm Friday;

– Bishop was up for academic tenure (i.e. was under consideration for confirmation in post for life or alternatively for being “let go”).

Several news stories reported that Bishop had heard on the Friday morning that she had been turned down for tenure. The New York Times reports that “according to a faculty member”:

”[Bishop] had applied for tenure, been turned down, and appealed the decision. She learned on Friday that she had been denied once again.”

Various reports claim that Bishop attended the Faculty meeting in the afternoon, when the shootings occurred. Those killed in the shooting were biology department chair Gopi Podila and professors Maria Ragland Davis and Adriel Johnson. A 9 mm handgun was reported to have been recovered from a rest room after the shootings. Other reports stated Bishop then called her husband, biotech start-up scientist Jim Anderson, to come and collect her. She was reportedly arrested in the parking lot.

Anderson and Bishop have four children.

In the latest twist, and one worthy of a novel or movie, several US news outlets carried a Boston Globe report that the Harvard-educated Bishop had been involved in the death by shooting of her younger brother in Massachusetts in 1986, when she was 20 and her brother was 18. The shooting was ruled accidental.

An updating news thread on the case can be found at the Huntsville Times website. while dicussion of the case is underway over at Science Blogs here at Pharyngula, or here, or on the open thread here. There are also blogs that have been looking at what Bishop’s students said about her on sites like

Some discussion, unsurprisingly, concerns the stresses of the US tenure review system. Gun control on US campuses and beyond is also being debated. I think what most caught my eye was that in the first online story I read about the tragedy on a US news network website, a UoA Huntsville student was quoted as saying they felt unsafe:

“Because campus authorities would not allow [me] to bring my own gun onto the campus.”

About Austin

Middle-aged grouchy white male. Hair greying but hasn't all fallen out yet. Spreading waistline ill-concealed by baggy jumper.Semi-extinguished physiology researcher turned teacher. Known for never shutting up. Father of two children (aged 6 and 2) who try to out-talk him. Some would call that Karmic Revenge.
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56 Responses to Tragic multiple shooting at the University of Alabama puts academic tenure review in the spotlight

  1. Heather Etchevers says:

    Gosh. Thanks for the links. When I caught wind of it on Twitter, I thought it was a joke in poor taste, and didn’t follow up. Now I am not following up because I don’t want to know. How awful.

  2. Austin Elliott says:

    It is a grim story. To a European eye it will probably mostly seem like a “madness of easy access to guns” story. I guess that will trigger a lot of the same “Is it guns or people that kill people?” debate that was around after, say, the Virginia Tech shootings.

    On the ScienceBlogs threads there are certainly one or two people claiming, if I can paraphrase slightly:

    “If all the Faculty could pack concealed heat on campus, this wouldn’t have happened”

    Personally I don’t believe that would be true even if they WERE all armed to the teeth. Part of the reason can be found in this comment that someone made at Pharyngula.

  3. Åsa Karlström says:

    Austin: It’s a big thing over here. Especially in the light that Huntsville had a shooting in a middle school a few days ago (maybe a week?) and that was the first time in that town. It’s really not a big place either. There are quite a few emotions and thoughts coming into the papers.

    The thing with guns on campus is a discussion partly due to the Virginia Tech shootings – when people argued that the shooter would have been gunned down earlier if students had the right to carry arms in the class room/campus – partly because you have the right to carry arms in a lot of places. I find it a strange argument to have – but I’m not American and did not grow up here. Here in the south, I have found more and more people wanting and defending the right to carry guns on them – as it is allowed, most (?) states would demand a “carry permit” but to only own and have a gun at your house, you don’t necessarily need to register anywhere since it is your right.

    well, that might have been a bit off topic, although it is more normal here to see the argument the student raised “I would feel more safe with a gun since then I can defend myself if someone guns down someone else in the same room I’m in”.

    Lately the news here have been reporting and focusing in on the fact that she was once in a deadly shooting with a shot gun – and the police in that place are already trying to “explain” why she is out now/didn’t serve a long sentence. It’s all very messy, imho.

    I think again that this points towards that universities as well as other work places aren’t exempt from violence and seemingly crazy acts. It might be a good thing to remember? I do know the shock back when I was a grad student and we found out that a man had attacked and killed his former wife at the university (on campus, in the actual department space) with an axe. It was truly one of the moments I remember as a “What’s going on” thing…

  4. Kristi Vogel says:

    Updated information on the _Huntsville Times_ website indicates that the 1986 shooting may not have been an accident, and that it occurred during an argument between Bishop and her brother:

    The report said Bishop was asking her mother, Judith, how to properly unload the gun when it when off and a shot struck Seth. Braintree Police Chief Paul Frazier is now offering a different account of the shooting to The Globe: “Bishop had shot her brother during an argument and was being booked by police when the police chief at the time ordered the booking process stopped and Bishop released to her mother,” the paper reports on its Web site. Records from the case have been missing since 1987.

    The article also mentions that Bishop fled the scene and tried to hijack a car by waving the shotgun at a motorist. She had fired three shots inside the house, including the one that struck her brother in the abdomen. She wasn’t a child or adolescent at the time of this incident, either – she was 20 years old.

    It is illegal for students, staff, and faculty to carry firearms on most university campuses in the US, regardless of the concealed weapons laws in the state and the permits held by any of those listed above. Bishop deliberately brought an outlawed firearm onto campus, carried it into a faculty meeting, and murdered three of her colleagues (and seriously injured several others). IANAP, but this seems like the behavior of a violent sociopath to me.

  5. Austin Elliott says:

    The earlier shooting of the younger brother was apparently ruled “accidental” in a “cleaning the gun when it went off” way, though the reports are muddled. For a person to have not been charged with anything after a fatal shooting it would pretty much have had to have been ruled a straightforward accident.

    Agreed that no workplace is exempt from craziness. Many years ago my father had a postdoc in his lab who was eventually diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, and who at some point was apparently convinced my dad was the Devil. I have sometimes thought that we were fortunate that this person’s delusions never prompted them to do anything about this “insight”.

  6. Kristi Vogel says:

    For a person to have not been charged with anything after a fatal shooting it would pretty much have had to have been ruled a straightforward accident.

    Agreed, assuming that there’s no influence, privilege, or cover-up in the case. Apparently the records are missing, so we may never know the full story. Even if the original story is true, don’t you think that a conversation about unloading/loading a shotgun in the house is an odd one for a 20 year old to be having with her (or his) parent? FWIW, I grew up in a suburb of Houston, and we never had guns in the house. Ever. Maybe things are different in Boston suburbs like Braintree, and cleaning the shotgun is a normal, everyday family activity. [/shrugs]

  7. Austin Elliott says:

    My comment crossed with Kristi’s first one, which filled in some of the stuff I was alluding to as “the reports [of the 1986 shooting] are muddled.”

    I think it is already crystal clear that the trial, whenever it happens, is likely to centre on Bishop’s mental state. Note also that the capital murder charge carries the possibility of the death penalty in Alabama, and presumably she is likely to be looking at multiple counts.

    The true circumstances of the earlier shooting of the brother – IF they can be established – are presumably going to be featuring as part of the “what is the true mental picture” story. That was partly why I was saying it felt like a novel or a film plot – the revelation of the earlier incident, versions of which are disputed, and on which the interpretation placed on what happened later could hinge.

    The coverage thus far does not really make that much of Bishop and her colleagues being scientists specifically. Most stories have covered it with a “Professor responds to professional disappointment by going postal” theme, though some comment on how Bishop was viewed by fellow-staff and students. Interestingly, several of the comments on Drugmonkey’s open thread are about mental illness in academia and how different institutions deal with it (or not).

    Anyway, however you look at it, the case seems like it is going to be headline news for quite a while to come.

  8. Austin Elliott says:

    PS Forgot to say, the records of investigation of the 1986 incident apparently being missing also adds to the novel/film feel, given that it is such a familiar element of sundry whodunnit plots.

  9. Åsa Karlström says:


    It is illegal for students, staff, and faculty to carry firearms on most university campuses in the US, regardless of the concealed weapons laws in the state and the permits held by any of those listed above.

    I was trying to say this- but regardless of the no guns on campus policy it is more regular here to have guns outside of campus than in Europe… and after the VT shooting there was a large group of people arguing for allowing guns on campuses “in order to protect students/staff”. For me this is a slightly odd stance to take, but the longer I have lived here the more I can understand where people come from when the say this. (regardless of if I agree with it or not.)

    @Austin: The earlier shooting of the brother seems as of now, to be impossible to solve since the records are gone and the chief of police who was in charge at the time is retired. In any event it sounds to me, as a “family situation” and a small town where people know each other kind of solution which never really makes for a “proper” dealing (imho). That is of course, only speculation and I should refrain from that since I don’t know more than what’s in the papers.

    What I find interesting is that all the articles I came across last night, prior to naming the shooter, pointed out “a Harvard educated professor”, with an undertone that we would’ve not thought a highly educated person to behave like this . Maybe that will be part of the reporting later on too?? I don’t know? I think that many people I know, myself included, have been tempted to say things like “highly educated people don’t do things like that” etc, as in trying to distinguish “us from them” or something like that.

    The papers I have read have pointed out that she and her husband invented movable, stackable cell culture chambers and sold it for a lot of money to a bigger coorperation. .. it’s a sad story in any event. A faculty meeting!?

  10. Kristi Vogel says:

    “the records of investigation of the 1986 incident apparently being missing also adds to the novel/film feel, given that it is such a familiar element of sundry whodunnit plots”

    As a fan of crime fiction, I was thinking the same thing. It has been mentioned in several of the news stories that Bishop and her husband developed a novel cell culture system, for which they had received funds to start a company. In this context, at least, her career as a scientist has been mentioned; though as Abel Pharmboy pointed out on Terra Sigillata, the news media did not refer to her NIH funding. The other “scientist” aspect for Bishop, which arises largely from the student opinions, is that she is “brilliant”, and a “genius”. I think such terms are tossed around in academia far too readily, and sometimes used to “excuse” antisocial or abusive behavior. The Talking Heads song Warning Signs usually pops into my head when I hear someone use those terms.

  11. Kristi Vogel says:

    (crossed posts with Åsa, on the cell culture system invention)

  12. Åsa Karlström says:

    Kristi: You had more accurate info on the company thing …

    I agree that the genius word is tossed around as an excuse for much excentric behaviour. The more I read about this story , the more sad I get seeing that there seem to be a lot of things in the background. I hope that it will be little “guessing” (like I myself did a few posts back) and more of “how to stop things like this from happening again”. (Something like a discussion about seeking help for stress and psyciatric disorders prior from this happening … etc)

  13. Alyssa Gilbert says:

    Wow – what a tragic situation. This is the first I’ve heard of it (yes, I’ve been living under a rock — the Olympics rock), so thank you for posting all the links.

  14. Kristi Vogel says:

    This NY Times story has a few more details about the 1986 shooting, and about Bishop’s biotech connections for the cell culture system.

  15. Austin Elliott says:

    Thanks for that NY Times article link, Kristi. It includes another choice detail about the 1986 incident – apparently the then DA (District Attorney) is now a Massachusetts Democratic Congressman. Really, it gets more like a complicated crime novel with every twist. Probably one by the late, great George V. Higgins, chronicler of Boston from the 70s to the 90s.

    Åsa – it wouldn’t have been classic “small town”, as the places in question – Braintree/Quincy – are suburbs of the greater Boston metropolitan area, and would have been in 1986.

    I agree about the “genius” word getting tossed around rather too much in stories about scientists. I think it is actually used as a kind of inaccurate synonym for “unworldly and a bit obsessive about the work”. When one of my long-time colleagues and I were discussing, not long ago, whether we’d met any “geniuses” in our quarter century or so in research, we reckoned we’d only ever known one or two people we thought merited the description. One meets a lot of very gifted and clever people in research, sure, but “genius” is something else. Genius is Isaac Newton, or Linus Pauling, or Francis Crick, or Richard Feynman.

    I suspect another question in the Huntsville case where the 1986 shooting will come to have a bearing is going to be whether there were any warning signs and, if so, whether anyone was in a position to have put the signs together. I would imagine that eventually the families of those injured and (especially) killed will be asking this. I seriously doubt anyone at UoA Huntsville would have known about the 1986 case. Given that there was no charge, there would be no record other than looking up old newspapers, and 1986 would be pre-internet. I imagine the police will be asking Bishop’s husband a lot of questions about what he knew of his wife’s mental state, since he would be the person most likely to know about her past. But even then, he would probably only know what she told him.

  16. Austin Elliott says:

    A copy of a 1987 final DA’s Office and State Police report on the 1986 shooting has now appeared online. (associated with this article). Presumably this is not the same as the missing Braintree Police file, which would probably be original photos, contemporaneous officers’ reports, transcripts of interviews etc.

    Tributes to the murdered Faculty members have been appearing, e.g. here and here.

    The latter poster, an NIH staffer, says:

    “My own response to this tragic event is personal and not political and I don’t want what has been lost to be ignored in all the speculation about [Bishop].

    I was in graduate school at Indiana State University with Dr. Gopi K. Podila twenty-five years ago. He was a dedicated and talented scientist. He was also a warm and caring person with a great sense of humor…

    He has left a wife, daughters, mother, brother, and a large number of friends and colleagues who are mourning his death.”

    Which makes the point eloquently.

  17. Kristi Vogel says:

    Article about one of the victims, Dr. Adriel Johnson, in the Huntsville Times here.

  18. Austin Elliott says:

    And short pieces from the same paper on Dr Gopi Podila and Dr Maria Ragland Davis.

  19. Austin Elliott says:

    Article in a local paper from nearby Decatur, Tennessee featuring extended comments from a UoA Huntsville psychology professor who knew Bishop.

  20. Maxine Clarke says:

    Our ex-colleague and friend Chris Gunter is at Hudson Alpha (Huntsville) and has been writing a little about events at Twitter. She is @girlscientist who describes herself:

    “Geneticist, recovering Nature editor, buddhist, and single mom in Huntsville. Director of Research Affairs, HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology.”

    Well worth following her. (Anyway, not just because of this.)

  21. Maxine Clarke says:

    PS, Cecile has posted about this in the Women in science forum.

  22. Cecile M. Perrault says:

    Personally, I am curious as to how much of the madness is due to the mental instability of the person and how much is due to the stress of the tenure situation. Granted, not every rejected assistant professor decides to kill the chairman.

    Comments from the NYTimes articles that are apparently from the academic community are ranging from “need to eliminate the tenure position” to “need to find an alternative choice that would not put the candidates such a precarious state until they are 45”.

    There is much unknown in this case (oh, and apparently, about here are info about her NIH funding). And I suspect that we will never really know what happened. But in her place, I would be depressed too (tenure refused at 45, 4 kids to move again, a husband in a company attached to the research of the lab, finding a new position, starting a new lab, continuing the research for the grant due in 2011 ).

  23. Austin Elliott says:

    @Cecile: Presumably both play a role. But as you allude to, and as Drugmonkey commented over at Terra Sigillata:

    “[It] is tempting [to use the case to highlight the strains of scientific career progression and tenure review] because it is part of the picture. Sure, it takes a person who is not quite right in the first place to go to these lengths. Plenty more contested tenure denials out there and they do not end up in shooting tragedies.”

    I don’t suppose anyone would disagree that the US tenure system, with people dangling on tenterhooks into their mid-40s and even beyond, is clearly tremendously stressful. We are increasingly moving this way in the UK too, with Universities hiring lecturers later (average age starting first Faculty post – cf US “tenure track asst Prof” – somewhere towards the mid-30s at my institution), and having extended probationary periods (now up to 5 yrs in some places). Anecdotally, the recession is making it harder to get through probation, with people looking at having to have >1 single-PI grant over the probation yrs, >1 grant currently active, and good reviews for teaching to get past the probation hurdle. I certainly know people in UK Univs who are pushing 40, with families to support and mortgages to pay, and who are now faced with being let go if they do not make it past probation.

    @Maxine: thanks, I had spotted Chris Gunter’s Twitter Feed. I imagine that for her and the other people in Huntsville it is all way too raw to say anything much at present. Given that the scientific community there is presumably not all that big, the loss of several friends and colleagues at once, and in such an horrific way, must be very hard to process.

  24. Cecile M. Perrault says:

    Thanks Austin for the discussion. I feel that this precarity in academic sciences is becoming more and more common, and that it is a recent phenomenon. Around me, our PhD advisors did not face such a hurdle and are at a loss when it comes for advice to get and pass a tenure-track position. Having worked in the US, Canada and now Spain, I find that the situation is almost the same around the world, once you get out of the nepotistic institutions. I guess this case just highlights the stressful situation of scientific careers. However, I fail to see how the system is going the change. It is sad to think that the system will simply continue to abuse those who love enough science to want and make it a career.

  25. Austin Elliott says:

    Agree completely that things have changed and become much harder in the last 20 yrs or so.

    When I started in academia in the mid 80s there were plenty of Faculty in well-known British Universities (basically the Russell Group of research-intensives) who had been hired in the early to mid 70s onto “tenure track” straight off a PhD. In some places these PhDs were commonly in the same institution that went on to hire the person. I still have one or two senior colleagues who have been here since they arrived as 18 yr old undergraduates.

    I would have said that in those days (70s) in the UK, postdoctoral work would only have been necessary to “get aboard” at Oxbridge, Imperial or UCL, and sometimes not even there.

    By the time I was finishing my PhD (late 80s) a typical hire in the same Russell Group Univs would have done at least one 2-3 yr postdoc in a “name” lab. There were still occasional jobs where, if you fitted some particular need, you could be hired straight from a PhD, but not many.

    Nowadays the Russell Gp Univs are looking for a dozen or so high-quality papers, several as first AU, preferably some independent funding already won (e.g. a fellowship), and often a recent paper in one of the “glam rags” (Nature, Science, Cell etc.) as the latter two things are seen as the best predictor that the person will be able to win grants. This “portfolio” almost never comes with anything less than six yrs postdoc slog, and generally more than that.

    I freely admit I would never have got an academic post under the present system, and I feel quite sorry for those who are struggling against the “probation wall” in particular.

    PS An interesting discussion now in progress over at Abel Pharmboy’s Terra Sigillata blog focusses on perceived “collegiality” as a criterion for getting tenure. This is partly prompted by the article in the Decatur, Tenn newspaper that I linked earlier.

  26. Brian Derby says:

    This train of events is really scary. We have just had promotions/tenure review in my department – I was not involved so I am not bolting the door tonight. The case in question is clearly very sad but the nature of tenure is also a strange one. I am tenured (in the more limited UK sense) so I can pontificate. I would agree with Austin that tenure has become harder to achieve in the UK. I was hired in the late 80s and I did three post docs before I got my first position. I did not even consider the implications of tenure because I just assumed it would happen. Indeed then it was very rare to not get it after about 3 years and the big event was getting the first position.

    These days it would still be quite difficult to get rid of someone in the UK under our probation system (I think) because of UK employment law. The authorities are more likely to keep extending probation with the threat of eventual dismissal acting as the catalyst for someone to move of their own accord. However, this could be construed as “constructive dismissal” and challenged in the courts (as is happening in a few cases now).

    Tenure is probably outmoded in the current market led view of Universities. Whether that is a bad thing, I am not sure. After all, high school teachers do not have tenure and they do not fire staff for no cause. I suspect what will happen in the UK is that all posts will start off as teaching intensive and you will have the opportunity, by hard work, to progress to research posts. I hasten to add that that is not what I believe should happen, it is only where I see current pressures pushing us.

  27. Austin Elliott says:

    Yes, Brian is right that until pretty recently tenure/probation review was not a big thing in the UK. Getting the “tenure-track” job was the big hurdle, with completing probation more-or-less automatic. It is the last 5 or 6 years that has seen tenure becoming a real barrier. So in addition to getting the job having become far tougher, we now have the extra post-getting job hurdle of probation/tenure.

    I’m not sure we have had a case yet in my Dept of someone actually being “let go” post failing probation (see Brian’s comments above re. UK employment law). What I can say (having seen it up close in several of my colleagues) is that the people within a year or two of the probation/tenure review are under a hell of a lot of stress, and are wound pretty tight as a result.

    A personal note: I am sort of the opposite of Brian in a way, having been hired in the late 80s straight off a PhD into a tenure-track job – quite possibly one of the last people this happened to in the UK system. Like Brian I had absolutely no idea about tenure – indeed I remember being surprised to find that I was on “academic probation”, which I probably only heard about when the 2 or 3 yr mark came up and I was told that probation review was due. As far as I remember, in those days the Faculty Committee simply rubber-stamped on what the Head of Dept told them in a letter.

  28. Cecile M. Perrault says:

    thanks Brian and Austin for your insights. Your experiences are akin to the ones of my professors during my PhD. Therefore, most of us coming out felt very out of place once we realized what the career game really was all about. Personally, I was always aiming for the tenure-track position, but experiences from colleagues and some personal choices (I am a mother of one, wife of a scientist too) makes me think that the academic field might not be one for me. The sad thing is: I love to teach about biotechnologies, and I love training researchers. If the tenure track continues that way, universities will lose their soul and simply become a company. But then, will they install and enforce employees rights and benefits in the US (especially for grad students and postdocs) ?

  29. Maxine Clarke says:

    Female Science Professor has written a blog post on the subject in response to readers’ request. Her post starts:

    “Some readers want to know my take on the Amy Bishop Anderson tenure-denial mass murder, but I don’t think there is much here that speaks to any general academic issues, not even those related to the anxieties of tenure denial or the travails of a female science professor (and mother of four children) or the ‘pressure-cooker’ environment of biotechnology (about which I know nothing).

    I think this was the tragic action of an insane person.

    This has been my opinion since I first heard the news, and has only been strengthened as more details emerged.”

  30. Austin Elliott says:

    A quick round-up of some of the continuing news coverage and commentary, in case anyone hasn’t had enough.

    An online source of interesting coverage of the case, specifically from a university perspective, is the Chronicle of Higher Education. For instance here and here.
    It has been reported that Bishop and her husband met while they were undergrad students at Northeastern Univ in Boston, so before the time of her brother’s fatal shooting, which her husband described as “an absolute accident”. There have also been stories saying the investigation of the 1986 shooting is to be re-opened, see e.g. here, while those outside the family involved in the earlier events are starting to appear to tell their stories.

    Another Boston Globe story quotes the Bishops’ Boston neighbours from before the family’s move to Huntsville. Of course, as some blog comments have pointed out, recollections about someone who is the alleged perpetrator in something so shocking are inevitably subject to what one might politely call recall bias. In addition, different people’s recall biases (or “filters”, if you prefer), are bound to be different. For a sense of just how different the recollections can be, compare this story from yesterday’s Boston Herald with this one from today.

  31. Austin Elliott says:

    A further brief update: more eye-witness accounts of the attack from those in the room have started appearing, while some of the missing 1986 records from Boston have also shown up. Some American news outlets are now also reporting a 2002 incident where Dr Bishop was involved in a fight with another woman in a restaurant over a child seat. Charges were filed against Bishop, though they were later dropped.

    There is now a frequently updated Wikipedia page on the Huntsville shootings.

    The Guardian carried an article yesterday on the case, and how it is being reported, written by a columnist in Boston. There is an interesting comment in the subsequent thread by someone who worked with Bishop.

  32. Austin Elliott says:

    Not related specifically to the Huntsville case, but a good blog post about “how not to be an *#!! as a colleague”, especially if you have joined the permanent faculty:

    Don’t be a jerk

    PS I shall give up on single-handedly keeping my own comments thread going soon. Honest.

  33. Kristi Vogel says:

    @ Austin: I don’t think this has been mentioned in any of your links so far, but one of Bishop’s recent publications is in a vanity journal, and her daughters are the first three authors.

    From the first few hours after the event, a succession of “explanations” for Bishop’s premeditated murderous rampage has appeared in the media, and honestly, I’m very uncomfortable with most of them: medications for depression, Asperger’s syndrome, thwarted/misunderstood intellectual brilliance, and even (bizarrely) Dungeons and Dragons. What about narcissistic personality disorder? That’s been mentioned a few times by commenters at the Terra Sig and DrugMonkey blogs, but not, to my knowledge, in the traditional media. Just about everything that’s appeared about Bishop over the past few days is consistent with pathological narcissism. And, true to type, narcissists are not likely to seek out psychiatric counseling, because there’s nothing wrong with them, and the problem lies with others.

  34. Åsa Karlström says:

    Kristi: that article seems to be a family affair. Wow, I didn’t know you could do that. I mean, it never occurred to me before – your children and spouse… and you.

    DoD is blamed for lots of things. Back in the days there was a big huha about the roleplaying games and their impact on youth.. (especially when some youth are found guilty of horrendous crime). Come to think of it, isn’t it like the “video games made him/her do it”?

    Mentally ill people are not always on par with seeking help, like you said especially not narcissistic ones. (nor manics. In general, manics are considered cool and very creative too so they might not fit the stereotypical image for “mentally in need of help”.)

  35. Alejandro Correa says:

    It is simply *the losers* react that way, they are envious, no are happy, no disease is involved.
    *Are only losers*

  36. Austin Elliott says:

    Hi Kristi

    You beat me to it with the article link; I was meaning to put up a link to this blog which discusses it. The whole thing looks hinky, though I suppose it is just possible that at least some the kids may have done Summer jobs in the lab. I know one famous Professor whose two sons had both co-authored multiple papers before they were 17 years old by this route (one went on to be a notable scientist). But three children, some of whom can’t be all that old, stretches the credulity.

    As to the explanations that have been advanced, agree some of them are bizarre, and you haven’t even mentioned the “she was a socialist Obama-freak” one that has appeared on some of the crazier right wing blogs. The Dungeons and Dragons thing was particularly surreal. Of course, some of these ideas are clearly filtered through people’s own obsessions, like the “SSRIs made her do it” meme. The Asperger line has a bit more plausibility, to my way of thinking, at least in terms of what we have been told about Bishop’s personality; but Aspergerist tendencies do not turn someone into a mass killer, so “nerdiness” is no closer to an explanation.

    Personally I find it impossible to see how you can make a pattern of what has emerged without thinking in terms of some kind of personality disorder – though, to be fair, many of the individual traits or episodes reported can be explained or rationalised in other ways. I suspect a lot of people commenting on blogs have probably reached the same overall explanation, but often simply don’t say it flat out. The mainstream media could be deterred from saying it in blunt terms by considerations of sub judice (in effect) or possible lawsuit. And real experts on abnormal psychology may be loathe to comment because professional codes strongly discourage comment on individual cases. There is an article here which articulates the same frustration you do about the media discussion often emphasising either “triggers” or wacky theories, without getting to the more obvious ideas about personality disorder and underlying rage.

    The point you and Åsa made about people with personality disorders not seeking treatment (or wanting it) is a relevant one. And whether personality disorders are treatable is highly debatable anyway. Of course, people with personality disorders can have other “co-morbid” things that may be treatable, like depressive disorders. But even getting them to seek treatment for that would likely be extremely difficult.

    Re what was going on in the Huntsville Department, Margaret Soltan is an American academic (English Professor) who runs a pretty outspoken blog called University Diaries. She now has a whole category on Bishop, in which this post particularly caught my eye.

    Sadly, as we were noting earlier, no workplace is inherently devoid of disturbed people. There is an interesting (thought rather depressing) article which talks about this here.

  37. Alejandro Correa says:

    I do not understand, for that so much morbidity in this case. Very much morbid.
    I’m thinking it’s for rating.

  38. Alejandro Correa says:

    *Morbidity* is a serious psychiatric illness.

  39. Alejandro Correa says:

    *Morbidity Person*: is a person who is obsessively attracted so unpleasant, cruel, forbidden.Devotion to the hurtful and disturbing. Faculty which is a rare pleasure or satisfaction that is the human being to contemplate or imagine unpleasant situations or circumstances, dramatic, impressionable, dire and terrifying.

  40. Austin Elliott says:

    Oh dear. Even for me, that last comment of mine was an Epically Verbose way of saying:

    “Yes Kristi, I agree”.


  41. Kristi Vogel says:

    No worries, Austin – I appreciate your insights and analyses, and enjoy reading them. I hadn’t thought about the reasons for the reluctance of psychologists/psychiatrists to offer diagnoses, but what you wrote makes perfect sense.

    The speculative diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome disturbs me more than any of the other mainstream media rationalizations for this horrific event. Although IANAP, I would offer this counterargument: convincing dishonesty is definitely not a strong suit for anyone with Asperger’s whom I’ve known or worked with, and from many accounts, Bishop was a prodigious liar. OTOH, prolific and convincing grandiose dishonesty is a major component of NPD. My own perspective, as a non-expert with no formal training in psychology [/disclaimer], is that narcissism occurs with a not insignificant frequency in academia, and that some aspects of US society in general actually foster narcissism. Some media pundits, as well as fellow academicians, may be reluctant to admit that character traits that they might have themselves, could, in extreme pathological and (hopefully rare) manifestations, contribute to a murderous rampage. Much easier to blame it on disorders that other people have.

  42. Austin Elliott says:

    Interesting point on Asperger’s and dishonesty, Kristi – hadn’t thought of that.

    Re the prevalence of personality disorders, inc. NPD, in “mainstream” society, this study involving high flying senior business executives got a fair amount of publicity a few years back (seems to be free full text access). It is discussed briefly at the bottom of the Wikipedia page on personality disorders.

  43. Richard Wintle says:

    I apologize if someone said this already, but even though there’s an ideological divide about guns that roughly parallels the US-Canada border, I don’t subscribe to the often-cited idea that “these things happen in the US because they all have guns”.

    While we don’t have the same constitutional amendments and such that at least appear to make it (relatively) easy for Americans to purchase firearms, the truth is that even in a gun-restrictive country like Canada, those that really wish to obtain guns and use them to perpetrate these kinds of sickening acts can do so. One need not look farther than Concordia University in Montreal for a disturbingly similar event in 1992.

    And I definitely don’t subscribe to the contrary view that if the rest of the room had been armed, fewer people would have died. I have no idea how anybody can think that makes sense.

  44. Richard Wintle says:

    Pardon me – that link was to another tragic shooting incident at the Ecole Polytechnique (wrong link pasted, sorry).

    Concordia University massacre – another professor, another tenure review.

  45. Austin Elliott says:

    I hadn’t come across the Concordia University massacre, Richard – thanks for the link. It does seem eerily similar to the Huntsville one in all sorts of ways.

    Via the Wikipedia page on the Concordia shootings, I came across this essay about the perpetrator, Valery Fabrikant, by Canadian journalist Morris Wolfe. It is a long article, but here is a bit of the early part, which deals with the deliberations on whether Fabrikant was mentally fit to stand trial:

    “The two court-appointed psychiatrists declared him fit; Fabrikant wasn’t psychotic, they said, and, generally speaking, he wasn’t out of touch with reality. But there was no doubt that he suffered from a severe personality disorder that greatly affected his interactions with others. He saw threats and persecution everywhere. That made him rigid and unable to put himself in doubt about anything. His narcissism made him insensitive to everyone around him.”

    Wikipedia also links to a book about workplace shooting cases which analysed the Fabrikant case.

  46. Åsa Karlström says:

    Austin> I think the psychiatrists nailed the problem there… with certain personality disorders and the paranoia, not to mention the “insensitivity to others”.

    For some, there would be the inability of making a connection between why they didn’t get something and like a child “take it from someone else” since they “deserve” it. I’ve read some research about this and the frontal cortex where emotions are stored and the problems that can arise from it.

    When you think about it more, I get more distressed since it is clear that there are many possibilities of violence in the work place…

  47. Kristi Vogel says:

    “she was a socialist Obama-freak”

    Currently in the US, “socialist” is a term routinely applied to any educated, upper middle class white person who voted for Obama and who thinks the Tea Party movement is ridiculous. In the ‘Aughts prior to November 2008, “socialist” in the US meant you were an educated, upper middle class white person who drove a non-SUV and shopped at Whole Foods. IOW, the term, as applied in the US, has little or no relationship to its origins in economics and politics. In some blogospheric and RL circles, it is trendy to self-identify as a socialist, but few, if any, of those claimants is actually walking the walk. They benefit, like most of us, from a free-market economy; take it away (as is required in a socialist system), and they might have to admit how privileged they are in a capitalist system.

    And then they’d call the WAAAHHHHmbulance. 😉

  48. Austin Elliott says:

    Yes, I always laugh when I hear the word “socialist” used in American political rants or pissing contests, precisely because it is so wholly unrelated to the actual political meaning of socialism – at least as widely understood outside the US.

    It also makes me think of the way “liberal” became a kind of pejorative in the States due to its repeat use by the right, the rant bloggers and the shock jocks (not to mention Fox News). Of course, the “L-word” had been used that way easily as far back as the Nixon Administration, but it has become so ubiquitous as a sneer (possibly since 9/11..?) that it is guaranteed to induce eye-rolling in any US-resident European.

  49. Alejandro Correa says:

    Surprise me so much wisdom!

  50. Kristi Vogel says:

    Razib at Gene Expression has the latest links. Bishop claims that she and her husband have IQs of 180+, and that she can’t remember anything about the shootings. Also, she didn’t just run out of the house with the shotgun after killing her brother – she ran to a nearby auto dealership and demanded that the salesman give her a car. For most of us < 180 IQ schlubs here in the US, that action would earn us a charge of attempted armed robbery. The NYT articles have all the details.

  51. Maxine Clarke says:

    I just read a post at Richard Poynder’s Open and Shut, “Open Access linked to Alabama shooting”. A bizarre story. Worth reading.

  52. Alejandro Correa says:

    Really Maxine, is a bizarre and sad story.

  53. Austin Elliott says:

    Just alerted by Terra Sigillata that Dr Bishop has been charged for the 1986 murder of her brother in Boston (coverage from

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