Biology professor allegedly involved in shooting

Suspect in UAH shooting - credit Huntsville Times, Dave Dieter

News broke this afternoon that there was a shooting at the University of Alabama in Huntsville’s Shelby Hall. It took me a while to find that this is (among other things) the home of UAH’s chemistry department. While CNN hasn’t filled in the details, the Huntsville Times already has reported that biology Professor Amy Bishop was taken into custody and her husband has been detained for the deaths of 3 faculty members and the wounding of 3 others.

While stunning and tragic, this would not have rated a post except for the alleged reason for the shooting: denial of tenure. According to the New York Times:

WAFF, the NBC affiliate in Huntsville, quoted university officials as saying the professor began shooting after learning at the faculty meeting that she was being denied tenure…

Dr. Bishop had told acquaintances recently that she was worried about getting tenure, said a business associate who met her at a business technology open house at the end of January and asked not to be named because of the close-knit nature of the science community in Huntsville. “She began to talk about her problems getting tenure in a very forceful and animated way, saying it was unfair,” the associate said, referring to a conversation in which she blamed specific colleagues for her problems.

Wow. Denial of tenure must be crushing for an assistant professor, especially since the process must seem protracted, random and unfair (at times). The really surprising detail is that (allegedly) she brought a gun; that’s an indication of a willingness to use violence and a certain level of forethought as to the potential outcome of the meeting. (CORRECTED: see update below.) Academic science is high pressure indeed.

My (our) thoughts are with the families of the victims.

UPDATE: From the AP:

University spokesman Ray Garner said Saturday that the professor, Amy Bishop, had been informed months ago that she would not be granted tenure. He said the faculty meeting where she is accused of gunning down colleagues was not called to discuss tenure.


  1. This is way too soon, but I thought it would be interesting to add some metrics because I’m a scientist and I can’t stop myself from doing these kinds of horrible things. But as days go by this data will become biased.

    Data From RateMyProfessor

    Name (Department): Overall Quality out of a maximum value of 5 (sample size)

    Amy Bishop (Biology, alleged shooter): 3.6 (34)
    G. K. Podila (Biology chairman, deceased victim): none (0)
    Maria Davis (Biology, deceased victim): 2.5 (40)
    Adriel Johnson (Biology, deceased victim): 2.0 (12)
    Luis Rogelio Cruz-Vera (Biology, victim): 3.0 (2)
    J Leahy (Biology, victim) 4.0 (7)

    From the skewered view of students who use she was the 2nd best overall teacher out of the victims she shot. Although Leahy’s sample size isn’t as large as Bishop’s, and the other professors in the room appear to not have as much classroom contact with the new generation of students.

  2. So this story gets weirder: apparently the professor shot and killed her brother either accidentally (during the unloading of a shotgun) or on purpose (during an argument) twenty years ago.

    If you knew that about her, I don’t think you’d go out of your way to make her angry. Huh.

  3. Do tenure committes do a criminal records search? They will now.

  4. In fairness to the committee, they probably did a background check when hiring her, and ignored the previous accusation since she was never charged.

    On the other hand, I’d like to believe this person was showing signs of mental instability before actually snapping hard enough to start shooting people. Think we’ll get the retrospective warning signs interviews soon?

    Reading the comments on the NYT story … I’m horrified at some people’s support / ‘understanding’ of her feelings.

  5. From the Huffington Post, the subject of the meeting was about her tenure status as related by the husband of one of the victims.

    “Sammie Lee Davis said his wife, Maria Ragland Davis, was a researcher who had tenure at the university.

    In a brief phone interview, he said he was told his wife was at a meeting to discuss the tenure status of another faculty member who got angry and started shooting.

    He said his wife had mentioned the shooter before, describing the woman as “not being able to deal with reality” and “not as good as she thought she was.””

  6. @Verpa: That’s not the only online forum that I’ve read where folks in academia have expressed levels of understanding for her feelings. Interesting phenomenon, isn’t it?

    Even more details about the shooting:

    “On Friday, she presided over her regular anatomy and neurosciences class before going to an afternoon faculty meeting on the third floor of the Shelby Center for Science and Technology.

    There she sat quietly for about 30 or 40 minutes, said one faculty member who had spoken to some of the dozen people who were in the room. Then Dr. Bishop pulled out a 9-millimeter handgun and began shooting, firing several rounds, the police said. At least one person in the room tried to stop her and prevent further bloodshed, said Sgt. Mark Roberts of the Huntsville Police Department.

    Dr. Bishop stopped shooting when the gun either jammed or ran out of ammunition, the faculty member said…

    Mr. Garner said Dr. Bishop, who arrived in the 2003-4 academic year, was first told last spring that she had been denied tenure. If a tenure-track professor is not granted tenure after six years, the university will no longer employ them, Mr. Garner said. This would have been the final semester of Dr. Bishop’s sixth year.

    The university does have an appeals process, and people who knew Dr. Bishop said she had appealed the decision.”

  7. the politics in academia is sick and needs wholesale reform.

  8. As an outsider to US academia I’ve always thought the tenure system is a bizarre way to recruit and staff a University Department. You have to work like a dog and conform for 5-6 years to then get a job for life so that you can then sit on your arse doing sod all or explore the flat earth theory or any other bit of bullshit just as long as you don’t ask you students to sleep with you for better grades.

  9. @DrCMS and @Philonossis

    Your vitriol is part of what’s weirding me out about this whole thing. A crazy lady shot people because she didn’t get what she *wanted* … why is this turning into a referendum on the tenure system? If she’d gone into a bank, been denied a loan for her start-up, and shot the place to hell, would you be blaming the banking system?

    Is this all because if we can’t blame something … anything … for her actions, we’d have to accept that apparently normal people can snap like this?

    Not saying the tenure process isn’t broken, but rationally, that’s not the conversation we should be having over this.

  10. Aaaand it gets weirder still:

    The professor who is accused of killing three colleagues at the University of Alabama on Friday was a suspect in the attempted mail bombing of a Harvard Medical School professor in 1993, a law enforcement official said today.

    Amy Bishop and her husband, James Anderson, were questioned after a package containing two bombs was sent to the Newton home of Dr. Paul Rosenberg, a professor and doctor at Boston’s Children’s Hospital.


    A law enforcement official said today that the investigation by the US Postal Service and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms focused on Bishop, a Harvard postdoctoral fellow who was working in the human biochemstry lab at Children’s Hospital at the time, and her husband, Anderson.

  11. I wonder who she tried/did kill during her graduate and undergraduate work?

  12. A well-written example of the “I do not condone Bishop’s actions, but I understand the pressures of academia” posts floating out there and an excerpt:

    I’m not implying that tragedies like this can be eliminated; the bomber will always get through, after all. Someone who is a stone-cold lunatic can commit acts of violence despite the best preventive measures. That said, a better understanding of the stakes and potential flash points can reduce the odds significantly. Tenure denial is psychologically and professionally devastating. Combine that with the tendency of academics to be a little weird and antisocial to begin with and the recipe for disaster exists. Yet taking the basic, low-cost steps I’ve described here could make the process so much smoother. Like a death or divorce, tenure denial might feel like the end of the world to an academic, so every reasonable effort must be taken to emphasize that life, not to mention one’s career, can go on. If UAH recognized that Amy Bishop was a problem – and certainly some of her colleagues must have come to that conclusion – it is in all of our interest, professionally and personally, to create a system that deals with such problems before they reach this point.

  13. The argument of stress goes out the window when there is a history of killing everyone in your way.

  14. More weirdness … now we’re blaming Asperger:

    I don’t really buy that, as she would have had worse reviews from students if she were on the spectrum, from personal experience students tend to get freaked out if you drop into a perseveration loop.

  15. @Verpa apparently they did not do a background check.

    “In fact, we know now that had we done a criminal background check, which is certainly uncommon in academic hiring,” he said, “the actions that had been revealed most recently would not have shown up in such a check.”


    Also from that story an account of the attack.

    The shooting erupted about an hour into the meeting when a dozen people were sitting at a round table. Moriarity was looking at some papers when Bishop stood and fired a shot at the person closest to her. When she looked up, the chairman of the department Gopi K. Podila had been shot in the head and Bishop was firing a second round at the person sitting next to Podila, Adriel D. Johnson Sr., Moriarity said.

    Bishop was going down the line, shooting each person in the head, although the sixth person was shot in the chest, she told the magazine.

    Moriarity and others who were sitting on the side of the table furthest from Bishop “dropped to the floor,” according to survivor Joseph Ng, who described the incident to a friend in an e-mail.

    Moriarity said crawled across the floor under the table to Bishop. “I was thinking ‘Oh, my God, this has to stop,” she said.

    The professor said she pulled and then pushed on Bishop’s leg, yelling, “I have helped you before, I can help you again!”

    Bishop pulled her leg away from Moriarity’s grip and kept shooting, she said. Moriarity crawled past Bishop and partly into the hallway when she said Bishop turned towards her friend, the gun gripped with both hands and a look of fury on her face.

    “Intense eyes, a set jaw,” Moriarity told the Chronicle. As Moriarity, still on her hands and knees, looked up helplessly at her one-time friend, Bishop pulled the trigger. Click. She fired again. Click.

    As Bishop stopped to reload, Moriarity and the others pushed Bishop out of the room and quickly barricaded the door with a table so Bishop couldn’t reenter the room and resume shooting.

    “Moriarity was probably the one that saved our lives. She was the one that initiated the rush,” Ng told the Associated Press. “It took a lot of guts to just go up to her.”

  16. The source article for the account of Professor Moriarity is here. It makes for gripping, if not pleasant, reading:

    She’s pretty heroic.

  17. Christian Science monitor weighs in:

    “And police say charges were, in fact, filed against Bishop in 2002 after she punched another woman at a Massachusetts fast-food restaurant in a scuffle over a booster seat. She received probation and was ordered to take anger-management classes.”

    “We wouldn’t expect a woman to even know how to use a shotgun in order to kill her brother, so we turn our backs to the possibility that women could commit such hideous acts of violence,” says Levin. “I think that’s part of it.”

    I thought the (?pro/anti?) gender angle came out of no-where in that article.

  18. I will assume he means statistically.

  19. I really dislike the term “teachable moment”. That being said, whatever teachability this moment may have had about tenure or the stresses of academia have been leached out by the steady drumbeat of new instances of violence by Dr. Bishop.

    It’s a “look at this CRAAAAZY person” story now.

  20. Pingback: A bit of non-chemistry levity « Loose Morels

  21. Sorry to reopen a mostly closed thread, but for future readers, an apropos article from the NYT:
    “Amy Bishop […] a symbol for those who think […] that tenure systems in universities are brutalizing — or even that progress against fatal diseases is so important that someone like Dr. Bishop should be set free to pursue cures.”

  22. Leigh Beshears says:

    The above statement is ridiculous. You believe that a college not granting tenure justifies, in any way, shape or form, what she did? If the tenure process is too harsh , get into another career. Better yet, do away with tenure altogether. Perform, you have a job. Don’t perform, you don’t. Let her go free because of the importance of her research? Years ago people felt the rich were entitled to special privileges; now the super intelligent, no matter how deranged, should? I am from Huntsville. From what I gather from student comments, she may have been brilliant, but she was not an effective teacher. I send my children to college to learn. Not simply to be in the presence of geniuses. UAH had high hopes for Ms. Bishop. The fact that they chose not to give her tenure probably means someone had good instinct. Based on all that has come out, Amy Bishop does not react well to not getting her way. While she may have been an atheist, or evolutionist, Ms. Bishop did believe in God. She thought it was her. Give her a pen and paper, or a laptop, and let her brain “pursue” her research, but keep her body locked up.

  23. Joseph Martinez says:

    The gun law should be stringent enough to reduce the criminal activities in the country significantly. Apart from that, the national background check system should be strong and the background check reports must be accurate while complying to the local and federal background checks. The shooting case should be investigated properly for the transparent decision. Moreover, whoever applies for legal possession of firearms must be background checked completely for the safety of the cities.

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