Character Lessons: What We Can Learn From the Huntsville Killings

Peter Wood

The murders last Friday of Professors Gopi Podila, Adriel D. Johnson, Sr., and Maria Ragland Davis and the severe wounding of two other professors and a department administrator at the University of Alabama at Huntsville defy logic and reason.  The killer, assistant professor Amy Bishop, appears to have planned the killings well in advance, practicing at a shooting range and borrowing a gun.  She was angry over being denied tenure, but Professor Bishop was also a successful researcher with a promising start-up company and a supportive family.   Yet one hour into a routine faculty meeting, she took out the gun and, according to a witness, methodically began to shoot her colleagues one by one through the head.  She apparently would have killed more were it not for Professor Debra Moriarity, who shoved Bishop out of the room as she tried to reload, and blocked the door. 

The evil that men do is always astonishing; but it is a little more astonishing to see the gratuitous violence from a highly intelligent, well-educated woman.  It is all the stranger to read of Dr. Bishop’s concern for her children; her husband told the Chronicle of Higher Education that when he spoke to her after her arrest she wanted to know whether they had done their homework.  She seems a mix of ordinary human warmth and ghastly coldness.  The strangeness has called forth speculations.  We now know that she shot and killed her brother in 1986 in a Boston suburb and skated away without much investigation, let alone an indictment.  And she was questioned in a case in which a pipe bomb (that didn’t explode) was sent to a senior colleague at Harvard, whose views about her research apparently troubled her.  The investigation was inconclusive; she wasn’t charged.

So perhaps there was a long-nurtured seed of homicide in this brilliant biochemist—a heedlessness toward human life and arrogance about her own place in the scheme of things.  Another  line of speculation dwells on her choice of victims.  Professor Podila was East Indian; Professors Johnson and Davis were black.  One of the three wounded individuals, Professor Luis Rogelio Criz-Vera, was also black.  Did Dr. Bishop have a racial motive?   She nearly eliminated the racial diversity from her fourteen member Department of Biology.  Moreover, she had been denied tenure on the basis of her thin record of publication, and one of the victims, Professor Johnson, had received tenure on the basis of a publication record no better than hers.   Thus there is a possibility of a kind of “diversity rage” at unfair treatment.  Ironically, the first person she shot, Professor Podila, who was the department chairman, supported her tenure bid.  Did she know that?

The Chronicle of Higher Education has given the story saturation coverage and posted numerous comments from readers who debate whether she killed because it was in her character to kill, because of racial animus, because she was somehow unhinged by the outcome of her tenure application, or because she was responding to “the oppression female students have to face.”  No, really?

We will know more in time and there seems no pressing need right now to come to a conclusion about Dr. Bishop’s motives.  We can, however, reflect on some of the circumstances. The university as an institution draws more than its share of troubled individuals. And the mad scientist of the B movie archive has a certain ring of truth.  Brilliance unmoored from felt humanity, grandiosity of ambition adrift from moral community are not the rule in university science labs, but that volatile mix isn’t just the plot line of Dr. Faustus or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  It may well be that the tenure committee at the University of Alabama at Huntsville correctly spotted Dr. Bishop’s overweening and destructive pride. Tenure reviews, being such high-stakes, all-or-nothing moments at the culmination of years of graduate study, post-docs, and probationary appointment are often psychologically grueling for even the best qualified and most psychologically grounded candidates. They are a very poor place to put odd-ball egomaniacs. And Dr. Bishop is not the first of them to pull out a gun. 

A few years ago, in Homicides in Higher Education:  Some Reflections on the Moral Mission of the University (Academic Questions, Vol. 20, No, 4, Fall 2007), I tracked through a decade of killings by individuals with academic motives.  One shot his thesis advisor because he had burdened the killer with “extraneous assignments.”  Another killed five people including three of his professors because he lost out to another student for a prize for best dissertation.  Most of the killings and attempted murders are committed by graduate students, but professors too sometimes kill. Among the more notorious cases was Valery Fabrikant, a faculty member at ConcordiaUniversity in Montreal who, after being denied tenure and promotion in 1992, went to the engineering school and tracked down and killed four faculty members.  Professor Fabrikant defended himself at trial by saying that he had been “provoked into the killings” by the way the University handled his tenure application. 

“Higher” education is not much of a barrier against jealousy, disappointment, fantasies of revenge, or even blood hatred.  I hear stories in confidence from time to time from frustrated and angry academics who are filled with self-pity about the treatment they have received.   Often enough their grievances are real.  It would be a good thing if universities still had at their center a sense that higher education really does demand of us something higher—something morally as well as intellectually higher.  Standards of good character these days are seldom in the forefront of how we think about academic careers or the role that faculty members are called to play in the lives of their students.  Or if such standards are voiced, they tend to be reduced to the taboo on “sexual harassment.”  It is hard to find any other cause of action by universities these days, apart from outright embezzlement or some other form of financial misdoing. But this is a pretty shallow concept of good character. 

If we were serious about this sort of thing, we would need to cultivate in ourselves and in each other some resistance to that feeling of empowering anger that makes out of disappointment the stuff of wrath.  Academics, of course, are not the only ones who need to be rescued from self-indulgent anger. That emotional reflex has become, as I wrote inA Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now, an unhappy part of our national character. It seldom, thank God, finds a personality as ruinous as Dr. Bishop’s, but it flourishes in lesser ways all around us. The university ought to be a place that calls it out and demands better from students and faculty.  Perhaps the tragedy in Huntsville will make us a little more attentive to shaping the character, not just the ability, of intellectually gifted individuals.    

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