Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The world is a strange place.

The more I hear about the Amy Bishop story, the more bizarre it becomes. (For example, she allegedly punched a waitress at an IHOP. Because she didn't get a child booster seat for one of her kids.)

I'm going to go ahead and opine, a bit, even though I admit I cringe sometimes when people do this.

This is a woman who should not have been in a university post. She was dangerously unhinged. There was a pattern of past behavior- always, apparently, covered up in some way - that suggests she was someone who was at least sociopathic.

(I wonder how much of the covering-up was "She's a Ph.D. from Harvard!" Apparently she used that line a lot, after slapping someone or threatening someone. And look: I have a Ph.D. I value my Ph.D. But it is NOT a weapon to use against others, or something that magically gives you entitlement to the best seat in a restaurant or what you want. And to me, people pulling that crap devalue the Ph.D. for the rest of us.)

I'm not sure what universities can do to protect themselves against people with this kind of lack of conscience or morals (and I do think it's a lack - anyone who can shoot innocent people in cold blood as she apparently did, has to be missing something). Maybe background checks? Some profs I've mentioned this to are horrified by this and trot out the, "Oh, no, what if they were arrested at a protest when they were in college? What if they drank a little when they were underage? You need to protect people from being unduly harmed by their past mistakes!"

Yeah, great. But I'd also like to have a little protection from a nutjob who views me as an obstacle best taken out so she can get her way. I think it's possible to look at someone's record and go, "Oh, they were caught with an open beer in public when they were 18" versus "This person has had the police called out to their house five separate times on domestic violence calls"

(Though then again: I don't know how much of what's now coming out about the shooter would show up on a background check, seeing as she seemed always to get off without being charged.)

Most other careers require a background check. Heck, I had to have a background check to work with the youth group at my church!

Seriously: if my 75 year old father, who is essentially disabled because of severe osteoarthritis, has to take off his damn SHOES at an airport before he flies, just to they can be "sure" he's not a terrorist, shouldn't university search committees have some access to people's pasts?

(I've served on several search committees. We don't. Mostly what we get is the candidate-supplied information. And there's a lot of stuff we're not allowed to ask. For example, if there's a gap in employment - we can't ask why. Oh, maybe it was that it was a parent who took time off to raise kids - well and good. Or maybe it was someone who went back for more education (though that would show up somewhere else). Or it was someone who took time off from working to care for an aged parent. Or it could be that the person was unable to work - under house arrest, for example. But we aren't given that information - or at least, never have been - unless the person volunteers it. (though if it is a woman who stayed home to raise her kids to school age, she almost ALWAYS mentions that). But I wonder at times - it seems like it would be possible for someone with a prison record, whether for continued DUIs, or for domestic violence, or for theft - could slip through and possibly be hired. And while people can and do reform, and you don't want to automatically penalize someone for past mistakes...still. I would not want to have my office next door to someone with a pattern of violent past behavior.)

I don't KNOW that any of our applicants have ever been convicted of a crime. And I don't KNOW if we'd even be allowed to know. And while I don't care about someone's ethnic background or marital status or sexual orientation or age, I would care if they were someone who had been violent or abusive.

I don't know. I tend to be against the giving up of yet more freedoms. But there has to be a point where a university hiring committee can and should know, "Hey, this person has a record of getting violent when they don't get their way. They may turn out to be a bully. Or they may turn out to be worse." University departments tend to be small enough and "tight" enough that even someone who is merely a bully in the verbally-abusive sense can make other people miserable - and could easily lead to the departure of folks who can pick up a career elsewhere (i.e., the really talented people in the department). I've heard of it happening.

I don't know. This is something very sad and I'd like to be able to say it's something that won't happen again. But I fear that it will.

It's very hard to balance the protection of the individual (from not being unfairly denied employment) against the protection of other individuals (from not being attacked or killed by a co-worker who has lost it).

I don't know. I guess I can say I'm glad I'm not the one who has to decide.

1 comment:

Sheila O'Malley said...

My dear friend from childhood Glenda - who was a professor - was murdered by a TA who had become obsessed with her, stalking with her. It was highly documented - she had complained about him - and when he got a job at the same university as she, she did what she could to get the university to intervene. This was obviously a man with severe mental problems. Her death was horrifying, the worst and most violent possible scenario you could imagine. The questions that came up (from Joanne Jacobs and others) was: how was this clearly psychotic person with a history of this sort of behavior "cleared" as an employee? There was disconnect in the hiring process, and Glenda paid the ultimate price. I'm pissed off about it to this day.