Alabama shooting spree raises concerns over screening process for professors

Last month’s shooting spree by a professor at the University of Alabama in Huntsville campus has raised concerns over whether professors can be properly screened before they are hired.

Candidates for jobs at TCU sign a release form giving permission to run a background check, which is administered by Abso, a human resource software and service company, said Jacqulyn Curry, human resources employment coordinator. Previous employment dating back to seven years is checked as well.

Ellen Broom, a lecturer in the psychology department at TCU, said people with a higher IQ, such as professors, tend to think more “outside the box” and can exhibit different interests and behaviors.

“Of course it’s going to lead to eccentric behavior,” Broom said. “Certainly because they are working on a different level than the typical person.”

Broom also said it is hard to decipher what is strange or erratic behavior, especially if Amy Bishop, the UAH biology professor who went on a shooting spree in February, has a disorder such as paranoid schizophrenia or Asperger’s, a milder form of autism.

“What may be atypical for you or me might not be atypical for someone else,” Broom said.

However, faculty like Bishop are the exception and not the norm, said Elizabeth Taylor, associate dean of undergraduate studies at the College of Education. Taylor said she believes the incident at UAH was unusual, and if Bishop’s previous actions had been on record, the university could have caught her indiscretions.

Bishop shot six faculty members at her university in February after her application for academic tenure was denied. According to The New York Times, she also fatally shot her brother in 1986, but the case was dismissed as an accident and she was never charged. In 1993, Bishop and her husband were also questioned in the attempted mailed bombing of a Harvard University colleague but were not charged. In 2002, one year before she joined UAH, Bishop was charged with assault after punching a woman at an International House of Pancakes in Massachusetts, according to The New York Times.

Broom said she believes Bishop had a volatile history based on information from Bishop’s colleagues, but that wouldn’t have shown up in the background check or hiring process at the university. Signs of unpredictable or violent behavior are not necessarily tested at universities, but may be in other occupations such as the FBI or jobs that require handling weaponry or chemicals.

Amna Alzghari, a junior biology major, said her professors care a lot about their students and she has never seen her professors act unruly.

“Professors are so understanding here,” Alzghari said. “They wouldn’t get into a rage like in Alabama.”

But according to ratemyprofessors.com, Bishop had mostly positive reviews from Web site users who had taken a class with her.

When searching for a candidate in the sociology and anthropology department, Morrison Wong, chairman of the department, said he’s looking for the best qualified person. The candidate goes through rigorous meetings, interviews and presentations to re-affirm the candidate is the right fit. Wong said he also reaches out to the candidate’s colleagues for the “inside scoop,” but the departments don’t perform background checks because the university administers them.