Academic Life Can Be Murder — Literally


My second remunerated employment in my entire lifetime — I was pushing all of eighteen — brought me to the emergency room of a Harvard University Teaching Hospital, where I was the lackey who checked the pockets of near-corpses to see if they contained insurance cards.  In case you are interested, my first paid job was a summer at the Boston Public Library.  Their cards were somewhat less valuable to the holder.

At the ER, I occasionally made attempts to speak with physicians. But since hospitals are socially stratified institutions where most people who have the lackey job never ascend to anything else, people laughed at me when I said I was going to become a physician.

The Pen Is Mightier Than The Sword

I was so desperate for a modicum of respect that I actually told some people my father (of blessed memory) had been a Harvard man.  They then asked about his degree, and laughed when they heard it was in music.  It was in this environment that I overheard a conversation in the doctors’ lounge that I knew then I would never forget.  Many of the physicians there wanted some kind of fame and fortune that made I couldn’t understand.  They wanted to publish a lot of papers and get a lot of research grants and some kind of fame and power that made no sense to me at all.  At Harvard, they said, it was very clear that politics and personal relations and such were instrumental in attaining such power, which the resident inhabitants of that lounge longed for but did not think they could expect.  The solution to their yearning was to change universities.  They said there were universities that wanted to improve their public image, and would hire Harvard people because of the prestige, and they could do any kind of research they wanted.  One of their objectives was something called “tenure.”  I knew the word meant “holding” and some kind of permanency.  I asked my father about it, as he knew this world, even if only from the music point of view.

I believe tenure to be a sort of enforced laziness.  People who produce a certain amount of writing and research (and possess whatever interpersonal qualities are required) are assured of a permanent job until retirement or death and they simply do not have to work anymore.  At the time, I thought this was so dull a state of affairs that I would never go for it.  Or if I were somehow condemned to it, that I would use it the way some people use celebrity — using medicine to Save the World.  I do remember hearing back then of one female researcher, doing something in cardiology or internal medicine, who was so convinced she had been blocked in the Harvard system that she moved to … the University of Alabama.

Moving from Cambridge, MA to anywhere in Alabama was viewed as a sacrifice beyond words.  I remember one administrator, who claimed to having dated her, made sure the staff knew he had received enough communication to know that she was really happy, because she could do whatever research she thought was important.  That was over thirty years ago.  As I entered academia on the bottom rung as a junior professor in a Midwestern State University medical school, I was subject to an inordinate amount of back-stabbing.  It didn’t get any better as I climbed the next few rungs past associate professor and assistant professor and progressed through several universities.

It was not too hard to figure out that I was writing and producing too much, and making other, more sloth-like faculty members look bad by comparison.  Most were publishing trivial and even stupid things.  At one point — because of my “youth and inexperience” – I was assigned to writing book reviews for publications, even though I knew perfectly well my own ideas were at least as good as what I was reviewing.

Of course I was unhappy.  I left the system.

I thought I would write but found out all academic publications were subject to the same petty and ridiculous scrutiny.

Now – thanks to the internet and escaping academia — here I am, writing for public read, because I trust the public more than I ever trusted my alleged (peers) who review articles prior to professional journal publication.

I can understand why this woman had enough intense emotional motivation to fire upon colleagues.  I am not saying it is good or right and certainly not saying it was justified.  I am only saying that the intensity of the emotionality makes sense to me.

In the days when I was attending faculty meetings, I described the race for tenure to my beloved husband as “internecine warfare.” I once openly asked a senior faculty what the hell was going on.  He told me that salaries were low, so people tended to focus on status, sometimes very strongly.  Just remember, this is the system that largely governs any medical advances.

This, to me, is mega-exasperating.

Just when I thought USA Today was doing a wonderful reporting job, they asked a question so obvious that I could not believe they asked.   And yet, maybe their having a channel or column or whatever called “inside higher education” made them ask if this was a case of “workplace violence.”

Of course it is.  The shooting did not take place in a tea room or a post office.  It happened at a faculty meeting.  Although anybody who has never seen one would probably not believe it, it is something at least akin to “work.”
Another question that has arisen is that the same woman who opened fire apparently shot her brother – accidentally — some years ago.  Records of this were not available in the Boston area where it happened.  People are asking what happened.

I can tell you only this.  Traditionally, the police and the legal system have hesitated to venture into any kind of dispute that goes on within the University system.  The fact that Harvard is still a fairly prestigious university does not negate but does reinforce this idea.  As for murder —  well, I can tell you there is a certain mythology around the rich and powerful.

There is a story – perhaps apocryphal – about newspaper tycoon and castle-builder William Randolph Hearst shooting a man on his yacht – only to find out it wasn’t the man he thought it was – and having the medical examiner find that the victim died of indigestion.  Or the Jack Benny skit (supposedly based upon an incident at the Palm Springs home of another media tycoon – Walter Annenberg) where the police respond to a report of a murder and are refused admittance into the gated compound.  In the Jack Benny version, the police politely ask if the people inside will just throw the body over the wall.

These stories remain speculation, as far as I know but you get the picture – wealth, power and status can get you nearly anything – even let you get away with murder in some cases.

Back in real-life, however, these are as close to facts as I can come.
1. The single most powerful predictor of present behavior in pretty much anybody remains past behavior.
2. Intelligence is no protection.  It does not protect against propensity to violence.  It does not protect against mental illness.  As a matter of fact, extreme intelligence may, in some cases, be associated with diminished social interaction.  I have wondered, myself, if it does not carry an increased risk of mental illness.  I don’t know.  Nobody studies these people.

I do not own any weapons.  I do not bother with swords, have a couple of pens, but believe my internet access to be the strongest weapon of all.

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