04/17/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

University Politics: Ambition Can Be Crippling

The fatal shootings at the University of Huntsville are an undeniable tragedy. As of this writing, three distinguished faculty are dead, three seriously injured, and a formerly-respected wife and mother of four is in custody for allegedly murdering her professor colleagues. Forensic psychiatrists will no doubt weigh in on the factors, possibly including malignant narcissism or sociopathy, that may have led the alleged shooter--untypically, a woman, with a reported history of violence--to commit murder. Many who have spent years behind the walls of the ivory tower, however, can testify that its walls can, for some, become a prison in which the politics of disrespect and psychological exile take their tragic toll.

Bright students are encouraged to continue their studies into the grueling obstacle course of graduate school. After years of combat crawling through academic mud to grab the brass ring of the PhD, they are tossed into the mosh pit of the tenure-track process to scrabble and slog once again for an even more difficult to attain prize, a permanent faculty position. Talent, capabilities, and skills honed in graduate school should prepare junior faculty for the gladiatorial contests that ensue--competing to achieve excellence in the requirements for tenure, research, teaching, publications, and "University service". Sadly, many who work hard to excel in the written, quantified criteria, may have failed to master the unwritten prerequisites for membership in the coveted tenured faculty club--department politics.

The pop punk group Bowling for Soup has written a song called "High School Never Ends" that perfectly captures a common atmosphere in the so-called hallowed halls of higher education, i.e. High School.

"Then when you graduate,
Ya take a look around and you say "Hey Wait!"
This is the same as where I just came from,
I thought it was over, "Aw that's just great."

The Whole Damn World is just as obsessed
With who's the best dressed and (who's having sex)
Who's got the money. Who (gets the honeys)
Who's kinda cute and who's just a mess.

And the only thing that matters,
Is climbing up that social ladder
Still care about your hair and the car you drive
Doesn't matter if you're 16 or 35.

And you still don't have the right look
And you don't have the right friends
Nothing changes but the faces, the names, and the trends.
High School Never Ends."

In the microcosm of a college department, among adult professionals, social relationships evolve that can mimic the high school environment. The charismatic "class president" who becomes department chair; the "star quarterback", i.e. the brilliant researcher that brings in the desperately sought multi-million dollar grants; the cheerleader who takes on serving the boring faculty committees; the nerd, tolerated when needed, but often a social outcast. Tenure-track faculty are often quickly judged, not only on their academic achievements, but where they fit into the social strata of the department. Just as in law firms and on Wall Street, success in "making partner" often depends on apple-polishing the senior administrators and teachers and on "fitting in", skills that are not part of the typical graduate school curriculum, where bright, and frequently isolated and socially inexperienced students, spend their young adult years. Emerging from the cocoon, these formerly praised and encouraged students are tossed into a competitive and combative environment without the talents or tools to survive or succeed. Rejection, often on grounds of personality or appearance rather than academic performance, invalidates the ill-prepared egos and self-esteem of achievers who spent their lifetime sacrificing and succeeding in the very environment that now casts them out. In addition to the pragmatic economic and professional consequences of the denial of tenure, i.e. being "fired" after years of a devoted mission to this goal, the narcissistic insult can lead to an untempered rage. For those with fragile mental health, the consequences can be dire, in adulthood as in adolescence.

Murder is never justified, no matter the provocation. Courts have provided redress for some junior faculty denied tenure on, for example, grounds of discrimination, but most faculty who don't get tenure, either initially or on appeal, move on to other positions, perhaps at less competitive institutions, or outside academia entirely. Stable mental health and resilience allows those who don't succeed at their quest for permanency on the faculty to consider and eventually build an alternate path. Unfortunately, not everyone has the stability to see options and a future beyond rejection--whether in high school or at the University--some victims may remain 'fixated', obsessed with exacting victory or revenge. The result is a tragedy for all.

I have a naive wish as I gaze upon a world in which "survival of the fittest" continues to be championed despite the tragic consequences both for those who ostensibly succeed and those who are left "in the dust". That we treat each other with a socialist humanitarianism at all stages of our lives--from high school to retirement--with compassion, gentleness, support, caring, and inclusion. And, to offer intervention and assistance to others, rather than rejection, if they are struggling to share our world.

Yolanda Reid Chassiakos, MD has spent most of her professional career in university environments, and is married to a tenured professor. She is the co-author of a mystery-thriller set at a fictional Ivy League University in New England, "Dead Air".