Students complained about prof charged in rampage

Liz De La Torre

From The Associated Press

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – Students banded together to let administrators know something wasn’t quite right about Professor Amy Bishop. She taught by reading straight out of the textbook, never made eye contact and liked to remind people constantly that she went to Harvard.

“We could tell something was off, that she was not like other teachers,” said nursing student Caitlin Phillips, who was among those who complained to administrators at least three times a year ago that the biology professor was unsettling and ineffective in the classroom. Some students also signed a petition against Bishop.

Students said they had no reason to think she might turn violent. But after Bishop’s arrest Friday on charges of shooting to death three colleagues during a faculty meeting at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, the complaints add to the picture that has emerged of her as a brilliant but erratic figure.

While police have not released a motive for the shootings, colleagues said the 44-year-old neuroscientist was simmering with resentment over being denied tenure last March.

Her court-appointed lawyer, Roy W. Miller, declined to comment on the case. “It is just so premature,” he said. “I just got involved.”

Since the shooting, other disturbing behavior from Bishop has come to light.

In 1986, she killed her 18-year-old brother with a shotgun blast in Braintree, Mass., then demanded a getaway car at gunpoint from an auto dealer, authorities said. She claimed the gun went off accidentally, and she was never charged.

Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass., the district attorney at the time, said Wednesday he has limited memory of the case. He spoke with The Associated Press in Israel, where he was traveling.

“I understand I haven’t had a real opportunity to get into the details of the case, but I suspect when I return I’ll have an opportunity to become debriefed,” the congressman said.

Current District Attorney William Keating said reports his office released this week show a “glaring” lack of communication between state and local police on the case.

Bishop and her husband were also scrutinized in 1993 after someone sent pipe bombs to a Harvard professor with whom she worked. The bombs did not go off and no one was ever charged.

In 2002, Bishop was charged with assault, battery and disorderly conduct after a tirade at the International House of Pancakes in Peabody, Mass. Police said Bishop became incensed when she found out another mother had received the restaurant’s last booster seat.

Bishop began shouting profanity and punched the woman in the head while yelling, “I am Dr. Amy Bishop!” according to the police report. She admitted to the assault in court, and the charges were dismissed six months later after she stayed out of trouble.

Prosecutors asked that she be required to participate in an anger management program, but the judge did not go along with the request.

Bishop’s husband, James Anderson, said in an interview Wednesday that “the whole incident was just stupid.” Asked if he was referring to his wife’s action, he said: “Everything.”

“It was way overblown,” he said. “Someone trying to make something out of nothing.”

He also defended his wife’s teaching, saying the “vast majority” of students were happy with her. He said his wife taught what was regarded by nursing students as the “cut course” — they would either go on toward a degree or quit the program based on how they did in her class.

“If they didn’t make it through, they didn’t make it,” he said. “So it’s natural for some to be unhappy.”

He said classroom performance was not an issue in her tenure file, which has not been made public. Tenure decisions are voted on by the professors who already have tenure.

University President David B. Williams said Tuesday that student evaluations were one of many factors in the tenure evaluation process, but he was unaware of any student petition against Bishop.

Freelance writer Rob Dinsmoor, a friend of Bishop’s since they met at a Hamilton, Mass., writers group in the late 1990s, said Bishop had written three unpublished novels and saw them as a way out of the frustration and politics of her university job. She hoped her mother’s cousin, novelist John Irving, would help her get published, Dinsmoor said.

Sally Marvin of Random House, Irving’s publisher, confirmed that Bishop and Irving are related but said the author of “The World According to Garp” and “The Cider House Rules” had no comment.

Bishop often dropped Irving’s name, Dinsmoor said. “I think she looked up to him, and she was always trying to figure out a way to use that connection,” he said.

One novel was about the troubles of a girl growing up in Belfast, and another was a thriller about a scientist who was an IRA operative, according to Dinsmoor. The third, “Amazon Fever,” was about a virus that renders women infertile. According to an excerpt obtained by The Boston Globe and posted on the newspaper’s Web site, it involved a scientist working during a pandemic who struggled with fear of losing tenure.

The students who complained about Bishop said they first wrote a letter to biology department chairman Gopi K. Podila — one of those killed in the shooting — then met with him and finally submitted the petition that dozens of them signed. How Podila voted on Bishop’s tenure application remains confidential.

Amanda Tucker, a junior majoring in nursing, had Bishop for anatomy class about a year ago and was one of the signers.

“When it came down to tests, and people asked her what was the best way to study, she’d just tell you, ‘Read the book.’ When the test came, there were just ridiculous questions,” Tucker said. “No one even knew what she was asking.”

Not everyone found her teaching problematic.

Nick Lawton, 25, took an anatomy and physiology class with Bishop last semester. He described her as funny and accommodating. “She lectured from the textbook, mostly stuck to the subject matter at hand,” Lawton said. “She seemed like a nice enough professor.”

Phillips, the nursing student, said she was one of five students who met with Podila in fall 2008 or early 2009 to air their concerns, but he “just sort of blew us off.”

After students met privately with Podila, Phillips said, Bishop seemingly made a point in class of using some of the same phrases they had used with Podila. It was apparently her way telling the students she knew they had complained about her.

“It was like she was parroting what we had said,” Phillips said.

Phillips also said Bishop seemed obsessed with Harvard, where she earned a Ph.D. in genetics in 1993.

“She loves Harvard. Everything went back to Harvard. It was, ‘When I was at Harvard I got to do this thing, when I was at Harvard I got to do that,'” Phillips said. “She said, `This is a test I would give at Harvard.’ I’m not saying I’m stupid, but there’s a reason I’m not at Harvard.”

Dinsmoor, the writers group member, said Bishop may have come off as awkward in academic situations because she was impulsive, blunt, sometimes lacking in tact, and “a little socially clueless,” but she was also bright, witty and sweet.

“She would not back down from a fight, especially if she thought she was right,” he said. “I could not take it to the degree where she would open fire on people. It’s uncomprehensible to me and it freaks me out.”

To get a court-appointed lawyer, Bishop signed an affidavit saying neither she nor her husband has a job, any outside source of income, or savings. State records show that in her seventh year at the university, she was being paid $83,086, and her husband works with a company developing the cell incubator she devised at the school.