Academic Dangers and Student Angst

An engineering professor at UCLA was killed by a former doctoral student who believed that the professor had stolen his computer code and given it to another student. Whether or not this was the case or the student was somehow misled or disgruntled over other issues isn’t known at this point. The only fact we know is

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that the former student, now possessing a doctorate, killed his former professor and then himself during finals week at the university. Finals week is always a time of heightened tensions at schools and frustration and extreme anger or agitation, if they are ever to be vented, is spot on then. It is a time to be wary for students and faculty.

Suicide rates at schools go up during the grading periods or at graduation or even at the beginning of medical residencies. The pressures, as you can well imagine, are intense both from internal and external forces. Expectations of families and the hope of careers yet to come weigh heavily on the shoulders of students. Some find the escape of suicide to be the only path for them and schools are loath to advertise the risk. For years, medical schools and, indeed, the entire medical professor refused to admit the high rate of medical student suicides and physician burnout. Physicians were supposed to be above such human weaknesses.

Students don’t just fall from roofs after parties — they jump. They don’t just fall into ravines — they jump there, too. Guns aren’t accidently discharged or dorm rooms set on fire by accident. These accidents are either planned or prompted by a sudden and intense change of mood that overtakes the powers of reasoning and hope.

The tension between graduate students and their professors is something with which every professor contends. For the most part, disagreements can be resolved amicably, but there are those cases where threats of violence are verbalized. One professor I knew actually moved out of the country after having been threatened by a disgruntled student who believed he deserved a better grade. Not a passing grade, mind you, but a better grade. I later found out that this particular student body seemed to have a propensity for using forms of coercion or covert threats against professors. Late night calls to administrative offices or bedrooms were sometimes the means to convey this displeasure about grades.

But students aren’t the only ones who take to violence either toward themselves

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Amy Bishop, professor

or their intended offender. The media have covered cases where professors were denied tenure and pulled out a gun to shoot a number of people at a meeting relative to this denial.

Doctoral students or students up for master’s degrees and who were denied are equally liable to resort to violence to avenge what they see as a valid grievance.

In academia, there is the potential for advisors to take out their own grievances on their students. Yes, they can be both cruel and unreasonable relative to any active dialog on a more amenable solution to these degree impasses. Some seem to revel in their reputation for not ever awarding anyone an “A” grade or a “high pass” in clinicals. Tenure usually protects them from all but the most egregious actions against students.

Are some students pushed to the brink? Surely. Are some professors devils incarnate? Yes, too. Do some of them abuse their power? Undoubtedly. But do students, too, fail to get the help they need when they believe they have a valid complaint? Again, too true. Counseling centers can only help if they are aware of the problem and once a student has graduated, who has the ethical responsibility to get a referral for them? I believe it’s the school, if they can.

Stress is the issue for students and, perhaps, for professors, too, who must maintain research performance. I once taught a seminar of doctoral students where one or two of them were actively engaged in helping surgeons in a residence program learn to control their anger and work better with the hospital teams. It wasn’t easy work, as I understood.

A career can turn on a dime if there is denial of a degree or if parental expectations are unfulfilled. We’ve seen that time and time again and it will go on. There are still cultural divides between what is possible and what is expected, given the inherent bias in some job areas or institutions. Pushing someone when they are doing their best serves who?

Stigma also plays a role here as students and professors are reluctant to seek help or to admit their problems. In fact, some may come into the field or to the school with pre-existing emotional problems which are only exacerbated by the stress of the situation.

I knew of one young man who wanted to enter the ministry, but once he was at the school for two months, it became obvious that he had serious mental health issues and he was dismissed. His initial response to this less-than-understanding action? He began killing animals and terrorizing people in the area as he did a complete 360 in both his physical appearance and his style of dress.

Schools are trying to reach out to entering freshman to establish a rapport of trust and acceptance and we can only hope that there’s beefed up efforts as the academic climate heats up in terms of job potential being diminished. Putting your all into getting a degree to assure yourself of your future really needs to be tempered with the possibility of needed change as the market changes.

Are we helping our students to realize that they may have not one career or one job in the future, but three careers and no full-time job? How are we helping them to prepare for this possibility?

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Dr. Farrell is a psychologist, WebMD consultant, SAG/AFTRA member, author, interested in film, writing & health. Website:

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