LOS ANGELES (AP) – A trail of red flags over his behavior towards women followed Matthew Harris in a university career that took him to three of the most prestigious universities in the country – Duke, Cornell, then the University of California at Los Angeles.
Former graduate classmates of Duke and Cornell, where he studied before becoming a postdoctoral fellow at UCLA in recent years, described him as inappropriate and creepy, with obsessive behaviors like sending e- excessive emails and text messages to some women which became harassment and, in at least one case, sexual harassment. Another said she changed her morning routine at Duke for weeks after Harris learned of her schedule and sent her messages like, “I’m here, where are you?”
Last week, a Colorado SWAT team arrested Harris after he allegedly emailed an 800-page document and posted videos threatening violence against dozens of people at UCLA, prompting the school to cancel in-person classes during a day. The so-called manifesto contained numerous racist threats and used the words “bomb”, “kill” and “shoot” more than 12,000 times. Harris is scheduled to appear in court on Tuesday.
In online class reviews, interviews and emails obtained by The Associated Press, current and former students at all three universities have alleged negligence by the schools for previously letting Harris slip, despite his disturbing conduct.
“I have no idea how this guy still teaches,” one of his UCLA students wrote in October 2020 in an anonymous class review..
Two former Duke students, who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because they feared for their safety, said that while they did not report Harris to university officials at the time , his behavior was well known in the little philosophy program and they didn’t. believe they would have been supported by faculty if they had come forward.
Taken together in the years since the mass shootings at Columbine High School, Virginia Tech and elsewhere, the allegations by students at three prominent colleges raise questions about the line between uncomfortable behavior and action, the duty to a university to encourage the reporting of it, and an institution’s obligation to prevent it from happening at another school.
The students’ descriptions of years of alarming behavior prompt another question: What, if anything, did the universities do to get Harris to help?
Graduate student at Duke while completing his doctorate. in 2019, Harris also attended Cornell for a year before UCLA hired him as a postdoctoral fellow and lecturer – a distinguished post – until he was put on “investigative leave” last March after allegedly sending pornographic and violent content to his students.
“Obviously Duke shouldn’t have passed it on to us, and Duke and Cornell shouldn’t have passed it on to UCLA,” said Adriene Takaoka, a Cornell philosophy graduate student whose time overlapped with Harris’s. “We’re just lucky that no one was physically injured. Certainly, people have been psychologically damaged.
Former Duke students described their early interactions with Harris as broadly collegial, but with odd undertones that developed over the years.
“There would just be this feeling of ‘uh, I feel uncomfortable’ or ‘that was scary,'” another said. “When I left the program, I absolutely wanted nothing to do with him.”
But Andrew Janiak, a Duke philosophy professor and former department chair who served on Harris’ thesis committee, said he never had any indication of such behavior, describing him as “very shy, very reticent, never aggressive. I never even saw him raise his voice.
Janiak received the first reports of harassment in late March, after Harris left Duke. The emails show Janiak immediately contacted UCLA.
Duke and Cornell declined to comment to AP and did not respond to an emailed list of detailed questions, such as whether any official reports were made about Harris while he attended their institutions and whether he there wasn’t, what that says about their reporting culture. .
The signs were there, like breadcrumbs scattered throughout the three schools.
The morning routine incident at Duke. A party at Cornell where he attempted to drag a stranger into a discussion about his mental health. Negative online reviews of his lectures at UCLA. Maniacal laughter that disturbed the lessons. Weird interactions with women he approached unannounced on campus. An incessant SMS and email campaign that prompted several students to cut off contact with him.
“Nobody would look at this kid and say, ‘Oh, he’s fine,'” said Brian Van Brunt, a campus violence and mental health expert and former president of the National Association for Behavioral Intervention and Mental Health. threat assessment. “Usually someone like that didn’t appear out of nowhere.”
In recent years, most colleges and universities have formed Behavioral Response and Threat Assessment Teams in response to school shootings, intended to report behaviors and get help before the behaviors escalate. .
Emails and court documents show that the UCLA behavioral intervention team was involved, but possibly not until March 30, 2021, when Harris’ behavior really started to escalate.
That spring, Harris began sending bizarre and disturbing emails to former classmates and current UCLA students. Emails to UCLA students allegedly included pornographic and violent content sent to women in his research group, prompting the university to put him on “investigative leave”.
Bill Kisliuk, director of media relations at UCLA, said in an email that people at the university “raised concerns” with his Title IX office last year, which “has worked with individuals to address concerns”. He declined to comment further, citing confidentiality. The university announced on Monday that it was creating a task force “to conduct a comprehensive review” of its protocols for assessing potential threats.
The messages to Duke’s former classmates from Harris did, however, contain links to his YouTube channel which included a video titled “Dead White Professors (Duke University remix)”. Despite evidence that he was in North Carolina at the time, the university seemed unwilling to bar him from campus, according to emails.
In April, his mother contacted a professor at the University of California, Irvine, saying her son in January had threatened in emails to “hunt” and kill the woman. The professor had briefly met Harris in 2013 when they were both at Duke and contacted him when he moved to Los Angeles in 2020, sending emails and text messages that would become aggressive and obsessive.
“I couldn’t live with myself if I did nothing and someone got hurt,” Harris’ mother wrote.
These messages prompted the UC system to obtain a workplace violence restraining order against him, which banned him from all UC campuses. UCLA police have also requested an emergency gun violence protection order.
In November — months after he was involuntarily committed to a mental health facility and, his mother later told the FBI, diagnosed with schizophrenia — Harris tried to buy a gun but was turned down because of these orders.
Now his former classmates are wondering: How did Harris even get hired at UCLA?
His thesis – despite an alarming dedication posted online – was reportedly unanimously approved by a four-person committee. Janiak said he wrote a letter of recommendation to Harris, but declined to discuss it.
“Everyone wants to re-read the past and try to figure out, ‘was he secretly crazy,'” the professor said, but there was nothing “that would make me think, ‘boy, this person is in trouble.’ ”
Janiak said students reported other complaints to him while he was department chair, but no one came forward about Harris until last March.
The onus is on the incoming institution to ask targeted questions about an applicant beyond their academic credentials, according to Saunie Schuster, an attorney who advises colleges and co-founded the Association of Title IX Administrators.
Although schools generally can’t mention unproven charges for fear of a lawsuit, Schuster said, they can conduct a background check that includes phone interviews with classmates, supervisors and students. It is unclear whether UCLA officials conducted such background checks or interviews; the university did not respond to AP’s questions about whether it contacted Duke or Cornell during the hiring process.
Schuster said a background search would have asked questions of past employers, such as “would you hire this person to work directly with you?”
“Has this individual exhibited any behavior that you have observed that you would be concerned about?”
For former classmates of Harris, the answer is clear: yes.
Associated Press writer Colleen Slevin in Denver contributed.