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Red flags trailed ex-UCLA lecturer across elite universities

Feb 8, 2022, 8:18 PM | Updated: Jun 13, 2022, 3:40 pm
FILE - UCLA campus in Los Angeles (Google Earth Pro)...
FILE - UCLA campus in Los Angeles (Google Earth Pro)
(Google Earth Pro)

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A trail of red flags about his behavior toward women followed Matthew Harris on an academic journey that took him to three of the nation’s most prestigious universities — Duke, Cornell and then the University of California, Los Angeles.

Former graduate classmates at 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 excessive emails and text messages to some women that became harassment and, in at least one case, sexual harassment. Another said she changed her morning routine at Duke for weeks after Harris learned her schedule and texted her messages like, “I’m here, where are you?”

Last week, a SWAT team in Colorado 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 for a day. The so-called manifesto contained numerous racist threats and used the words “bomb,” “kill” and “shoot” more than 12,000 times.

Wearing a green jail jumpsuit with his wrists handcuffed, Harris did not speak Tuesday during his brief appearance in federal court in Denver. Another hearing is scheduled for Feb. 23 and a judge ordered him to remain in federal custody without bail.

Assistant Federal Public Defender Jennifer Beck told the judge Harris is looking to hire private counsel. Beck did not immediately return a request for additional comment.

In online class reviews, interviews and emails obtained by The Associated Press, current and former students at all three universities alleged negligence by the schools for letting Harris slide previously, despite his concerning conduct.

“I have no idea how this guy is still teaching,” 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 fear for their safety, said that while they did not report Harris to university officials at the time, his behavior was well known within the small philosophy program and they did not feel they would have been supported by faculty if they’d come forward.

Taken together in the years since major mass shootings at Columbine High School, Virginia Tech and elsewhere, the students’ allegations at three top-tier colleges raise questions about the line between uncomfortable and actionable behavior, a university’s duty to encourage the reporting of it, and an institution’s obligation to prevent it from occurring at another school.

The students’ descriptions of years of alarming behavior prompts another question: What, if anything, did the universities do to get Harris help?

___

A graduate student at Duke as he completed his Ph.D. in 2019, Harris also attended Cornell for a year before UCLA hired him as a postdoctoral fellow and lecturer — a distinguished posting — until he was put on “investigatory leave” last March after allegedly sending pornographic and violent content to his students.

“Clearly Duke should not have passed him to us, and Duke and Cornell should not have passed him to UCLA,” said Adriene Takaoka, a Cornell philosophy graduate student whose time overlapped with Harris’. “We’re just lucky that no one’s been physically hurt. Certainly people have been psychologically damaged.”

The former Duke students described their initial interactions with Harris as largely collegial, but with strange undertones that grew over the years.

“There would just be this feeling of ‘um, I feel uncomfortable’ or ‘that was creepy,’” another said. “By the time I left the program, I wanted absolutely nothing to do with him.”

But Andrew Janiak, a Duke philosophy professor and former chair of the department who served on Harris’ dissertation committee, said he never had any indication of such behavior, describing him as “very shy, very reticent, never aggressive. I never saw him even raise his voice.”

Janiak received the first reports of harassment in late March, after Harris had left Duke. Emails show Janiak immediately contacted UCLA.

Duke and Cornell declined to comment to AP and did not answer a list of detailed questions sent via email, such as whether any official reports were made about Harris while he attended their institutions and if there were none, what that says about their culture of reporting.

___

The signs were there, like bread crumbs scattered across the three schools.

The morning routine incident at Duke. A house party at Cornell where he tried to rope a relative stranger into a discussion about his mental health. Negative online reviews of his UCLA lectures. Maniacal laughter that disrupted classes. Odd interactions with women he’d approach out of the blue on campus. A campaign of incessant text messages and emails that caused several students to cut off contact with him.

“No one would look at that kid and say, ‘Oh, he’s fine,’” said Brian Van Brunt, an expert on campus violence and mental health and former president of the National Association for Behavioral Intervention and Threat Assessment. “Typically someone like this didn’t just appear out of nowhere.”

In recent years, most colleges and universities have formed behavioral intervention and threat assessment teams in response to school shootings, meant to flag concerning behavior and get help before conduct escalates.

Emails and court documents show UCLA’s behavioral intervention team was involved, but possibly not until as late as March 30, 2021, when Harris’ behavior really began to escalate.

That spring, Harris began sending bizarre and disturbing emails to his former classmates and current UCLA students. The emails to the UCLA students allegedly included pornographic and violent content sent to women in his research group, prompting the university to put him on “investigatory leave.”

Bill Kisliuk, UCLA’s director of media relations, said in an email that people at the university “brought concerns” to its Title IX office last year, which “worked with the individuals to address the concerns.” He declined to comment further, citing privacy. The university announced Monday that it was creating a task force “to conduct a comprehensive review” of its protocols for assessing potential threats.

The messages to Harris’ former Duke classmates, however, had links to his YouTube channel that included a video titled “Dead White Professors (Duke University remix).” Despite evidence he was in North Carolina at the time, the university appeared unwilling to bar him from campus, emails show.

In April, his mother reached out to a professor at 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 while they were both at Duke and he reached out when he moved to LA in 2020, sending emails and text messages that would turn aggressive and obsessive.

“I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I did nothing and someone got hurt,” Harris’ mother wrote.

Those messages prompted the UC system to obtain a workplace violence restraining order against him, which barred him from all UC campuses. UCLA police also sought a Gun Violence Emergency Protective Order.

In November — months after he’d been 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 denied because of those orders.

___

Now, his former classmates wonder: How did Harris even get hired at UCLA?

His dissertation — despite an alarming dedication posted online — would have been approved unanimously by a four-person committee. Janiak said he wrote Harris a letter of recommendation 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’s in trouble.’ ”

Janiak said students reported other complaints to him while he was chair of the department, 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, a lawyer who advises colleges and co-founded the Association of Title IX Administrators.

While schools typically cannot mention unproven accusations for fear of a lawsuit, Schuster said, they can do a background check that includes phone interviews with classmates, supervisors and students. It’s not clear whether UCLA officials conducted such a background check or interviews; the university did not answer AP’s questions regarding whether it reached out Duke or Cornell during the hiring process.

Schuster said a background search would’ve allowed questions to be posed to former employers like, “Would you hire this individual to work directly with you?”

“Has this individual demonstrated any conduct that you’ve observed that would give you concerns?”

For Harris’ former classmates, the answer is clear: Yes.

___

Associated Press writers James Anderson and Colleen Slevin in Denver contributed.

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Red flags trailed ex-UCLA lecturer across elite universities