LOS ANGELES (AP) — A trail of red flags over 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 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 towards some women that turned into harassment and, in at least one case, sexual harassment.
Colorado police last week 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 daytime.
Harris did not speak Tuesday during his appearance in federal court in Denver. Another hearing is scheduled for February 23 and a judge has ordered him to remain in custody. His public defender did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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.
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 the university at the time, his behavior was well known in the little philosophy program and they didn’t. believe they would have been supported had they come forward.
Taken together, the allegations by students at three prominent colleges raise questions about the line between uncomfortable behavior and action, a university’s duty to encourage reporting of it, and an institution’s obligation to prevent it from happening at another school.
The students’ descriptions prompt another question: What, if anything, did the universities do to enlist Harris’ 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 until he was placed on “investigative leave” last March after allegedly sending content pornographic and violent to its students.
Former Duke students described their early interactions with Harris as broadly collegial, but with odd undertones.
But Andrew Janiak, a Duke philosophy professor and former department chair, said he never had any indication of such behavior. Janiak received the first reports of harassment in late March, after Harris left Duke, and the philosophy professor immediately contacted UCLA.
Duke and Cornell declined to comment.
The signs were there, like breadcrumbs scattered throughout the three schools.
A party at Cornell where Harris tried to drag a stranger into a discussion about his mental health. Negative reviews of his lectures at UCLA. Strange interactions with women on the Duke campus. Incessant SMS and emails.
“Nobody would look at this kid and say, ‘Oh, he’s fine,'” said Brian Van Brunt, an expert on campus violence and mental health. “Usually someone like that didn’t appear out of nowhere.”
In recent years, most colleges and universities have formed behavioral intervention and threat assessment teams in response to school shootings. Emails and court documents show that the UCLA behavioral intervention team was involved, but possibly not before March 30.
That spring, Harris began sending bizarre and disturbing emails. Emails to UCLA students allegedly included pornographic and violent content sent to women in his research group, prompting his suspension.
UCLA officials said in an email that people at the university “raised concerns” with its Title IX office last year, which “worked with individuals to address concerns. “. The university announced on Monday that it was creating a task force “to conduct a comprehensive review” of its protocols for assessing potential threats.
In April, Harris’ 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 he reached out in 2020.
Harris’s emails to his mother prompted the UC system and UCLA police to obtain protective orders against him.
In November – months after he was involuntarily committed to a mental health facility and diagnosed with schizophrenia – Harris attempted to buy a gun, but was refused because of those orders.
Now his former classmates are wondering: How did Harris even get hired at UCLA?
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.
While schools generally can’t mention unproven charges for fear of a lawsuit, Schuster said, they can do a background check. It’s unclear whether UCLA officials did; the university did not respond to AP’s questions about its hiring process.
Schuster said a background search would have asked questions of former employers such as, “Has this person exhibited any conduct that you observed that you would be concerned about?”
For former classmates of Harris, the answer is clear: yes.
Associated Press writers James Anderson and Colleen Slevin in Denver contributed.
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