Before former UCLA philosophy lecturer Matthew Harris forced the school to cancel in-person classes last week by allegedly issuing a barrage of violent threats against faculty members, he reportedly blazed a trail of disturbing behavior across two other top college campuses, creeping-out women as he went. Now, former classmates and instructors are wondering how no one caught up with him sooner.
According to the Associated Press, Harris—who was taken into custody in Colorado last week after he allegedly emailed an 800-page “manifesto” to faculty members and posted videos containing threats against the university community—was considered “inappropriate and creepy” by his fellow grad students at Duke and Cornell before turning up in L.A.
Harris is said to have engaged in obsessive behavior, especially toward women, sometimes texting them to the point where it became harassment and, in at least one case, sexual harassment. A former Duke student tells the AP that she had to alter her morning routine for weeks because Harris had learned her schedule and would text her messages like, “I’m here, where are you?”
Two other Duke students, who spoke to AP on condition of anonymity, say that while Harris’s behavior was known within the tight-knit philosophy program, they didn’t report him because they felt the faculty would not have supported them. Although they say their initial contact with Harris was cordial enough, things eventually got weird.
“There would just be this feeling of ‘um, I feel uncomfortable’ or ‘that was creepy,’” another former Duke student says. “By the time I left the program, I wanted absolutely nothing to do with him.”
Duke philosophy professor Andrew Janiak—a former department chair who sat on Harris’s dissertation committee—received reports of harassment last March, after Harris had left the school. Although emails show that Janiak did notify UCLA about the complaints, he says he never personally saw any indication that Harris could be trouble.
Janiak describes his former student as “very shy, very reticent, never aggressive,” adding, “I never saw him even raise his voice.”
Harris also attended Cornell. His behavior there raised eyebrows, too.
“Clearly Duke should not have passed him to us, and Duke and Cornell should not have passed him to UCLA,” Cornell philosophy student Adriene Takaoka, who was there at the same time as Harris, tells the AP. “We’re just lucky that no one’s been physically hurt. Certainly people have been psychologically damaged.”
Harris also allegedly sent links to his YouTube videos to former Duke classmates, including one titled “Dead White Professors (Duke University remix).” Although it appeared that Harris was in North Carolina at the time, emails show that the university was not willing to bar him from campus.
At one point, Harris’s own mother was scared enough to report on her son. Harris had briefly met a female professor at Duke in 2013 and tried to contact her when he moved to L.A. in 2020, while she was teaching at UC Irvine.
In April, Harris’s mother warned the woman that he had threatened to “hunt” and kill her in emails. “I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I did nothing and someone got hurt,” Harris’s mother wrote.
That warning prompted the UC system to obtain a workplace violence restraining order against Harris, barring him from all UC campuses. UCLA police also sought a Gun Violence Emergency Protective Order, and Harris was involuntarily committed to a mental health facility. While in treatment, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
That November, Harris tried to buy a gun but was denied due to the police orders.
Students and faculty alike wonder how Harris made his way through so many top-tier institutions. Saunie Schuster, a lawyer who advises colleges and co-founded the Association of Title IX Administrators, says it’s up to the schools to do more intensive screening of applicants to find out more about them than their academic prowess. Schuster advises colleges to conduct background checks on potential admissions, including interviews with classmates, supervisors and students.
It’s not clear whether UCLA officials took any such steps, and the university did not answer AP’s questions regarding whether it reached out Duke or Cornell during the hiring process.
According to Schuster, colleges need to answer two important questions before welcoming someone to their institutions: “Would you hire this individual to work directly with you?” And, “Has this individual demonstrated any conduct that you’ve observed that would give you concerns?”
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