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Matthew Harris’ former classmates recount his worrisome behavior, call for accountability from philosophy department

<p>The offices of the Graduate School now occupy what used to be House 2 for faculty.&nbsp;</p>

The offices of the Graduate School now occupy what used to be House 2 for faculty. 

A former Duke doctoral student who sent University of California, Los Angeles campus members a video referencing a mass shooting last week had previously displayed concerning behavior to students in Duke’s philosophy department that went unaddressed by faculty, according to current and former graduate students.

Matthew Harris, Graduate School ‘19 and a former lecturer and postdoctoral fellow at UCLA, sent UCLA students and faculty the video and an 803-page manifesto threatening members of the philosophy department on Jan. 31, which prompted a campus shutdown the next day. Federal prosecutors charged Harris with making criminal threats across state lines last week, according to the Los Angeles Times

From February to March 2021, Harris, who was working at UCLA at the time, sent emails with disturbing content—including videos—to several current and former Duke philosophy graduate students, a philosophy undergraduate student and a former political science student, according to a former Duke philosophy graduate student who was classmates with Harris. The student requested to remain anonymous in fear of retaliation.

One undergraduate student received harassing emails starting as early as 2016, when Harris was still a graduate student at Duke, the former student said. 

One email with a video link was titled, “Kill the Nuclear Family - THERE ARE SEVERAL BLACK RACES,” according to emails obtained by The Chronicle. Most of the people he emailed were women, according to a current philosophy graduate student who also requested to remain anonymous in fear of retaliation. 

In April 2021, Harris uploaded a video to his YouTube channel titled, “Dead White Professors (Duke University Remix) - dimRISE,” according to a screenshot obtained by The Chronicle. Other videos were titled “Death to Feminism” and contained images of underage girls and former Duke philosophy undergraduate students, according to the former graduate student. 

The former graduate student and other graduate students shared their concerns with philosophy faculty members and the Duke University Police Department. 

The former student described faculty and DUPD’s responses as “unsatisfactory” and said that DUPD did not take any action because they deemed Harris “wasn’t a direct threat.” 

“[To be a direct threat,] someone has to be named and there has to be a description of what will be done to these people who are named. And so ‘white professors’ didn’t meet that standard,” the former student recalled DUPD Investigations Captain Greg Stotsenberg saying. 

“It seemed to me that they were trying to minimize the threat and say that it was essentially UCLA’s problem because [Harris] didn’t work here anymore,” the former student said. 

The former student wished that DUPD had not only taken the emails and videos more seriously but also been more consistent in their approach to handling them. 

“They didn’t think [Harris] was a direct threat but [Stotsenberg] also said that I shouldn’t reveal my location on social media,” the former student said. “I thought that was completely inconsistent. Is he a threat or is he not a threat?” 

The Chronicle reached out to Stotsenberg for comment and DUPD Chief John Dailey responded on his behalf.  

“There are robust processes to keep the community safe; beyond that this is an ongoing matter,” Dailey wrote in an email. 

Professor of Philosophy Andrew Janiak, former chair of the department and Harris’ advisor at Duke, said he first heard reports about Harris’ behavior in March 2021, two years after Harris’ graduation. At least three current and former undergraduate and graduate students reached out to him and said Harris had contacted them recently or exhibited concerning behavior.   

Janiak said he informed staff at UCLA and “they immediately wrote back and said, ‘Yes, we know about this and we are working on it.’” 

He said that the department didn’t take further action because students weren’t on campus amid the pandemic. 

“We didn’t need to do what we normally would’ve done, which is thinking about if he was in North Carolina or if we needed to worry about safety,” he said. “Campus was totally empty.”

Last spring, Harris also threatened to kill a University of California, Irvine professor, according to the LA Times. In April, Harris’ mother informed UCLA faculty about his threats; UCLA police working with the FBI had Harris’ mother involuntarily commit him for a month in North Carolina. The University of California later got a permanent restraining order against him. 

Duke graduate students weren’t immediately informed by the philosophy department about Harris’ threats to the UC Irvine professor, according to the current graduate student. Instead, they learned about developments from Twitter and Reddit. 

“We wanted to know [from the department] because he was in North Carolina at the time. There was the possibility that he might come to Duke if he couldn’t exercise his desire to do that to the UC Irvine professor,” the current student said. 

Janiak told The Chronicle he “wasn’t sure” about Harris’ threats to the UC Irvine professor.  

Restorative justice meetings

In May, philosophy graduate students and faculty held a series of restorative justice meetings to discuss how faculty had handled graduate students’ concerns about Harris in previous months. 

“It wasn’t until the more serious threats with the UC Irvine professor that our faculty started to take things more seriously,” the current student said. “And so there’s this disconnect between the way they initially responded and what ended up actually being a very serious event.”

The first meeting gave students the opportunity to explain the series of events from their perspective and the second allowed them to “share how [they] felt about these events.” The third asked the question, “What should we do moving forward?” 

Some professors showed remorse for not addressing graduate students’ concerns, some claimed they had always distanced themselves from Harris and others were sympathetic towards Harris, according to the current student. 

“[Some faculty members] said that there were no issues or signs, but then at other times, this wasn’t consistent with things that other faculty had said,” the former student said. 

Janiak told The Chronicle that he didn’t suspect or hear anything about Harris’ concerning behavior when he was at Duke. 

“He really stood out for being shy, which is quite unusual in philosophy,” Janiak said. “So he was sort of the opposite of a person who's ranting and raving and threatening people.” 

But one faculty member said that he told people that Harris should never be left alone with undergraduate students, according to both the current and former students. They learned that one summer, Harris failed to perform his duties as an instructor for a course to the extent that a faculty member had to step in and teach the remainder of it. 

On another occasion, the former student learned from another student that Harris gave a class presentation on whether some people should kill themselves. 

The former student described the restorative justice meetings as mostly unproductive. Faculty, for example, suggested that they hold more professional development sessions for graduate students. 

“We were a little bit upset about this because this wasn’t a matter of professionalism,” the current student said. “This was a unique graduate student who was troubled and required over and above the typical graduate student’s needs.” 

Both students had hoped for more accountability from Duke faculty for ignoring Harris’ “troubling behavior” and allowing him to pass through Duke’s graduate program to UCLA’s postdoctoral program. This includes professors who wrote Harris letters of recommendation—including Janiak, according to the Associated Press—who had “an ethical responsibility to place decent teachers into other institutions,” the former student said. 

“I had wanted to see an acknowledgement of their role in overlooking troubling patterns of behavior. They denied that they had noticed any troubling behavior and this seems to conflict with things that I had heard from other older graduate students,” the former student said. 

Unapproved dissertations  

Later that September and October, two unapproved versions of Harris’ dissertation were uploaded onto DukeSpace. These versions, which were obtained by The Chronicle, included new abstract, dedication and acknowledgements sections, among other changes. In both, Harris wrote that his dissertation was “dedicated to the immediate death of all those who oppose or slow the rise of the black man.” 

The former graduate student found them “concerning” as “it was written in a manifesto style” and “included death threats” and thus reported it to external faculty, who then reported it to the Dean of Graduate School Paula McClain according to the student. 

“We were concerned about the possibility of Matt escalating and actually going through with some of the ideas that he was presenting,” the current student said. 

It is unclear how the two unapproved versions were uploaded onto DukeSpace, but they have since been removed. 

“I think [those versions were] some kind of first version of his manifesto,” Janiak said. “I don't really know how to describe it other than just incoherent, ranting and raving.” 

In response to a request for comment from McClain, John Zhu, senior director of communications for the Graduate School, responded that the school worked to restore the approved version of Harris' dissertation once they became aware that the unapproved version had been uploaded.

UCLA threats

Harris sent his manifesto and the video that references a mass shooting to UCLA members on Jan. 31. By then, his YouTube channel had over 300 videos, one of which mentioned Duke’s philosophy department, titled, “DUKE UNIVERSITY PHILOSOPHY (CATASTROPHIC SHOOTING).” His manifesto, which circulated around social media, also mentioned Duke and Duke professors by name. 

One promise that resulted from the restorative justice meetings was that students would be informed in a timely manner about possible dangers, according to the current student. On the night of Jan. 31, Felipe De Brigard, director of graduate studies and Fuchsberg-Levine family associate professor in philosophy, emailed graduate students that the department was aware that Harris was “back online,” according to emails obtained by The Chronicle. He noted that the department was in contact with the police and authorities. 

The next morning, De Brigard informed students of the FBI’s involvement and that Harris was not in North Carolina. All philosophy classes were moved online, according to an email sent to graduate students by Professor of Philosophy Katherine Brading. Later, faculty emailed to let students know that authorities in Boulder, CO were attempting to take him into custody. 

Still, both students say that they are looking for more accountability from the philosophy department for letting Harris’ concerning conduct go unaddressed for so long that he could be hired by UCLA. 

The former graduate student doesn’t believe all Duke philosophy faculty members enabled Harris. Some professors warned others about his behavior or put him on probation for “issues with the quality of his scholarship,” the former student wrote in a text. 

But “I simply find it hard to believe that those who worked closely with him saw no signs that something was the matter with him,” the former student wrote.

“Moving forward, I want the philosophy department to be more aware that what the graduate students think and feel matter, and to take our concerns more seriously,” the current student said. “If [faculty] were better actors, then probably a lot of this wouldn’t be blowing up the way that it is.” 

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article said the former graduate student reported the unapproved dissertation to philosophy faculty and DUPD. The former student did not make any reports to DUPD. This article was updated a second time at 3:50 p.m. Wednesday to include comment from the Graduate School.


Milla Surjadi | Editor-in-Chief

Milla Surjadi is a Trinity junior and editor-in-chief of The Chronicle's 118th volume.

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