Former Postdoc Allegedly Threatens Philosophy Department (several updates)

A former postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Philosophy at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) yesterday by email made “general threats… against the philosophy department and members of it,” according to a message circulated in the department.

The former postdoc, Matthew Harris, had allegedly exhibited “highly erratic behavior” last spring, including sending “threatening communications.” At the end of March, Gavin Lawrence, then the chair of UCLA’s Department of Philosophy, wrote to students saying, among other things:

Professor Harris is now on leave from UCLA while investigations are carried out. Separately, his post doc is slated to end at the end of June. He has been instructed not to have anything further to do either with your class as a whole, nor be in contact, email or otherwise, with any of you individually, nor indeed with any UCLA student. He no longer has access to CCLE [UCLA’s course management system], nor his university email account. So he has been removed from the UCLA sphere of contact with you. 

Harris allegedly was involuntarily committed to a psychiatric institution at the time but was released.

Yesterday, Harris posted a video on his YouTube channel entitled “UCLA PHILOSOPHY (MASS SHOOTING)”. In the video, Harris appears in the center of the screen while a variety of images appear in multiple squares around him; the audio consists of processed and choppily edited words. Altogether, it is a strange and disorienting visual accompanied by a harsh soundtrack. It’s alleged that he emailed philosophers at UCLA links to this video as well as an “800 page manifesto” he authored with “specific threats towards some members of the department.”

A screenshot of part of yesterday’s message warning department members of the threat was shared on social media networks. It recommends that instructors hold their class meetings remotely. It is not clear who authored the message:

The UCLA Police Department acknowledged the threat in a tweet, as did UCLA Vice Chancellor Michael Beck in an Instagram post.

Harris received his PhD from Duke University in 2019. It has been alleged that while there, he engaged in a some inappropriate actions with or in regard to students, and that some faculty in the Department of Philosophy at Duke were aware of issues with his behavior; it has been alleged that some Duke faculty recommended that he not be left alone with students.

It’s not clear where Harris currently is. [See Update 2]

(I understand readers may be curious to learn more details or the sources of some of this information, but, because of the nature of this story, I’ve kept some parts of this post vague and have intentionally not named sources.)

I’ll add updates to this post as further news becomes available. If you have information regarding this story, please email it to me at [email protected]. (Comments on this post are currently closed.)

UPDATE 1 (2/1/22): The “manifesto” Harris sent is 803 pages long and is entitled “DEATH sentences”. I looked at it a little, skipping around and reading a few pages here and there. It contains threats, racism and racist slurs, anti-Semitism, misogyny, explicit sexual references and fantasies, accusations, boasts, complaints about various aspects of our culture, including philosophy and particular philosophers, references to himself as a “prophet,” and more. Some examples include:

  • “Shoot all the Asians. Shoot all the kikes too.”
  • “Matt Harris needs his hoes to be virgins. Most of his wives better be virgins when he gets with them… Matt Harris will settle for a few who are not, but he will be disappointed and probably do some bdsm shit to make them make up for betraying him with other men. He will kill her previous boyfriends.”
  • “Finish off the injuns we have no need for them.”
  • “Your own family must die if they are in the way of your independence.”
  • “All unworthy men must be turned into women and treated as a seperate class that is only allowed to have sex with themselves.”
  • “Murder everything and every unworthy body. Man woman and child. Kill every unworthy man, unworthy woman and unworthy child. Upon sight without hesitation, murder and repeat. The Matt Harris knows that killing them is a divine requirement.”
  • “give me attractive secretaries whose job it is to edit my projects and assist me in my self-employed lifestyle and to give me blowjobs.”
  • “I am the one true prophet and the way to paradise.”

The word “kill” occurs 7,191 times in the document.

UPDATE 2 (2/1/22): According to a tweet from UCLA’s Office of Emergency Management, “Out-of-state law enforcement has confirmed the person who made threats to UCLA is under observation & not in CA. Classes will remain remote today.”

(As of 1:00pm Eastern Time: There are some rumors going around that Harris is in Boulder, Colorado, and that police are attempting to “contact” him. No official reports or messages from the Boulder Police have identified Harris as the person of interest at this time. [See Update 4, below.])

UPDATE 3 (2/1/22): I have recieved requests to post the entire manifesto and requests to delete the examples provided in Update 1, above. I think it was important to provide some examples of actual text from the manifesto to provide readers with a sense of why those who received it would be concerned, without having to rely on my characterizations alone. So the examples will remain, at least for now. But I’m not convinced there’s a good reason to publish the whole text, and there seem to be good reasons not to. Along with those who were threatened or frightened by his actions and words, Harris is a person—seemingly one in need of assistance. Posting the entire manifesto would only further harm him and possibly others, without providing much substantive benefit to readers.

Additionally, I have heard criticism to the effect that this story is not appropriate for Daily Nous. I disagree. I cover a range of events that affect philosophy departments: budgets, sexual harassment, legislation, protests, fires, to name but a few. In this case, a former instructor in a philosophy department is alleged to have sent members of the department threatening messages and was revealed to possibly have a history of problematic interactions with students, and possibly was observed in the past as problematic by superiors at institutions which (for reasons unknown) do not appear to have effectively responded to the situation or informed relevant others of it. That strikes me as appropriately newsworthy. This story involves matters related to safety, harassment, racism, misogyny, mental health, and inter-institutional transparency in philosophy and in higher education, all of which are important topics relevant to what DN covers. Clearly these are some delicate issues, and concern regarding Harris’s well-being led to me declining to post about some of his behavior 10 months ago. But now his actions and the reactions to them are public and institutionally consequential, which further contribute to their newsworthiness.

Lastly, this post is not a call to any specific action, and comments on the post are closed to avoid the whipping up of a mob mentality regarding what to think of or do in regard to Harris.

UPDATE 4 (2/1/22): According to news reports and other sources, Matthew Harris is now in police custody in Boulder, Colorado.

UPDATE 5 (2/4/22): On Thursday, Harris “was ordered held without bail” and “charged with transmission of threats in interstate commerce,” according to the Associated Press in an article that has details about his arrest. Harris did not enter a plea.

UPDATE 6 (2/24/22): According to Courthouse News Service:

Matthew Harris, 31, faces two counts of threats in interstate commerce, each carrying a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine if convicted. Harris also faces one count each of making a false statement to a firearms dealer and wrongfully possessing ammunition, both punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine if convicted. 

Harris pleaded not guilty to the federal charges at a Denver courthouse yesterday.

UPDATE 7 (2/1/23): Harris is found unfit for trial and will be hospitalized.