Shattered

A professor’s murder at the University of Arizona, apparently by a former student, raises urgent concerns about campus safety. He wasn’t the first professor killed at work, either.

October 13, 2022
Thomas Meixner, a white man with gray hair wearing a University of Arizona–themed shirt.
Thomas Meixner
(gofundme.com/f/help-lift-up-thomas-meixners-family)

College and university campuses are highly permeable environments. That openness and accessibility makes campuses dynamic and stimulating. It also makes them vulnerable from a safety perspective. This dual reality was thrown into stark relief last week when Thomas Meixner, professor and chair of hydrology and atmospheric sciences at the University of Arizona, was shot dead in his office building, apparently by a former graduate student in the department. A second, unnamed person reportedly was injured by a bullet fragment.

Meixner’s accused killer, Murad Dervish, was arrested three hours later driving toward Mexico, following a police chase. Dervish told officers at the scene that he felt “so disrespected by that whole department” and “I hope he’s OK, probably wishful thinking,” according to police and court records. Dervish was prohibited from owning a firearm due to an unrelated protective order, but police found a handgun consistent with the apparent murder weapon when they arrested him.

According to information from the University of Arizona, Dervish was barred from campus in January in relation to student disciplinary proceedings. The dean of students determined in February that Dervish had violated the student code of conduct and sanctioned him with expulsion for stalking, failure to comply with the directives of university officials and discriminatory conduct. Dervish was formally expelled in June, at the conclusion of disciplinary proceedings following his appeal. He was permanently barred from campus and all university-sponsored activities at that time. His former department—which Meixner headed—was provided Dervish’s photo, information about the expulsion and steps to take if anyone saw him on campus. The university defines stalking, in part, as unwanted contact and repeated behavior.

Pam Scott, university spokesperson, said that Dervish targeted unnamed “employees.” ABC in Tuscon reported that another professor, not Meixner, filed an order of protection against Dervish, and that a judge had ordered Dervish to stay away from that professor and his family at work and at home.

Dervish has a history of troubling behavior. His father, who lives in South Carolina, reportedly said that Dervish assaulted him and smashed his restaurant equipment several years ago. Dervish also attacked his mother when he moved to San Diego, the father said, adding that Dervish had been arrested but later released following this incident.

Prior to moving to Arizona, Dervish was enrolled in a graduate program at San Diego State University. A woman there filed a restraining order against him in 2020. She reportedly said that Dervish was a teaching assistant in a physics class she took at SDSU in 2018, and that Dervish became “abrasive and confrontational” when she denied his emailed requests that she date him. She reported Dervish to SDSU and that she later consulted law enforcement. Local police referred her to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the FBI referred her back to the university, she said. A no-contact order was eventually issued, but Dervish allegedly violated it multiple times, contacting the woman on social media using aliases.

SDSU said in a statement that Dervish, 46, was first enrolled as a graduate student there in 2018 and last enrolled in the spring of 2020. He left without graduating. The university also confirmed that its police department worked with a complainant to secure a restraining order against Dervish. It declined to share details of its own investigation, citing privacy restrictions.

In Arizona, people reportedly recognized Dervish in the Harshbager Building, which housed the hydrology department, ahead of the shooting and called 911. Meixner was killed while police were responding to that call.

It’s unclear how much, if anything, the University of Arizona knew about Dervish prior to his enrollment there. The university did not share information on this when asked.

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Last week was not the first time a professor was murdered at work by a disgruntled student. At the University of Southern California in 2016, a graduate student stabbed popular neuroscientist Bosco Tjan to death outside his lab. Tjan and the university were previously informed, via a psychotherapist, that the student had made a “serious threat” against Tjan’s life. The student, David Jonathan Brown, took a semester-long leave following this disclosure but later returned to campus, with the support of Tjan, according to an investigative report published by USC’s Annenberg Media.

Following the attack, Brown reportedly stood over Tjan’s body and said, “You have been torturing me for years. I have finally had enough.” (Brown was found not guilty of the murder by reason of insanity and institutionalized.)

Brown reportedly began corresponding with another student in his lab about manic episodes in 2014 and, in a 2015 incident that resulted in a campus safety report, damaged university property inside a lab. About a week later, Tjan received the disclosure from a local mental health care facility saying, in part, “As required by law, we must notify any person whose life has been threatened by a patient … This is to advise you that our psychiatric evaluation team (PET) member became aware that David Brown made a serious threat against your life.”

Threat Assessment

Campus threat assessment teams—sometimes organized specifically around student threats and called behavioral intervention teams—have proliferated since the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007. USC had one such team at the time of Tjan’s murder. Even so, Josh Voyda, then a campus safety officer at USC, told Annenberg Media in 2018, “There wasn’t really a system in place to make sure [Brown] was really all right to come back" from his leave of absence.

Following Tjan’s death, USC reorganized its threat assessment team—which, like many of these teams, involved university personnel who had other full-time duties—into a dedicated Office of Threat Assessment and Management. Independent from campus security or mental health offices, the new office is housed in the (also new) greater Office of Wellbeing and Crisis Intervention. Patrick Prince, associate provost and head of threat assessment at USC since 2017, said this week that USC has made several other major changes since Tjan’s death. These include updating the student leave policy to monitor and provide input on a flagged student’s progress and care throughout their time away from campus. Another change involves long-term management of threats.

“My threat team meets weekly, and we have a large number of offices present,” Prince said. “So let’s say we have somebody who leaves USC who is, we believe, dangerous. We’re not only able to look at them from a law enforcement lens—which, to tell you the truth, is limited, since if they haven’t violated the law, then we can’t do a whole lot—but also what else exists.” Prince meets regularly with student affairs and Title IX personnel who deal with reports of gender-based discrimination, and he’s worked to building relationships with community-based resources beyond law enforcement, he said—especially those for mental health.

Effective threat assessment work, Prince continued, is “not just identifying risk, is not just removing them from the immediacy of the campus. It’s managing them over the long run to ensure they don’t create a future risk.”

Prince said his work has become much more difficult since the pandemic, due to “years of folks not engaging with other humans.” His biggest overall challenge since 2017, however, has been to “help shift people’s view of what threat assessment is, away from looking at criminal behavior, or the really bad folks, to looking at people who are acting in desperate ways and engaging in behavior that’s inappropriate. Even if they never go on to hurt somebody, they still needed help.”

The earlier his office is consulted about concerning behaviors or issues, he said, “the more interventions available to us. If the only time we engage threat is when the person has basically burned every bridge they have—they’ve made such threats or acted in such a way that there’s no way that we can recover them in this environment—it’s too late.”

Consultant S. Daniel Carter, president of Safety Advisors for Educational Campuses, said that he had no special knowledge of the Arizona case, but that based on published reports, the university appears to have followed major threat assessment practices ahead of the attack, namely placing Dervish on a no-trespass list during and after his expulsion and notifying workers and students in the building to look out for him. (In some cases, and based on certain threat profiles, Carter said, institutions may also move to relocate a potential target’s campus workspace.) The University of Arizona also has its own behavioral intervention team, which includes representatives from counseling and psychological services, campus police, student accountability and residence life.

In this sense, Carter said—again caveating that his assessment was based only on what is publicly known about the case thus far—it’s “disquieting to know that everything could be done right and things could still go tragically wrong. I think it’s likely that anything else that could have been done was probably outside the security and safety framework—and that’s in mental health. And that’s a failure across the country, well beyond any college or university.”

Vulnerable Professors

In the porous campus, professors assume a certain level of vulnerability in that they’re quasi-public figures whose names, contact information and campus locations are generally public information. Professors also interact with many students, and not always on the friendliest terms. Students harassing professors, or what’s been referred to as “contra-power” harassment in academe, certainly doesn’t get as much attention (from researchers or anyone else) as, say, professors harassing students. But it exists. One 2012 study of 524 professors found that 91 percent reported at least one act of student incivility or bullying, and 25 percent experienced at least one “sexual behavior” from a student. Women, racial minorities, younger faculty members and those with less experience and fewer credentials reported more such instances, and more women than men reported a “serious incident” of student incivility, bullying, aggression or sexual attention during their careers.

Carter said that all professors require a mechanism by which to report a student of concern, and that “in every instance,” the report should be assessed by threat professionals.

Brett Sokolow, chair of TNG, a national multidisciplinary risk management firm, said while threat assessments may lead to separations between a student and an institution, sometimes there is a “false sense of security that if this individual is no longer affiliated here, somehow they can’t cause harm here. That’s not the case, though.”

Threat assessment as field struggles with how to maintain contact, and how much, with “someone who’s potentially threatening,” even after they’re removed from a given environment, Sokolow said. While there aren’t any easy answers, he said that he was once stunned—and impressed—to hear from a campus police chief who lunched once a month with a former student who’d threatened to “shoot up” the campus, to keep track of his progress as well as to keep tabs on him.

Regarding faculty safety, in particular, Sokolow said that he trains faculty members to understand the difference between being threatened and feeling threatened, and that both are legitimate, reportable concerns.

“I don’t want to ever say to anybody, ‘Try to minimize your reactions; try not to overreact.’ I think the better message is, ‘Pay attention to your gut. If something feels off, raise the issue, and then let the professionals look at it and see whether there’s a validity to it.’”

Memorial services for Meixner are scheduled for today and tomorrow in Tucson. He is survived by his wife, Kathleen, and two sons. Colleagues have described Meixner on social media as “a brilliant and wonderful person, in the prime of his life,” an “eminent, excellent scientist, and a leader,” and “one of those unique and singular people you wanted to emulate—his real enthusiasm, his genuine care, his obvious energy, and his boundless encouragement.”

Robert C. Robbins, the University of Arizona’s president, said in a memo this week that the “university community has come together to honor [Meixner’s] memory, to comfort one another, and, for some, to ask important questions about how this could happen on our campus.”

Robbins said that the university has “begun the work to retain recognized independent external experts in security and threat assessments to begin a comprehensive review of all aspects of our campus safety, violence prevention, and public safety response, with an initial report, including recommendations, due to me within 75 days.” This will include a review of how the university handled threats in advance of the shooting, he said, as well as the “safety and security of our buildings, our threat assessment approach, our UAlert system, and any area of campus security they determine relevant to campus safety.”

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Colleen Flaherty

Colleen Flaherty, Reporter, covers faculty issues for Inside Higher Ed. Prior to joining the publication in 2012, Colleen was military editor at the Killeen Daily Herald, outside Fort Hood, Texas. Before that, she covered government and land use issues for the Greenwich Time and Hersam Acorn Newspapers in her home state of Connecticut. After graduating from McGill University in Montreal in 2005 with a degree in English literature, Colleen taught English and English as a second language in public schools in the Bronx, N.Y. She earned her M.S.Ed. from City University of New York Lehman College in 2008 as part of the New York City Teaching Fellows program. 

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