‘Oversight and response failure’: UA faculty committee releases report on university safety


Nathanial Stenchever

In front of the John W. Harshbarger building on the University of Arizona campus, students, faculty and staff set up a memorial for Thomas Meixner after he was shot and killed on campus Oct. 5, 2022.

Kiara Adams and Bailey Ekstrom

Members of the University of Arizona General Faculty Committee on University Safety for All wrote and released an interim report addressing the Oct. 5 shooting of UA professor Thomas Meixner, along with three other cases, and their thoughts on how they were handled. The group’s conclusions include the school’s failure to install a proper risk management system.

The report is titled “Oversight and Response Failure: Broken Trust. Lessons From the Events Surrounding the Murder of Professor Thomas Meixner.”

The background of the report shares how Faculty Chair professor Leila Hudson created the committee following the shooting. The committee’s task was to review how the university addresses and responds to physical and non-physical violence risks.

The committee is made up of faculty members and students including: Jenny Lee, College of Education (Chair); Hoshin Gupta, College of Science; Jennifer Hatcher, College of Public Health; Luis Irizarry, Graduate Student (GPSC) Liaison; Lisa Kiser, College of Nursing; Barak Orbach, College of Law; Christina Rocha, Staff Liaison; Shyam Sunder, Eller School of Management and Lauryn White, Student (ASUA) Liaison.

While the report focused on the events of Oct. 5, it also mentions the violence directed towards the Department of Hydrology and Atmospheric Sciences (HAS) by Murad Dervish and three separate incidents of violence on campus, including reported harassment and sexual misconduct at the James E. Rogers College of Law, the harassment of a Daily Wildcat reporter and a police call made against a queer, Black disabled student.

Incident at the UA’s College of Law

The incident at the College of Law occurred in fall 2019 when reports of harassment, hostility, lewd photo-sharing and a rape were made by two female law students. The alleged perpetrators had previously been in romantic relationships with the victims, and continued to harass the victims while the situation was investigated, according to the report. A female UA law faculty member told the committee that she was harassed as a response to her efforts to help the victim.

The report said a group of law students and faculty were reportedly in communication with UA President Dr. Robert C. Robbins about addressing what they described as a culture of toxic masculinity within the College of Law. As the group reported, the members felt that, “University officials failed to address ongoing harassment and violence arguably to comply with federal and state laws that prevented the institution from acting.”

Incident involving a Daily Wildcat reporter

Another case addressed in the report was that of a Daily Wildcat reporter. The reporter wrote a story about a fellow UA student who had garnered a large social media following. The student was upset by the article and released the reporter’s private information online shortly after, otherwise known as doxxing.

The reporter received various threats by fellow students which led her to seek support from the Dean of Students Office. The report describes the response from the DOS as, “minimal, delayed, and disorganized.”

A statement provided by the reporter states, “My experience with the Dean of Students Office as well as University of Arizona’s administration was both disappointing and misleading. At one time, I fully trusted the institution to not only be able to protect me but to want to as well. I am saddened and disheartened as I know that every action of UA’s administration has proven entirely otherwise. I will not be discouraged by the lack of response or action from the school but rather I will work towards a campus environment where hopefully no student has to feel as let down or unsafe as I have had to feel at University of Arizona.”

Incident at the MLK building on campus

Another event where a student reached out to university departments seeking help was a situation where the police were called on a queer, Black disabled student at the Martin Luther King Jr. building on campus. The report details in length what took place between the student and the Interim Associate Vice Provost of Diversity and Inclusion. Following the original incident between the two, the student reached out to the Office of Institutional Equity who referred them to Human Resources, and HR led the student back to OIE, effectively in a circle.

Following these events, the Interim Vice Provost called the University of Arizona Police Department, who arrived at the building shortly after the call. In response, many people who frequent this space took to social media to say how the police being called on a Black student and arriving at a place occupied by more Black students on campus was alarming and triggering.

In an email sent out to the entire university, Robbins claimed that it was not the Interim Vice President who called UAPD. However, in the report from UAPD regarding the event, it says that it was in fact the Interim Vice President who called UAPD and brought them to the MLK building.

The safety report describes this move from Robbins as, “projected efforts to protect an administrator over a commitment to integrity and safety.”

Harassment and reports leading up to the Oct. 5 shooting

The final event that the report mentions, and ultimately revolves around, follows a series of harassment and violence at the Department of Hydrology and Atmospheric Sciences by Dervish.

In November 2021, Dervish aggressively and publicly confronted professor Thomas Meixner and another HAS faculty member in the John W. Harshbarger building over a midterm grade, according to the report and numerous articles published since the shooting. Two HAS faculty members filed a Code of Conduct violation to the Dean of Students, and Dervish was given a warning. HAS leadership decided to terminate Dervish’s graduate assistantship and tuition benefits.

The harassment continued over email, with Dervish hurling racist and antisemitic statements at UA faculty, resulting in him being placed on interim suspension. The committee notes that Dervish had a history of threatening emails with faculty at San Diego State University as well.

Dervish was expelled for violating the terms of his suspension after failing to cease the threatening communications. This meant he was effectively barred from contacting any faculty member aside from the Dean of Students and Human Resources. Dervish was not allowed on campus, but nevertheless violated this clause on March 4, 2022, when he was seen near Centennial Hall. The committee states that they are unsure why Dervish wasn’t arrested by UAPD for this violation.

Two days after being seen at Centennial, Dervish tried to buy a gun. A vendor on ARMSLIST.com refused to sell Dervish a firearm because of their conversation online. Dervish told the vendor that he was going to “kill several people and [himself].” The vendor reported the interaction to the Tucson Police Department. The committee does not know if this information was shared with UAPD at the time.

After his appearance on campus, the Dean of Students issued a no contact order between Dervish and four HAS faculty members. Dervish continued to threaten the faculty members over email and made another campus appearance on March 14 near the Science and Engineering Library. Dervish was not arrested for either of the violations of his expulsion or the emails.

Around a week after his second sighting on campus, Dervish approached the HAS Associate Department Head — along with his wife and children — at CVS. The department head declined to speak with him, and left the store. The report states that “he did not feel adequately supported,” and decided to pursue legal counsel outside of university administration.

During this time, Dervish had been harassing a female HAS student, beginning in October 2021. The committee discussed the details with the student, who explained that she had submitted five police reports and met with UAPD to request a blanket no contact order for the HAS department. She told the committee she was told that it was not within UAPD’s power.

She said she told a UAPD officer, “So you are not going to do anything until anyone gets killed, are you?” She described to the committee that the officer simply stared in silence.

In April 2022, Dervish’s expulsion appeal approached, and he began to make demands in his correspondence with a DOS administrator. One demand was a list of those set to rule on his expulsion. The Chair of the Hearing Committee explained that his demands could not be met, and Dervish sent two threatening emails to the administrator.

The emails read: “ … the consequences are going to be absolutely catastrophic,” and “I don’t think you have any clue who you are dealing with but you are about to find out and I really don’t think you’re going to like it.”

The DOS Administrator filed a police report over this interaction, and Dervish was charged with two misdemeanors by UAPD. When UAPD went to his residence on April 15, Dervish declined to sign the citation indicating that he had been served with the charges. On May 4, UAPD closed the case after the Pima County Attorney’s Office decided not to proceed with criminal charges.

Dervish continued to harass HAS faculty throughout summer 2022. In response, UAPD filed a criminal report to the Pima County Attorney’s Office in September 2022. The Meixner family told the committee that the report was not reviewed until after Thomas Meixner’s murder because UAPD did not communicate the urgency of the charge.

The Oct. 5 shooting followed the harassment and threats of violence from Dervish that lasted for almost a year. The report states that Meixner’s last words were, “I knew you were going to do this!”

In the weeks following Oct. 5

The report discussed three key issues regarding the “chronic” lack of trust within the University of Arizona including: “doubts regarding the competency and integrity of University administrators, skepticism about the University’s capacity and willingness to address safety, especially the safety of at-risk communities and pervasive fears of retaliation and consequences.”

The committee described this lack of trust as “a critical institutional vulnerability whose mitigation must be an institutional priority. The trust problem compromises the University’s daily function and performance, including the institutional capacity to address violence risks.”

The university’s initial response to the shooting also faced scrutiny. Shortly after the shooting, Robbins announced immediate actions that were taken to address campus safety. University leadership hired Steve Patterson, a former FBI agent and security specialist, to provide recommendations for campus safety, requested that the university community respond to a campus safety feedback survey to collect community-wide recommendations for campus safety and hired the PAX Group consulting firm, “led by a former FBI Special Agent and security expert, to conduct an independent investigation of campus safety and security and provide recommendations.”

An email shared Oct. 10, 2022 by the Executive Office of the President stated that the initial report of the findings from the PAX Group would be due within 75 days to Robbins. It has been more than 100 days since that email was shared and there has been no update as to where the report is currently.

Despite this missing report from the PAX Group, the committee was left with two glaring concerns; sustaining the HAS Department and healthcare for Meixner’s Family.

During a Faculty Senate meeting that took place in December, the HAS Interim Department Head shared on behalf of the HAS department, “That loss [of Thomas Meixner], together with a pre-existing lack of support for rehiring in key areas, has left significant gaps that pose an existential threat to the Department. In addition, the circumstances surrounding his murder have left many in the HAS community feeling unsafe in the Harshbarger Building.”

On Dec. 5, 2022, the Faculty Senate passed a resolution calling on Robbins along with the UA Foundation, Arizona Board of Regents and the Arizona Legislature to allocate “sufficient funds to pay for the Meixner family’s (Mrs. Meixner and her eligible dependent children) COBRA (or viable alternative) and retirement health care benefits until Mrs. Meixner becomes eligible for Medicare benefits and additionally for the premiums for necessary supplemental coverage to Medicare for Mrs. Meixner thereafter.”

As of January 2023, Meixner’s family has yet to receive any financial accommodation to meet health care costs.

The committee’s conclusions

Lastly, the report lists three different failures of systemic risk oversight, the first being a failure to install a risk management system, the second being excessive bureaucratization and the final failure being the actions of the Threat Assessment Management Team.

Prior to the Oct. 5 shooting, there was no risk management system installed to handle decision-making involving violent risks that can take place on campus.

The Committee pressed the DOS, Office of the General Counsel, OIE, TAMT and UAPD members on whether the university has any university-level system to monitor and evaluate violence risks. Their answers were unequivocal: the university does not have any such system.

According to the committee, the lack of this system brings in the second problem, excessive bureaucratization. The report found that the lack of this system led to handling of compliance and enforcement being considered “decentralized and fragmented.” With no main central level to deal with threats, individuals are led through various websites to different offices that could potentially handle their concern, which was evident in the event involving the Interim Associate Vice Provost and the queer, Black disabled student.

The report says, “To be clear, allegations and concerns must be treated with caution to avoid false-positive errors (actions against individuals who are not a threat) and excessively harsh reactions. However, the lack of risk management and excessive bureaucratization result in a conscious institutional disregard for violence risks, not caution.”

The Threat Assessment and Management Team was founded after the 2002 mass shooting at the College of Nursing. TAMT was informed of the threats of violence Dervish was making towards members of the HAS department.

In the report the committee states that, “the determination about the ‘immediate threat’ ignored or heavily discounted the knowledge of continuous harassment.”

The report closed with a summary of the topics discussed and the issues that remain on the University of Arizona campus: a chronic trust problem, failure to install a risk management system for risks of violence, excessive bureaucratization and barriers to access to services and insufficient units to address safety concerns.

Each of these are aspects of the university that the Committee on University Safety for All, members of which are faculty, staff and students, would like to see implemented or changed in the wake of the Oct. 5 on campus murder of Meixner.

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