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UA faculty votes 'no confidence' in Robbins over Meixner slaying

UA faculty votes 'no confidence' in Robbins over Meixner slaying

Arizona Board of Regents backs university president as family of professor killed on campus prepares $9 million lawsuit

  • UA President Robert Robbins during a press conference on March 27, 2023 explaining the release of an independent review of the October 2022 shooting on campus.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comUA President Robert Robbins during a press conference on March 27, 2023 explaining the release of an independent review of the October 2022 shooting on campus.
  • Mourners gather during the Oct. 14, 2022 funeral for Prof. Thomas Meixner, who was killed on the UA campus last October.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comMourners gather during the Oct. 14, 2022 funeral for Prof. Thomas Meixner, who was killed on the UA campus last October.
  • UAPD Chief Paula Balafas during a press conference on Oct. 5, 2022.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comUAPD Chief Paula Balafas during a press conference on Oct. 5, 2022.
  • Flowers left for Prof. Thomas Meixner after the Oct. 5, 2022 shooting on the UA campus.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comFlowers left for Prof. Thomas Meixner after the Oct. 5, 2022 shooting on the UA campus.
  • An altar for Meixner at Prof. Chris Castro's home on Oct. 12, 2022.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comAn altar for Meixner at Prof. Chris Castro's home on Oct. 12, 2022.

The University of Arizona Faculty Senate said they had "no confidence" in President Robert Robbins and his administration, approving a motion Monday criticizing the university's leadership for a lack of due diligence to ensure the safety of slain Professor Thomas Meixner.

During a two-hour meeting Monday afternoon, the Faculty Senate voted 29-13 to approve a narrowly written motion against Robbins, as well as University of Arizona Police Chief Paula Balafas, Chief Financial Officer Lisa Rulney, General Counsel Laura Todd Johnson, Dean of Students Kendal Washington White, and Provost Liesl Folks.

The motion accused UA leadership of "failing" to protect Meixner and others, and criticized a "combative" response to faculty concerns.

The vote came on the heels of a press conference that afternoon, when Robbins described a series of systemic failures, including "missed opportunities and mistakes" that ultimately led to the October fatal shooting by a former graduate student. On Monday morning, the UA released a report by consultants hired to review the Oct. 5, 2022 incident which revealed "systemic issues across our university that should have been identified and corrected."

The faculty representatives also blasted Robbins for holding the press conference, which was announced just hours before it was held Monday, directly prior to their scheduled meeting. Despite being invited, Robbins did not attend the Faculty Senate session.

Last Friday, the consulting firm PAX Group, LLC submitted their report on the shooting to UA officials, outlining how the university failed to assess and respond to threats from a former graduate student. The 205-page report included a timeline that showed how UA officials held back even as the threats accelerated and the former student continually subjected UA faculty and staff to "reprehensible" language.

For months before his killing, UA professors and staff "felt like sitting ducks" in the face of violent threats and a stream of racist, antisemitic and homophobic messages sent by 47-year-old Murad Can Dervish, a former student who was ejected from campus because of his "intimidating" behavior.

Members of the Hydrology Department became increasingly alarmed by the gunman's messages and behavior—one professor bought a bullet-proof vest, while others installed home security systems, changed offices, or brought non-lethal weapons to campus. This "should have led to a series of investigative steps," which would have uncovered signs he'd been violent with his parents and harassed a fellow student in California, wrote PAX Group.

Meixner, 52, was the head of the Department of Hydrology and Atmospheric Sciences at the UA and known for his work on the water quality of desert rivers. He was shot multiple times and died after walking out of a classroom. The gunman fired 11 bullets and quickly fled the scene. Dervish was apprehended hours later, in the desert west of Tucson, and has been charged with murder.

As the PAX report was released, Mexiner's family prepared to launch a $9 million lawsuit against the Arizona Board of Regents for what attorneys called a "shameful, pass-the-buck response to repeated violent threats" which "directly led to Dr. Thomas Meixner's tragic murder."

"I'm angry at myself that I did not do more to prevent this tragedy. And most of all, I'm angry at the man who took from us, our loved one, friend and colleague," Robbins said. He later apologized, telling reporters "On behalf of the university. I offer my sincerest apologies for the failures of the institution. And I commit to you today we will do better."

However, Faculty Senate members remained frustrated with Robbins' leadership and denounced UA officials for "failing" to protect the Hydrology and Atmospheric Sciences instructors, staff and students, and the campus before Meixner's murder.

They also criticized "a combative, non-constructive response" to an interim report from a faculty committee released in February, and a decision to schedule a press conference at 2:30 p.m., just 30 minutes before the faculty group prepared to meet, calling the decision a "last straw."

During that meeting, the Faculty Senate also wanted to discuss the resignation of a committee created to review the shooting and its aftermath, and invited university administrators "to address elected faculty senate concerns." The committee generated its own sharply-critical interim report, however, they halted finalizing the report over fears of backlash from the Robbins' administration.

Robbins, Balafas and others were invited, but choose not to attend the online Zoom meeting. However, Provost Folks and College of Science Dean Carmala Garzione spoke to the senators.

"I'm sure those people were trying their best to move the issues towards resolution within the frameworks they are obliged to remain within for compliance and legal reasons," Folks said. "But that proved to be insufficient to prevent the deadly shooting."

"The only thing I'd like to say is that I did write the committee and thank them for their hard work," said Garzione. "I know this has been a really difficult issue—it has been difficult for me and the people in the College of Science. And, I believe the committee's intentions were the right intentions to make our campus safer."

"The Pax report that Robbins requested also has that very same goal, and what I'd really love to see is people working together to make this campus safer," she said.

In the motion, the Faculty Senate faulted Roberts and his administration for:

  • Failing to do due diligence to ensure the safety of the late Professor Thomas Meixner, the Hydrology and Atmospheric Sciences faculty, staff, and students, and the campus before Professor Meixner's tragic murder;
  • A combative, non-constructive response to the General Faculty Committee on Safety for All Interim Report and other Faculty Senate attempts to find ways to improve safety and restore broken trust on campus;
  • Intentionally calling a press conference on the release of the PAX report thirty minutes before a Special Faculty Senate meeting dedicated to the resignation of the General Faculty Committee on Safety for All in which the administration had been allocated time to address elected Faculty Senate concerns.

During the press conference, Robbins said he hadn't been invited to the faculty meeting, but added "I usually try to go to all the meetings." He said that Phil Andrew, the former FBI special agent who wrote the PAX Group report would be available to the press at 4 p.m., though he was one of the guests slated to speak with the group.

The senate, which is elected by UA professors, said that they had sent Robbins an invitation to the session, which was held virtually.

While Robbins has lost the Faculty Senate, he still has the support of the Arizona Board of Regents, which oversees the state's three public universities.

The board "fully supports President Robbins, whose guidance has led the university to achieve extraordinary success and has shepherded it through unprecedented challenges," wrote ABOR Chair Lyndel Manson in a letter to Faculty Senate Chair Professor Leila Hudson.

"The board respects the range of opinions expressed at the University of Arizona Faculty Senate yesterday and strongly encourages the Faculty Senate to focus on working constructively moving forward," Manson wrote Tuesday.

UA officials would not comment on the faculty vote, and instead referred to the Board of Regents. ABOR replied with a link to Manson's statement of support for Robbins.

Safety committee resigns

Monday's meeting was built around discussion of the UA's general safety committee—created in the wake of Meixner's death—and an interim report that sharply-criticized the university for its handling of the shooting.

The committee's chair, Jenny Lee resigned earlier this month writing that members decided that statements and actions by UA leadership "have materially impacted our ability to complete our inquiry," and further, committee-members were worried they would face backlash for serving on the committee after administrators questioned the "legitimacy and integrity" of the committee.

After the committee released their report, university spokeswoman Pam Scott said report reached "sweeping conclusions" based on "misleading characterizations and the selective use of facts and quotations."

The committee also noted UAPD released a newsletter in which Balafas described the committee report as "critical" of parts of the UA.

"We are stronger than our critics," Balafas concluded.

The PAX Group noted that UAPD "missed multiple opportunities" to "engage, disrupt and arrest" Dervish. This includes "at least three key moments" when they could have stopped Dervish, the group when he was spotted on campus in violation of his February expulsion; when he began sending threatening emails and messages; and when he stopped in at the UAPD office to run the license plate for a gold 2000 Pontiac Montana minivan he purchased on Sept. 27, 2022.

A timeline shows Dervish was on campus despite the expulsion order multiple times: including last March 4, as well as March 14 and 15.

In the meantime, as Dervish's threats accelerated, he attempted to purchase a firearm on the website Armslist on March 5, 2022.

During his bond hearing, prosecutors presented evidence he frightened the seller of a pistol as they negotiated over the price. Described by prosecutors as "essentially Craigslist for guns" Armslist allows gun sellers to text with buyers. As Dervish haggled over the price, he told the seller "A couple of bucks doesn't really fucking matter at all since I'm just going to use it to kill several people and then myself," Dervish said. The seller stopped speaking to him, and Dervish wrote several days later "just kidding"

Weeks later, Dervish threatened to shoot Meixner, texting him "You are the most disgusting piece of shit I ever met. I hope somebody blows your fucking head off."

On April 15, two members of UAPD went to the gunman's home in "an attempt to charge" him with "two counts of misdemeanor threats and arrest him." However, he refused to open a security door, and the UAPD detective and sergeant decided to let him sign a citation "in lieu of receiving a warrant." While leaving the two police officers were told by a neighbor that Tucson police had a report of a "disturbance" involving him on Feb. 17

By August, Dervish managed to buy two handguns—at least one through a private sale. Officers later found a 9mm handgun in his vehicle "loaded with ammunition consistent" shell casings found at the murder scene, accordingly to court records. They also found a .25-caliber Raven Arms handgun—a type of small, cheap "Saturday night special" pistol often referred to as a "Ring of Fire" gun, with a loaded 10-round magazine and another bullet in the chamber, inside a holster stuffed inside the bag in the back of the vehicle.

Even as the Hydrology Department staff continued to report threats, and UAPD's detective said on Sept. 16 he would pursue charged with the Pima County Attorney's Office on Sept. 27, 2022, Dervish visited UAPD for a "VIN verification," according to the PAX Group timeline.

On Oct. 5, he was spotted by one student who did not report his presence until after the shooting around 9 a.m. Later, at 1:59 p.m., a faculty member calls 911 to request an escort for a student because Dervish had been spotted. As UAPD officers were en route they received the first call of "shoots fired" at 2:04 p.m.

Balafas' attitude to UAPD stakeholders is "unfortunate and is contrary to efforts to increase community trust in UAPD," the committee wrote. "It demonstrates an unhealthy administrative culture that is consistent with the report's findings.This attitude is also consistent with our findings concerning the university leadership's approach to a known chronic problem of distrust."

The committee said that until the interim report was released "university offices charged with safety-related responsibilities communicated with the committee and answered questions," however, UA leadership has "apparently instructed offices charged with safety-related responsibilities to direct the committee inquiries to PAX Group and not answer questions."

While the UA has released the PAX Group report, other parts of the investigation have remained opaque. The UA, including the UA Police Department, has yet to release public records sought by news outlets, including Tucson Sentinel. UA representatives have not responded to numerous requests for records that should be promptly provided under Arizona law.

The committee warned this led to a "chilling effect" and worries of retaliation. "Community safety requires much more than a fragmented array of security measures, the delegation of safety-related responsibilities, and the periodical engagement of external security experts," they wrote. "It is the duty of the leadership to ensure that the organization has a coherent risk oversight framework and foster a healthy organizational culture."

University leadership they wrote, "failed to meet this duty and there are no indications that any steps will be made to address the concerns outlined in the Interim Report."

While the committee produced an interim report, Lee said they would "conclude their inquiry" for the time being.

During the press conference, Robbins said he met with committee members and he told them "it was a mistake to release that dismissive criticism of their work."

"I believe that we can go forward by uniting, as I said, to work together to make the campus a safer place," he said. "I know that's everyone's shared, aspirational goal is and I'm committed to lead us through that."

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