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U. of Arizona professor fatally shot; former student charged

Court documents say the suspect ‘has been the subject of several reports of harassment and threats to staff’

University of Arizona police escort students from the scene of a shooting at the John W. Harshbarger Building on the campus in Tucson. Campus police said Thomas Meixner, a popular hydrology professor was fatally shot in an office. (Rebecca Sasnett/Arizona Daily Star/AP)

A University of Arizona professor was shot and killed in an office on campus Wednesday, university police said. A former student at the university has been charged.

The shooting devastated those who knew Thomas Meixner, the head of the Hydrology and Atmospheric Sciences Department at the university, who was described by many as a kind and brilliant man. It frightened the campus community as students fled classrooms and tried to barricade themselves into rooms when the university sent alerts. And it reignited concerns nationally about some of the risks that can arise in the intense, and sometimes fraught, world of academia.

Murad Dervish, 46, was taken into custody hours after the shooting and charged Thursday with first-degree murder and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, according to the University of Arizona Police Department. A campus-police spokesman said Thursday that the motive is not yet known.

The incident unfolded quickly. A man entered the John W. Harshbarger Building just before 2 p.m. Wednesday, according to university police. Someone called police at 1:59 to say a former student who was not allowed in the building had entered, and requested that police escort the man out.

Documents filed in Pima County Justice Court stated Dervish had been expelled in February and staff were advised to call 911 if he were to return to campus.

“Dervish has been the subject of several reports of harassment and threats to staff members working at Harshbarger,” according to court records, and was prohibited from possessing a firearm because of a previous unrelated protection order.

A campus exclusionary order had been filled out to ban Dervish, but it had not yet been served because police could not locate him, Sgt. Sean Shields, a spokesman for the University of Arizona Police Department, said Thursday.

The department then received another call that there had been a shooting in the building. At 2:07 p.m., police were told the suspect had run out of the building’s main entrance, campus police said.

Meixner was struck by approximately four 9mm bullets, according to court documents. Another man in the office was struck by a bullet fragment and was treated and released. A person who knows Dervish identified him as the shooter, authorities said in the court document.

Meixner was taken to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Three hours later, Dervish was stopped by police while driving toward Mexico about 30 miles south of Gila Bend, Ariz., according to the court documents. A 9mm handgun was found in his vehicle, loaded with ammunition consistent with the approximately 11 shell casings found at the scene in Tucson, according to the documents.

An attorney for Dervish could not immediately be located.

According to the court documents, before police questioning, Dervish said: “I hope he’s okay, probably wishful thinking.”

Dervish said he had considered taking his own life.

And he said, “I just felt so disrespected by that whole department,” the documents state.

On campus, many mourned Meixner, a longtime presence at the university.

“Tom was always smiling — when I think of Tom, that’s my first impression,” said Xubin Zeng, a professor in the department of Hydrology and Atmospheric Sciences, who said Meixner had been a colleague and friend of 15 years. “He was always kind to everybody.”

Zeng said he had taught Dervish, and that members of the department are shocked, saddened and angry.

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The broader scientific community shared memories and tributes to Meixner’s research contributions but even more so to his personal contributions as a mentor, friend, role model and family man.

Paul Brooks, a professor of hydrology at the University of Utah, had been friends with him since graduate school. “He really was a gifted interdisciplinary scientist who could connect chemistry, hydrology and biology together for really meaningful, insightful work,” Brooks said.

“But the most important thing about Tom is he was such a powerful force for good in science and academia in a very competitive world where things often aren’t fair, and where people work very hard and maybe aren’t acknowledged to the level they should be. He was incredibly unselfish and supportive of everyone.”

Rebecca Barnes, an AAAS science technology policy fellow with the National Science Foundation, said she first met Meixner as a star-struck postdoctoral student. “One of the amazing things about being a scientist is knowing people in all these different stages of our lives,” Barnes said. “But it also means that our community, we feel these losses really hard.”

She said Meixner was warmly supportive of efforts to make science more equitable and inclusive, and remembered him enthusiastically — in all caps — promoting a colleague’s work when Barnes was creating Wikipedia pages to highlight women in STEM fields.

“He was one of those people who is both very smart and very nice, and that’s who you want in science,” she said. “That’s who you want training the next generation.”

Adam Ward, the head of the biological and ecological engineering department at Oregon State University, said the incident shocked and upset him not only because he liked and admired Meixner, a fellow hydrologist, but because he saw it as part of the threat that scientists are increasingly facing.

He said police had once intervened when a student Ward had known moved from talking about killing Ward and his family members to showing up at his home and their workplaces. He had to talk to his children’s school principals, he said, about court orders banning the stalker from the area.

Faculty and students can have complicated relations, Ward said, because they often work closely together and faculty can have so much influence over a student’s future. Graduate school “is a complicated and emotionally charged time in people’s lives,” he said.

Meixner, who grew up in Maryland, graduated from the University of Maryland in 1992, according to his faculty homepage, and earned his doctorate in hydrology in 1999 from the University of Arizona.

Christopher L. Castro, the associate department head, did not immediately respond to a request for comment but posted on social media about the loss, writing that he was devastated. “Beyond his professional contributions to hydrology, Tom was a father and an exemplary human being. Praying all who mourn, especially his family. I will miss you forever, my dear friend.”

Arizona’s governor, Doug Ducey (R), said in a tweet that the state is praying for Meixner’s family and friends.

The campus resumed in-person classes Thursday.

On Friday evening, the university planned to hold a candlelight vigil to honor Meixner.

In a video to campus Friday, university president Robert C. Robbins said Meixner’s contributions to the university and the lasting impressions he made on countless students would not be forgotten.

“He was a devoted husband and father whose work focused on saving the world’s most precious resources,” Robbins said. “One of the last things he shared with his community was the quote, ‘Hope is not optimism, which expects things to turn out well, but something rooted in the conviction that there is good worth working for.’ ”

Razzan Nakhlawi contributed to this report.