Former FSU Professor Faces Allegations Of Sexual Misconduct, Allowed To Retire Amid Investigation

Mar 23, 2021
Originally published on March 25, 2021 11:09 am

For decades Florida State University was aware of sexual misconduct allegations against a former professor in its Askew School of Public Administration and Policy. The professor abruptly resigned during an investigation into an allegation against him last year. But this situation is not new to academia and has raised questions about why it took so long for the school to take action against Richard Feiock, a formerly highly regarded political scientist.

"There is no question he is and has been a sexual predator, and it's become so frequent it's just beyond the pale," Frances Berry says in her witness account in a roughly 200-page Title IX investigative report.

Berry turned down an interview request for this story. The university interviewed current and former students and employees as part of its investigation into allegations that Feiock had an inappropriate sexual relationship with a student in 2019. The student, a visiting scholar, said in her witness account that her involvement with Feiock was, "involuntary."

The student later emailed correspondence she had with Feiock to students in FSU's public administration program. It contained explicit language from a Gmail account, seoulman08, and was signed by Rick, Feiock's first name. FSU later found sexually explicit images on Feiock's university-issued computer. Jonathan Lubin was a Ph.D. candidate in the program at the time when someone showed him the emails.

"I was shocked. It felt like the pit of my stomach was gnawing and like just grasping, and there was just this terrible pit, and I wanted to dry heave when I read it all because this was my final year as a candidate. So, this was literally the semester before I was going to defend my dissertation," Lubin says.

Feiock was Lubin's major professor and on his dissertation committee. According to FSU's report, professors knew Feiock would target female students and tried to warn them. Lubin questions why the school itself never took action when Feiock's behavior was widely known.

"Why was there no warning to any of this? If all of this is—I mean based on the report of Florida State—alleged—but if all of this is true, why was there no warning bells for any student that worked under him? Man, woman, person, anyone?" Lubin says.

The 2020 report was not the first time Feiock faced allegations of sexual misconduct. Two prior complaints were brought against him in 1991 and 2005. Berry was a witness in the 2005 complaint. According to her account, those files had been removed from Feiock's university personnel file. But she had a copy and gave them to Tim Chapin, the dean. Mary Ellen Guy was a former professor at the Askew School from 1997 to 2008. Six years after the first complaint.

"It was very clear to me as a newcomer to the faculty in '97 that there had been great angst among the faculty who were there when that claim came forward, and it was also clear to me that no one really wanted to talk about that."

Guy says when Feiock was up for promotion and tenure, she remembers hearing the dean at the time specifically instructing the promotion and tenure committee to disregard the prior sex harassment claim.

"And the message from that to the faculty from the administration was get over it. It didn't happen. It's not an issue. Pay no attention to it and move on," Guy says.

Guy recalls hearing domestic students tell each other to stay away from Feiock. And then saw Feiock surround himself with Asian women. According to Frances Berry's account, it was widely known that Feiock targeted Korean and Chinese women.

"The issue is if someone is a sexual predator and is a faculty member and has grants that are funding a student's research and making it possible for them to have a visa to be at the university studying those students can't jeopardize their visa or their assistantship, so they have no power whatsoever to refuse the advances of that faculty member."

Sexual harassment in academia is an epidemic, says Karen Kelsky, a consultant who helps people with PhDs find jobs. Four years ago, after sexual assault allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein surfaced, Kelsky posted a google doc spreadsheet on her social media page and encouraged people to share anonymous stories of their experiences in academia. It now has more than 2,000 entries.

"Because our disciplines are so small and intimate, if you were to identify your harasser and open a case against them, they can effectively block you from getting any further funding, from being approved to continue in your program from ever being able to apply for a job. Basically, your career is finished," Kelsky says.

Still, Kelsky notes most people don't leave the academy. Instead, they suffer quietly and can live with that trauma for years.

"Universities across the board in all fields have to figure out a better way to deal with sex harassment, Guy says.

She says universities have to create a culture and send a message that it is not okay to prey on students sexually.

"And there needs to be some mechanism for a more forward kind of action that is allowable—waiting for the victim to come forward is not effective at stopping a serial predator," Guy says.

Feiock was scheduled to be interviewed in FSU's investigation but resigned a day before. He was allowed to retire. Because of this, the university states in its report that "no determination as to whether a violation of the university's sex discrimination and sexual misconduct policy has been made."

"I wanted to scream. I wanted to punch a wall because I knew what was going to happen next. I knew what was going to happen next because of this," Lubin says. "He retired, but that doesn't mean he's going to stop."

According to state records, Feiock founded a company called Local Governance Research LLC after leaving FSU. The National Science Foundation lists Feiock as participating in a grant project until its estimated end date of August 31, 2021.

FSU's Interim Communications Director Dennis Schnittker said in a written response to questions that when the 2020 allegations were received, Feiock was removed from campus and from overseeing students and employees. He was also not allowed to return to the campus. Schnittker says the investigation found "instances of past conduct that were either not reported to Human Resources or did not violate university policy at the time they occurred." Schnittker says the earlier allegations of misconduct by Feiock were not addressed the way they would be today. Phone calls to Feiock for an interview request were not returned.

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