A longtime distinguished professor at Florida State University’s Askew School of Public Administration and Policy was allowed to quietly resign last year amid a sexual misconduct investigation sparked by the disclosure of a series of sexually explicit emails, photos and text messages exchanged between the professor and a foreign student.
Dr. Richard Feiock, 62, was the subject of a voluminous report prepared by FSU Human Resources officials, but the university was unable to reach a final determination on the allegations because his departure ended the inquiry, officials said.
While emails and text messages between Feiock and the student were at the heart of the inquiry, the report describes the dismay of faculty members upset that the university didn’t take stronger action sooner against the professor, who was counseled after previous allegations of sexual misconduct dating back to at least 1991, the records show.
“I think the impact on the college itself is huge,’’ Tim Chapin, dean of the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy, told investigators, according to the report. “There is a huge sense of disgust over the allegations.’’
The report of more than 200 pages comprising transcripts of interviews with more than a dozen faculty and students, was released to the Florida Phoenix by authorization of university President John Thrasher. The emails included nude photos and “an image of what is suspected to be Dr. Feiock’s penis,’’ investigators said.
In mid-December of 2019, those images along with text messages were anonymously sent to about 10 Askew School students, who shared the material with university officials in January 2020, according to the Human Resources Department report.
FSU Professor Ralph Brower had written an “urgent” memo about the controversial emails related to alleged sexual misconduct and sent it to university officials on Jan. 25, 2020, prompting a Human Resources investigation that led to Feiock’s departure, the records show.
A few days later Dean Chapin placed Feiock on paid leave, ordered him off the campus and instructed the professor to have no contact with FSU students or faculty.
But on Feb. 5, 2020 Chapin warned Feiock in writing that he failed to adhere to the university’s earlier directive. Chapin repeated the order to stay away from students and employees as well as seminars, meetings and related activities, virtually or in person.
On March 10, 2020, the day before his interview with Human Resources investigators, Feiock emailed Chapin saying he wanted to retire. Chapin accepted his resignation in an emailed response within minutes, according to the report.
Text messages in the report mention that Feiock referenced having met with a lawyer, but he didn’t say who, and university officials did not know which lawyer Feiock consulted with or even if he consulted one.
Feiock did not return repeated phone calls or messages for comment to the Florida Phoenix. After leaving FSU, he founded Local Governance Research LLC, according to Florida Secretary of State records, and is listed as the executive director.
With Feiock’s departure the inquiry ended. Because he left without responding to the allegations, it was impossible for investigators to render an opinion whether university policy was violated, the FSU report noted.
Dennis Schnittker, interim vice president for FSU communications, said personnel matters are generally dropped when an employee leaves. “Employers are unable to discipline non-employees,’’ Schnittker said in an emailed response to the Phoenix.
Thrasher said in an interview with the Phoenix that Feiock’s behavior was unacceptable. He stressed that FSU will not tolerate any sexual harassment of students.
“We started an investigation and immediately removed him from campus,’’ Thrasher said of Feiock. “He was never permitted to return to campus and resigned before we could conclude the investigation.’’
A professor and national expert
With degrees from the University of Kansas and the University of Miami, Feiock, who came to FSU in 1990, built a national reputation as a public policy expert, often working as a consultant and witness for state agencies, local governments, the National Science Foundation and other governmental agencies.
For years, he directed FSU’s doctoral program in public administration that frequently included Korean and Chinese students. Feiock was a former Fulbright Scholar who spent time at a university in South Korea in 2006, according to his personnel records. His annual salary was at least $219,182 and was supplemented by various grants he received for his research, Thrasher said. Feiock’s biography says he raised more than $1 million in grants for FSU.
But Feiock also had a reputation for fraternizing with students, according to the report. He frequently invited students to accompany him to Momo’s Pizza, the Brass Tap and other drinking and eating establishments in Tallahassee, in the state capital, according to the investigative report.
Dr. Keon-Hyung Lee, a director and professor who supervised faculty at the Askew School, told investigators that before he became a faculty member at FSU he had witnessed Feiock drinking with students and attempting to kiss and hug one at a conference. Further details of the conference and the encounter were not included in the report.
Investigators noted emails Feiock and the student exchanged between 2017 and 2019 and pornographic images on Feiock’s university issued computer. In emails, Feiock declared his love for the student, according to the report.
University officials also found text messages Feiock allegedly used to coach the student on her responses to investigators.
According to the report, FSU officials warned investigators to handle the inquiry “with great delicacy, because our students are extremely frightened about Professor Feiock’s potential to harm their professional futures.’’
The foreign doctoral student at the center of the investigation attended FSU from 2017 to 2019 and told investigators she was forced to have sex with Feiock on campus in the professor’s office. Her name and the names of other students interviewed by investigators were redacted from the report released to the Florida Phoenix in compliance with Florida’s public records law, which makes such records public once an investigation is complete or inactive.
“I was scared. I didn’t know what to do,’’ she told investigators, according to the report. “I haven’t told anyone because it’s very hard and I couldn’t tell them because I didn’t feel that I had anyone to protect me.” After the encounter she said she was depressed and afraid.
Another doctoral student told investigators that Feiock “focuses on Asian girls because he knows that Asian girls won’t be willing to talk about it to others because they think it is embarrassing.’’ The student was one of 10 interviewed as a part of the investigation.
Students’ fear also was rooted in a need for funding and academic connections for employment, according to the report. Some were afraid to talk because they feared Feiock would return to the campus.
Dr. Frances Berry, a professor and eminent scholar at the Askew School, had handled some previous complaints about Feiock’s conduct which had been ignored by some officials because Feiock was bringing in grant money for the school, according to what Berry said in the report. She also said in the report that it was hard for students, especially Asian women, to openly accuse him of predatory behavior.
Students were scared because the university had not taken harsh sanctions against him in the past and allowed his behavior “to grow even more out of control,’’ Berry told investigators.
Faculty and students warned
Dr. Berry wasn’t the only faculty member to question why Feiock was allowed to remain at the university.
Dean Chapin told investigators that he was concerned for the students affected by Feiock’s behavior, many of whom were from China and South Korea.
“I just don’t know how many people have been affected and it’s horrible and disgusting,’’ Dean Chapin told investigators, according to the report. “I have a 19-year-old daughter who is in college and I work with these students and their parents and they put their trust in us and I’m frankly disgusted by all this. It’s horrible. It does not make me a proud member of the University community,’’ Chapin said during a Feb. 11, 2020 interview with investigators.
And Dr. Lee said he did not like dealing with sexual harassment issues especially since he realized it had been going on almost 31 or 32 years, according to the report.
“How can a person such as Dr. Feiock stay in this environment?’’ Lee asked the investigators. “In Korea this would have been addressed already and he would have been fired. Having to warn female students about Feiock’s behavior is shameful as a faculty member.’’
The report mentions that the Office of Equal Opportunity and Compliance, which is part of the university’s Human Resources department, noted that Feiock had been investigated for sexual misconduct before. In 1991 and 2005, he was counseled and the behavior was documented in an annual performance evaluation.
Berry supervised Feiock in 2005 when another female student came to her with a complaint about the professor, according to the investigators’ report. Berry told investigators Feiock was counseled and warned he would be fired if it happened again.
Berry said she reported his past conduct to university officials again in 2018, when Feiock was under consideration for a promotion. Dean Chapin did not give him the job and Berry said she warned new Korean faculty members to help protect the women students from the professor, according to the Human Resources report.
When the new allegations surfaced in January 2020, Berry looked for reports made of his conduct in 1991, 2005 and 2018 only to discover that his personnel file had been wiped clean, according to the report. Berry, who had handled some of the earlier investigations, said she learned from Dean Chapin that the reports had been cleansed.
The report also said that the 1991 and 2005 complaints stemmed from Feiock allegedly promising students better grades if they “cozied up to him.”
FSU President Thrasher told the Phoenix that the university does not know how the documentation of earlier allegations of misconduct against Feiock disappeared.
Thrasher said he was unaware of the earlier allegations against Feiock until the investigation last year. He stressed that FSU is prepared to disclose Feiock’s history if asked by another institution. Last fall, Thrasher and FSU’s board of trustees announced the launch of a national presidential search for Thrasher’s successor.
But Thrasher said he believes FSU now has “the right things in place’’ to keep it from happening again.
He said: “It wasn’t a good thing, but it’s not our culture.’