FSU faculty look to retroactively fire prof in alleged sexual misconduct case, citing ‘overwhelming evidence of wrongdoing’

By: - March 26, 2021 3:02 pm

Florida State University. Credit: Diane Rado

The entire faculty of the Askew School of Public Administration and Policy at Florida State University has denounced the handling of sexual misconduct allegations against one of their own former professors and called on administrators to revisit the FSU investigation and retroactively fire Dr. Richard Feiock for cause.

In an open letter “To All members of the FSU community,” 10 faculty members apologized for their own silence and called on the university to hire an outside impartial third party investigator or team of investigators to handle all future investigations of sexual harassment, misconduct or abuse allegations against faculty and staff.

The faculty also asks the university to acknowledge “multiple failures in ignoring prior complaints before 2020, conducting this investigation without providing any feedback to faculty and students who made complaints, protecting students, and failing to hold Feiock accountable.”

Dr. Richard Feiock resigned last year from Florida State University. Credit: FSU.

Feiock, 62, a widely acclaimed professor at the Askew School who frequently obtained grants that benefited the school, quietly resigned last year amid a sexual misconduct investigation sparked by the disclosure of sexually explicit emails, photos and text messages exchanged by the professor and a foreign student.

A university inquiry noted that Feiock had been repeatedly investigated for allegations of sexual misconduct dating back at least to 1991. He had been counseled, but allowed to remain on the faculty for more than 30 years.

“We believe we have failed you,’’ the faculty letter noted. “Despite our silence, the investigation was lengthy, opaque and allowed Dr. Feiock to escape full consequences or take responsibility for his actions by retiring.’’

In addition, “Accepting Feiock’s resignation instead of firing him for cause is also not acceptable as it allows the whisper network and silence to continue, and potentially allows other institutions to hire him without knowing about his past behavior.”

Feiock left the faculty in March a year ago without responding to the investigation and has not responded to questions from the Florida Phoenix. After leaving the university he created a new government research company based at his home address in Tallahassee.

The Askew faculty members provided the open letter to the Florida Phoenix. The Phoenix also has a standing request for any follow up information in the Feiock case with the Askew School and the FSU president’s office.

The Phoenix sent emails Thursday to two of the most recent addresses for Feiock, but there was no response.

Faculty members said they “should have pushed back against any alleged efforts by the former professor to isolate his students from the rest of the school, paid greater attention to the possibility of any alleged continued misbehavior and problematic departmental culture, provided a safe space for our students, and been more available for our students to confide in us.”

The faculty also criticized the Askew School’s failure to enforce its stringent policy against sexual harassment, according to the letter. They attributed part of the failure to FSU’s requirement that sexual harassment complaints have to be formally made by a faculty member or student who experienced the harassment before an investigation could take place.

“As a faculty, we are deeply saddened and appalled by the university’s weak process and leadership in responding to multiple allegations of sexual harassment of Richard Feiock dating back to 1991,’’ the group wrote.

FSU President John Thrasher commended the faculty members for their efforts to help students but strongly defended the action taken in Feiock’s case.

When evidence of  “terrible behaviors’’ is presented, Thrasher said the school does everything within its power to ensure the incidents are promptly and fairly dealt with.

Last year when evidence of alleged sexual misconduct surfaced, Thrasher said FSU “took action that resulted in the permanent removal of the faculty member at the center of these horrific allegations.”

As an employer, FSU does not have the powers of criminal or civil courts to prosecute or punish or to detain an unwilling or uncooperative employee while alleged misconduct is investigated and sanctions are imposed, Thrasher said. He said the suggestion that the administration let Feiock escape full consequences misrepresents what happened.

“In this case the former faculty member is now facing the consequences of his actions. He has lost his job, and as a result of the report that we were able to produce detailing the factual findings of our investigation, he has also destroyed his career and his professional reputation,’’ Thrasher said.

He also noted that the university has strengthened its sexual misconduct and sexual harassment policies multiple times since the early 1990’s, keeping them in full compliance with federal regulations.

Those who signed the open letter were Askew faculty members Drs. David Berlan, Frances Berry, Ralph Brower, Portia Campos, Daniel Fay, Keon-Hyung Lee, Tian Tang, Gary VanLandingham, James E. Wright II and Kaifeng Yang.

Faculty members issued 10 specific recommendations to administrators, including: “Revisit the investigation’s overwhelming evidence of wrongdoing to reach a conclusion of fault and retroactively terminate Feiock with cause.”

In addition, the faculty wants FSU to prohibit early retirement during an ongoing sexual harassment investigation and provide external counseling resources to current and former students impacted by Feiock’s misbehavior and “our institutional failures.”

The recommendations also call for an investigation into how Feiock’s human resources file was “cleansed of all information and formal actions taken by FSU against him prior to 2020.”

Witnesses in FSU’s investigation last year said Feiock’s personnel file had been sanitized by the removal of past complaints. FSU Communications Director Dennis Schnittker said the documents were housed in separate files in the university’s human resources department.

The investigation “was arduous and hostile towards those affected by Feiock’s actions,’’ the faculty members said in their letter. “The student identities were redacted from the report, but their ethnicities and nationalities were not, which created further fear and trauma.”

The faculty members also wrote that that they and other staff received no information about the progress of the investigation or its potential outcome.

The failure of the university to take swift action in the face of repeated allegations of sexual misconduct by Feiock “contravenes the very essence of a free and open safe space that our University purports to represent,” the letter stated.

Since the Florida Phoenix’s publication of details surrounding the Feiock investigation, the faculty has been openly available to students and reached out to listen and counsel them. Several Zoom meetings have been held and others are scheduled so students can speak up.

In a statement released earlier this week, Dean Tim Chapin, head of the College of Social Sciences & Public Policy, which includes the Askew School, defended actions taken against Feiock. As soon as reports of “these appalling behaviors’’ were received, Chapin said, he worked to get Feiock out of the classroom and launch a formal investigation.

“I want to state clearly and unambiguously that sexual misconduct and sexual harassment have no place in our community,’’ Chapin said. He added that FSU officials are working to provide support to everyone who was affected by contact with Feiock.

Faculty members plan to meet next week with FSU administrators to discuss the investigation and future steps for dealing with sexual misconduct.

The faculty members plan to design and implement an anonymous complaint reporting process free from faculty involvement and rebuild a “culture of support and trust in our doctoral program.’’

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Lucy Morgan
Lucy Morgan

Pulitzer Prize-winner Lucy Morgan was chief of the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times capital bureau in Tallahassee for 20 years, retiring in 2006 and serving as senior correspondent until 2013. She was inducted into the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame and the Florida Newspaper Hall of Fame. The Florida Senate named its press gallery after Morgan, in honor of her two decades covering the Legislature.