Former FSU grad student comes forward about professor’s unwanted touching: ‘I was petrified’

Public records show other complaints: ‘Women should have the right to be students without fear of being preyed upon by faculty members’

By: - October 28, 2021 12:25 pm

Florida State University. Credit: Diane Rado

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part story about sexual harassment and misconduct allegations between a professor and female students and faculty during a period of more than 30 years at Florida State University. The professor resigned last year.

TALLAHASSEE — It was supposed to be a happy day.

Claire Connolly had earned a master’s degree at Florida State University in 2005 and was getting her picture taken with some of her professors. At the same time, she had just finished her first class toward getting a PhD at the Askew School of Public Administration and Policy.

She was 27 years old, the first in her family to attend college.

Richard Feiock, formerly of the Askew School of Public Administration and Policy. Credit: Florida State University; Florida State University News.

Her mother, visiting from Louisiana, was taking the pictures on April 28, 2005, when then-Professor Richard Feiock stepped forward to pose with Connolly, put his arm around the student’s waist and pulled her close, according to a 2005 FSU investigative report on the incident.

She told investigators she elbowed him away and asked about her grade in his Institutions and Societies course, her very first doctoral class with Feiock.

Feiock put his arm back around her, Connolly told faculty investigators, and indicated he believed her grade was an A- and then whispered in her ear, “Well, if we keep taking pictures like this, I can turn it into an A.’’  At one point the investigative report noted that Feiock was nuzzling her neck in full view of other professors, guests and her mother in the Beth Moor Lounge at the Longmire Building.

Feiock’s behavior toward her included frequent invites to his office alone at night after the class ended and unwanted touching, Connolly told investigators.

“It was really uncomfortable,’’ she said in a recent interview with the Florida Phoenix.

Claire Connolly Knox, PhD. Tenured Associate Professor, University of Central Florida. Credit: UCF website.

Connolly now goes by her married name, Claire Connolly Knox, and is a tenured associate professor at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. After the office encounters, she said she started packing her bag and was first out of the classroom door every night. ”For me it crossed the line. I worked two years saving every penny to get to FSU. I was petrified…..I just wanted out, but I didn’t want to get kicked out of the program.’’

It prompted Knox to file an anonymous complaint against Feiock with FSU officials in 2005.

She initially complained to Askew School Professor Ralph Brower, who referred it to then-Askew School Director, Dr. Frances Berry.

The complaint was later reviewed by staff in FSU’s Office of Audit Services, now called the Office of Inspector General Services, and resolved with a warning to Feiock from Dr. Berry, after Knox asked that the complaint be handled informally, according to records and interviews.

At the time, it was the latest in a long line of documented accusations dating back to 1988 when Feiock first joined FSU, according to recently released records under the state’s public records law. During his longtime tenure, Feiock was the Augustus B. Turnbull Professor of Public Administration and Policy in the Askew School and held the Jerry Collins Eminent Scholar Endowed Chair, among other academic and professional experiences, according to his curriculum vitae.

Six women on campus reported “negative experiences’’ with Feiock, saying in a formal 1991 report that the professor had inappropriately touched them and made sexually suggestive comments, according to the records.

After he received an unfavorable annual evaluation in 1993, Feiock did acknowledge at that time  “problems that occurred and said he was taking steps to ensure that there will be no similar behavior in the future,’’ wrote then-Askew School Director Gloria Grizzle in a letter to Dean Steve Edwards, according to the records. In addition, Feiock offered to write a letter of apology to students who had complained, the records show, but FSU officials noted that no written apology appears in his files.

Grizzle died in 2020. Edwards died in 2016.

That pattern continued until March 2020, when Feiock, a widely acclaimed public policy expert, resigned as FSU investigators again looked into sexual misconduct after explicit emails and text messages from the professor to students were released.

Feiock has not responded to repeated attempts by the Phoenix to contact him. FSU officials say they believe he has moved to Pennsylvania, where he has relatives.

Meanwhile, Florida State University has been taking steps to improve the handling of sexual harassment complaints, including the creation of a task force and a set of rules approved by the Askew School faculty.

‘An invasion of personal space’

Knox contacted a Florida Phoenix reporter to describe her experience with Feiock after the news outlet published a March report about a 2020 investigation into his conduct.

Unlike many victims of sexual harassment, she agreed to be quoted and identified.

Knox also provided to the Phoenix copies of the sexual harassment complaint she made in 2005. Last year, she requested and received copies of the report, plus copies of other complaints filed against Feiock.

FSU Communications Director Dennis Schnittker said the copies she received and shared with the Phoenix were public records provided to Knox by the FSU General Counsel’s office. Schnittker also produced copies of the records to the Florida Phoenix.

The first reports of alleged sexual harassment by Feiock date to August 1988, when he was a new university employee. Some complaints were made by his doctoral students and others by faculty members, according to the records.  They described “an invasion of personal space,’’ when Feiock stood too close or made suggestions that he wanted to get to know a female faculty member better.

A faculty member described Feiock as “very friendly at first and very professional,’’ but said his behavior changed to flirtatious, according to FSU records.

“Several times he asked me to sit on his lap or asked me out for a drink or a ride on his motorcycle,’’ she added. On Valentines Day, he gave her a red carnation and asked for a kiss and called her “love of my life’’ and “cutie.’’

The six women who reported their experiences with Feiock in 1988 included one student who wrote:

Florida State University campus. Credit: Diane Rado.

“I avoided him by not taking his classes or stopping to chat,’’ according to the 1991 report that detailed Feiock’s behavior in 1988.  “Female students at Florida State University should never have to be afraid to walk down a hall or take a class.’’

A PhD candidate at FSU on leave from the U.S. Air Force described Feiock as being “more friendly than was comfortable for me’’ during a gathering between faculty and students at Bullwinkle’s, a campus bar.  “I went to the rest room and sat in another chair when I returned.’’

Another student wrote in the 1991 report: “I am speaking up because I believe women should have the right to be students without fear of being preyed upon by faculty members seeking intimate involvement.’’

During a party at the home of another professor, a student said she met Feiock, who kept moving toward her in a chair until she was only half on the chair. The student said Feiock suggested he should “jump on me and kiss me,’’ after a cat jumped on a nearby bookcase. She also said he made a pass at two of her girlfriends who were also students.

College of Social Sciences Dean Charles Cnudde called for reporting all instances of sexual harassment in a 1991 memo. “In other words this matter should be pursued,’’ he added. Cnudde died in 2012.

But General Counsel Gerald B. Jaski said Feiock was seeking counseling and suggested action against him would be premature. Jaski said at the time that any move to sanction Feiock, if he was seeking treatment, “would be premature’’ and “should be held in abeyance pending new evidence of ongoing sexually harassing behavior.’’ Jaski died in 2015.

The records included other alleged instances of misconduct between 1988 and 1991. An undated affidavit from another faculty member gave an account of Feiock making jokes “full of sexual insinuations.’’  After talking with others she decided against making a formal complaint to administrators.

“My silence did not help anyone,’’ she wrote.  “I gave up the possibilities of finding a good job.  Sacrificing these possibilities gave me a feeling of helplessness and loss. I am writing because I do not want other women to sacrifice or lose any more on account of someone else’s neediness.  We deserve the right to be treated with dignity and respect and it is time that we all start realizing it.’’

Some regrets

In a written statement given to the Phoenix, Knox said she regrets having filed her complaint anonymously and not telling other students about Feiock. She asked to remain anonymous at the time, out of fear that he would retaliate or lower her grade. She said she wonders whether it might have stopped his harassing behavior if she had spoken up earlier.

She said she told investigators that Feiock frequently invited her to his office alone after his class adjourned at 8:50 p.m. and instead of sitting behind his desk like other FSU professors, he sat beside her touching her knees and shoulders. Initially she thought he wanted to talk about research and was “super excited’’ because he was a famous professor.

The university investigated. According to the records, Feiock told Dr. Berry he did not believe he had engaged in any offensive behavior, but asked investigating professors to offer an apology to the student.

But Berry warned that his entire history of complaints from women students would be evaluated if he engaged in additional sexual harassment of students. The investigative report notes that the complaint did not affect Knox’s grade in Feiock’s class.

In 2020, when Feiock was once again investigated for sexual harassment, FSU officials initially said they could not find any of the old reports made about his sexual misconduct.

Since then FSU has determined that the old reports had not been put in his personnel file, but did exist in other administrative files. Schnittker said investigative reports are not typically put in personnel files but kept in separate human resource files.

Knox upset about FSU’s actions

Knox told the Phoenix that she was upset when she learned that FSU allowed Feiock to continue working with and have supervisory power over female graduate students. She also questioned why FSU officials allowed Feiock to retire and failed to warn other public administration academic programs about him.

A January 2020 investigation occurred after a graduate student sent to a number of students and officials at FSU copies of emails and text messages from Feiock. Those emails included a photo of what officials believe was Feiock’s penis and sexually explicit descriptions of sex with the student in his university office.

In response, Feiock was immediately banished from the campus while students were asked about his conduct. Feiock was allowed to quietly resign in March 2020, a day before he was supposed to respond to questions from investigators. His resignation was effective July 31, 2020.

After leaving FSU, Feiock opened a new LLC government research business in Tallahassee in late August 2020, according to state records.

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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.