A Professor, a ‘Predator’

Florida State scrambles to explain how a faculty member who was known to prey on Asian female students was allowed to do so for 30 years.

April 1, 2021
 
Florida State University
Richard Feiock

In January 2020, Florida State University received an urgent report that Richard Feiock, then the Augustus B. Turnbull Professor of Public Administration, had engaged in an “inappropriate sexual relationship” with a visiting female international student.

Less than two months later, on the day before he was scheduled to be interviewed as part of the university’s attendant investigation, Feiock said he was retiring -- and Florida State ended its investigation.

He's 'Creepy'

The university had already gathered pornographic images from Feiock’s work computer, including what was presumed to be a photo of his penis, and sexual emails he sent to the former graduate student in question. Investigators also found text messages in which Feiock had asked the former student to talk to his lawyer, despite an order that he not contact students or faculty members during the inquiry.

The former student told a friend, and eventually the university, that Feiock had coerced her into having oral sex in his office in 2019. 

“My mind was blank and I was scared,” the unnamed student told investigators. “I didn’t know what to do. After the incident, I went to my friend’s house where I was staying and took a shower. I haven’t told anyone because it’s very hard and I couldn’t tell them because I didn’t feel I had anyone to protect me.”

Feiock had already been reported for and counseled about sexual misconduct involving students in 1991 and 2005, according to a lengthy university investigation shared first with the Florida Phoenix and then Inside Higher Ed. Curiously, though, his personnel file had been purged of these records. Feiock was also reported to have sent a student sexual messages more recently. Multiple sources said Feiock’s dean at the time knew about that issue, several years ago, but did little.

Numerous witnesses told investigators that Feiock was known to prey on international students, and women from Asia in particular. One current student said that Feiock kept touching her legs and arms under the table at a research group outing. A former student said she had to leave his program after he ran his hand up her thigh at a conference. Earlier, he’d asked her to sit on his lap in a shared van.

One professor called Feiock "out of control" and “creepy.” Several others were known to actively steer international students away from Feiock. Others still described him as mercurial and toxic, draining the morale of the department with an “us-against-them” attitude.

Korean students had allegedly written a rumored handbook about how to deal with a certain professor, understood by witnesses to be Feiock. These witnesses said he treated female students differently than men, meeting with them outside the office, ostensibly to discuss research, and leaning in close. They said he regularly drank to excess at work-related events and made them and others feel uncomfortable, sexually and otherwise.

Despite this evidence, Florida State determined that it could not make a decision about Feiock’s culpability, due to his nonparticiation in the inquiry and his resignation.

Feiock is now working as an independent consultant. He did not respond to a request for comment.

Demanding Accountability

Deeply unsatisfied with the lack of resolution, professors within the Askew School of Public Administration and Policy are now demanding that Florida State hold Feiock accountable for his actions. They also want to know why Florida State didn’t act sooner to protect vulnerable students from someone they consider to be a "predator."

The 2020 investigation “was lengthy, opaque and allowed Dr. Feiock to escape full consequences or taking responsibility for his actions by retiring,” 10 Askew faculty members said earlier this month in an open letter to the campus. “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 faculty members listed 10 demands regarding the Feiock case and sexual discrimination cases in general. Among them: that university engage a neutral, third-party investigator to handle cases going forward, and that Florida State revisit the “overwhelming evidence” of wrongdoing against Feiock and retroactively terminate him, with cause.

Feiock's former colleagues want Florida State to share a summary of its findings with all institutions, funders or researchers Feiock might work with going forward. They want the university to change its policies to prohibit early retirement during an ongoing investigation under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sexual discrimination. And they want Florida State to act on informal complaints of a hostile workplace, not just wait for a victim to come forward with a formal report.

Professors also want to know why Feiock’s personnel file was “cleansed” of all information and formal actions taken by FSU against him prior to 2020.

According to Florida State’s investigation, students and faculty members wondered how Feiock had managed to evade serious discipline for his actions for so long.

Some guessed that it was because Feiock was so well-known -- and well funded -- in the areas of local government and collaborative governance. Numerous students said they were afraid of what might happen to them and their careers if they reported what they'd experienced or heard about Feiock. At the same time, they expressed doubt that any complaint would lead to meaningful consequences, given that this behavior was an open secret.

“I’ve had at least three students tell me how scared they are and believe since FSU has not taken harsh sanctions against him and has allowed his behavior to grow even more out of control, that FSU will not do anything,” said Frances Berry, Feiock's onetime chair, who said she warned him in 2005 that if his behavior continued he'd be fired. “This is a sad statement, and I agree that if [Feiock] is not given very harsh sanctions -- really the only appropriate sanction is to be fired -- then our doctoral program should be closed down. We could not recruit the top Chinese and Korean students we recruit now. And other students will learn about this sad state of affairs.”

Keon-Hyung Lee, director of the Askew School and the Arnold L. and Priscilla Moss Greenfield Endowed Professor, told investigators that reports about Feiock “started way back in 1988, so almost over 31 … years ago. How can a person such as Dr. Feiock stay in this environment? 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.”

‘Seoulman’

The 2020 inquiry was triggered not by a student complaint, but by a series of sexual emails sent to a group of students at Florida State. The emails appeared to come from a former graduate student of Feiock's and contained private, sometimes romantic, sometimes explicit communications between her and Feiock. There was a pattern to them: Feiock would admit to thinking about or loving the woman, and she would reply with some pleasantries and thoughts about work, or not at all. 

"“Today I said we ‘fit’ and I cannot express it better, I am so happy when I am with you and feel intellectually and sexually stimulated at the same time,” Feiock wrote in one email dated June 2019. The student had finished her studies at Florida State by that time but had returned to the U.S. to attend a conference, see friends and discuss research with Feiock.

“I’m so sorry that I couldn’t go to today’s lab meeting,” the woman responded the next day. “I have been noticed that morning that I have to prepare some paperwork for my final defense.” It was “really great to see you yesterday!!!” she added. “I really enjoy eating, drinking and talking everything with you!!!"

Another email from Feiock, dated that same week, referenced a recent sexual encounter in his office.

Having seen the emails by way of a concerned student, one of Feiock’s faculty colleagues, Ralph Brower, filed a sexual misconduct report.

“The incident or incidents occurred between approximately May and August 2019, and may have continued longer,” Brower wrote in a since heavily redacted complaint. Brower said that a student whom Feiock once hosted and who had since left the country sent a string of email messages to someone still on campus, depicting “an inappropriate relationship” with Feiock.

The earliest emails, Brower said, were “innocent communications” in which the unnamed student advised Feiock about her impending arrival in Tallahassee. Later emails from Feiock to the student “appear to be ‘grooming’” messages in which “Feiock expresses his attraction to her and eventually professes that he is in love with her.” Feiock eventually advised the student to move communications to a private, nonuniversity email account, Brower said. A later message from someone called Rick, from a Gmail account called “Seoulman,” discussed having had oral sex with the student.

Brower said the emails may have been a “cry for help” from the former student. According to the university's investigation, the student told friends and administrators that she’d been hacked.

“Your inquiry should be handled with great delicacy, because our students are extremely frightened about Professor Feiock's potential to harm their professional futures,” Brower wrote in his report. “In addition, these students have been affected emotionally, since this disclosure exposed their major professor, whom they previously held in great respect. Professor Feiock holds two separate named chairs and is well known in our field in the U.S. and in other countries.”

Four days after Brower’s report, Tim Chapin, dean of the Askew School, put Feiock on paid leave. An investigation into whether the university’s sexual discrimination and sexual misconduct policy had been violated launched the same day. The investigation ultimately involved talking to 16 witnesses and collecting emails, text messages and other documents.

Feiock was previously investigated for sexual misconduct, investigators found. In 2005, a staff member reported that Feiock inappropriately touched and made sexually suggestive comments to a student. As a result, Feiock was made to participate in a counseling session. The 1991 report also involved “inappropriate behavior” toward a student and was documented in Feiock's annual performance evaluation. Although there was no longer information about those reports in Feiock’s personnel file, Berry, Feiock’s longtime colleague, said both incidents were alleged to involve offers of better grades in exchange for a relationship. In 2005, she said, she witnessed Feiock cupping a graduate student's behind, telling her that if she “played” with him, she might get more than an A-minus in his course. More recently, Berry said, she'd heard that he'd sent messages to a graduate student asking to meet at a bar early in the morning and expressing a desire to have sex.

The university’s report says that the last step of an investigation is to interview the respondent -- in this case Feiock. However, the university said, Feiock’s resignation prior to his interview ended the matter.

“Dr. Feiock was not able to proffer a formal and documented response to the allegations,” the report says. “As any determination that would be made by the investigator would be impacted by their inability to examine the respondent’s attestations in assessing the veracity of the allegations, no determination as to whether a violation of the University’s Sex Discrimination and Sexual Misconduct Policy has been made.”

Later, the report says, “As an interview with Dr. Feiock to respond to the allegations was not possible, the EOC office is unable to make a determination as to whether there was a violation of the University’s Sex Discrimination and Sexual Misconduct policy.”

No Tolerance?

Dennis Schnittker, FSU spokesperson, said that Florida State immediately put Feiock on leave after the emails came to light, but that he “resigned before he was interviewed by university officials and before any disciplinary action could be taken.”

Like all institutions, he said, FSU has “continued to refine and strengthen its policies over the past three decades.” Earlier allegations of misconduct “weren’t addressed the way matters would be promptly investigated -- and remedied -- today.”

Feiock “is not representative of FSU’s values, its faculty or its community,” Schnittker said. “FSU does not tolerate sexual harassment of any kind by anyone.”

The Feiock case recalls others involving the abuse of international graduate students, who are generally dependent on faculty members and especially their advisers not just for their academic success but also their legal status in the U.S. The University of Florida, for instance, recently suspended a professor accused of bullying a student from China, Huixiang Chen, leading up to his death by suicide. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is facing a trafficking lawsuit from two female students from China who allege that the university turned a blind eye to their complaints that a now former professor abused them. UIUC hasn’t commented on the lawsuit but said it takes all reports of misconduct seriously.

Cultural differences may also make international students more vulnerable. The former student at the center of the recent Feiock investigation, for instance, told investigators that early on in her time at Florida State, Feiock emailed her at her prior university address asking her to share a picture of a recent trip to Disney World. He replied that she looked “sexy" in the photo, confusing her, she said.

“I just wanted to keep the matter quiet, but I was also unsure if Dr. Feiock’s behavior was appropriate because I don’t know the laws of harassment in the U.S.,” she told investigators. “I didn’t know what my rights were regarding reporting Dr. Feiock’s email. I didn’t know if maybe in American culture this type of behavior is accepted.”

The Feiock case also raises important issues about Title IX investigations, especially what universities should do when professors quit mid-investigation or don’t participate -- the two reasons Florida State said it had to end its inquiry.

Sandra E. Hodgin, founding president of the Title IX Consulting Group and an expert witness on Title IX, said that Trump-era regulations regarding this federal law against sexual harassment do say that institutions “may” end investigations when a respondent leaves the institution. This aspect of the regulations has been controversial because it facilitates academe’s pass-the-harasser problem, Hodgin said, as "there's never going to be a red flag against them, because you could just hop around” from campus to campus.

Yet nothing in the regulations says that institutions can’t finish an investigation when a respondent chooses not to participate, Hodgin said. Respondents have the explicit right not to participate and may invoke the Fifth Amendment to avoid self-incrimination in Title IX hearings. But the regulations explicitly note that institutions will use whatever evidence they do have to come to a finding.

Put another way, if bowing out of an investigation made it impossible for institutions to make a determination, more respondents would probably do it.

Sometimes “specific circumstances” make it impossible to come to a finding, Hodgin said, quoting the regulations. Yet institutions may consider past reports and apparent patterns of behavior -- such as the kind Florida State’s investigators found -- to make a determination of culpability.

“To me, it just kind of raises a red flag that they’re saying they couldn’t have finished the investigation because [Feiock] didn't participate,” she said.

Feiock’s wife, who now goes by her maiden name, Ruth Storm, is an associate vice president for academic affairs at FSU. According to a redacted email included in the report, she advised someone not to visit her office on campus, threatening to call the police if that happened, in 2017. Feiock is copied on the email. Storm, a former FSU graduate student, according to information in the university's report, did not respond to a request for comment.

Asked if it’s possible Feiock was shielded from discipline by this relationship, Schnittker called the idea “absurd.”

Berry had a different take. Asked by investigators if she had any idea why Feiock’s university personnel file had no documents about his conduct, she said she didn’t know.

“In our school a faculty member does get access to their file to look at things for the annual review, so he could pretty easily have done it himself,” Berry continued. “At the university level, there’s only a couple of people that would have any interest in this, and both their names are Feiock. Ruth and Rick Feiock. That is strictly my opinion.”

Another set of redacted emails from 2015 to 2017 included in the report suggest a sexual relationship between someone who called herself "Bunny" and Feiock, whom she called "Bear." 

“We have the same desires and gut feelings,” Feiock wrote in 2015. “It reassures me not to be alone in this feeling of wanting to run away together."

‘The Consequences of His Actions’

Asked about the case, Chapin, dean of the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy, forwarded an email he sent to faculty and staff members saying that “a former college faculty member engaged in reprehensible behaviors during his time at the university. These acts brought great distress and hurt to a number of students, faculty and staff, and undermined the trust many have in the college and institution.”

Chapin wrote that as soon as reports of these “appalling behaviors” were brought to his attention, he worked to remove Feiock from the classroom and prohibit any contact with students, faculty or staff. Feiock was being formally investigated when he resigned, Chapin said.

“This resignation permanently ended his employment at FSU as well as any future engagement with faculty and staff, but most importantly with students,” Chapin continued. “I want to state clearly and unambiguously that sexual misconduct and sexual harassment have no place in our community. The university has a zero-tolerance policy for these behaviors, and this value must be loudly communicated and universally known.”

Chapin said that he’ll “continue to do everything within my power to ensure that any incidents of sexual misconduct and harassment are documented, reviewed and addressed, in accordance with university policies and procedures.” It is “incumbent upon all of us to do something when these incidents occur, which may include speaking up, taking care of those that are impacted and appropriately reporting so that action can be taken."

Now through next year, the college will conduct a range of activities to reflect on what happened, including a listening session with faculty members and staff, Chapin said.

According to the investigation, Chapin become aware of Feiock’s reputation in 2018, when he was considering him for an administrative role. Chapin told investigators that he’d floated Feiock’s name at a meeting with colleagues and was informed that Feiock had sent “inappropriate messages” to a student a few years earlier. Chapin said he tried to learn what he could about that incident, and others about which he subsequently learned, but that there was nothing in Feiock’s personnel file about them. These incidents took place before Chapin’s time as dean. Chapin did not appoint Feiock to the position.

Last week, Chapin, along with Florida State’s president and provost, responded directly to the Askew School faculty’s letter.

“We want to again state clearly and firmly that sexual misconduct and sexual harassment have no place in our community,” they wrote. “When evidence of these terrible behaviors is presented, we will do everything within our power to ensure these incidents are promptly and fairly dealt with in accordance with official university policies and procedures. This has been and will remain our practice.”

Regarding the Feiock case, they said, “We will absolutely, without hesitation, share this information and history with anyone who requests it, especially any potential future employers.”

The Askew faculty letter contains “a few inaccuracies and misconceptions,” however, Chapin and the administrators continued. While “we have no doubt that termination would have been the ultimate result of this investigation, employers do not possess the powers of criminal or civil courts to prosecute or punish. Nor can employers detain an unwilling and uncooperative employee while allegations of misconduct are investigated, and sanctions rendered.”

Even though he is no longer at Florida State, the letter says, Feiock “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.”

Read more by

We have retired comments and introduced Letters to the Editor. Letters may be sent to [email protected].

Read the Letters to the Editor  »

Today’s News from Inside Higher Ed

Inside Higher Ed’s Quick Takes

Back to Top