FSU associate dean, director of COVID-19 clinic resigns during sexual misconduct probe

·7 min read
FILE -- The Florida State University campus in Tallahassee, Fla., May 26, 2018.
FILE -- The Florida State University campus in Tallahassee, Fla., May 26, 2018.

The director of Florida State University’s COVID-19 clinic resigned amid an internal investigation that found he was in violation of the university’s anti-sexual misconduct policy by “creating a hostile workplace for employees,” according to FSU spokeswoman Amy Farnum-Patronis.

The report stems from the testimony of multiple women who allege Dr. James Zedaker made discomforting comments and sent texts that were sexual in nature and, in many instances, bought them unsolicited gifts, which investigators cite as acts of potential "grooming."

As first reported by the Florida Politics news site, FSU received an allegation of sexual misconduct against Zedaker in early November from a woman who quit her well-paying job at the COVID-19 clinic for much less money to "get away from the daily situation at FSU," according to the 86-page investigation summary.

This sparked an immediate internal investigation by the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Office (EDI).

Florida State University's College of Medicine.
Florida State University's College of Medicine.

Two weeks before investigators finalized the report on Jan. 4, Zedaker submitted his resignation letter. It went into effect Friday, Jan. 14.

Zedaker has been the director of the FSU School of Physician Assistant Practice since 2016, and he led the university's COVID testing efforts starting in June 2020, Farnum-Patronis said.

Dr. Benjamin Smith, an associate dean in the College of Medicine, has temporarily assumed Zedaker's position as interim director of the Physician Assistant Program while the College of Medicine conducts a job search, Farnum-Patronis added. Dr. Daniel Van Durme is overseeing the COVID unit.

Over the eight-week probe, investigators interviewed two victims and Zedaker himself. He denied much of the allegations and said he thought the investigation stemmed from a smear campaign against him and the college of medicine.

"I believe this (investigation) is being used to publicly embarrass me, harm me, my family and the College of Medicine," he told investigators.

However, investigators, citing his lack of credibility and similarities between the victim’s accounts, found the women’s allegations substantial.

“Despite Dr. Zedaker’s denials, this investigation finds that objectively, based on a reasonable person standard, his actions ... were romantic and/or sexual in nature, could be interpreted as romantic and/or sexual advances, were unwelcomed, and potentially grooming in nature,” the report said.

James Zedaker, founding director of the School of Physician Assistant Practice at Florida State University.
James Zedaker, founding director of the School of Physician Assistant Practice at Florida State University.

Former employee: 'Untenable situation at FSU'

The first woman who came forward wrote a statement to the EDI that alleged Zedaker made sexual remarks toward her and frequently increased her pay, suggesting a quid pro quo situation.

Text exchanges confirmed by investigators include Zedaker asking his subordinate to dinner on Valentine's Day, inviting her on trips that he would cover financially where they would share a hotel room and offering to come over to her house.

In less than a year, she was given three raises that pumped up her pay more than 60%. She said Zedaker asked her "Do you like your raise?" before adding, "I will take care of you."

She said she is personally aware of three nurses and two medical assistants who have been subject to "his harassment" in the COVID clinic, too. Investigators did not confirm any other victims than the two interviewed during the investigation.

Another woman, who worked alongside Zedaker in the clinic, said she consistently received unsolicited gifts from Zedaker including a bottle of perfume for Christmas, a "huge bouquet of flowers" and an invitation on trips "ten or more times."

James Zedaker, director of the Physician Assistant Program at FSU's College of Medicine and director of university projects for health and emergency operations at FSU.
James Zedaker, director of the Physician Assistant Program at FSU's College of Medicine and director of university projects for health and emergency operations at FSU.

After receiving a $5,000 bonus that her direct supervisor was unaware of, she got a text from Zedaker saying “I know every bit helps I was able to get a $5,000 bonus for you ... hopefully I can get more for you as we go."

Like the other woman, she said comments about her appearance and requests for physical affection, like hugs, was not an uncommon occurrence either in person or over text.

"This made me feel uncomfortable," she said. "I felt that I was really, really stuck in an impossible situation."

She added: "I had to take a $15,000 pay cut just to get the hell out of there. It has impacted my confidence and myself professionally."

Regarding the unsolicited physical affection, particularly the hugging, Zedaker said "You can ask most in my office and my family, I am not a hugger... Its awkward to me."

For another employee, Zedaker admitted he paid the more than $3,000 she owed on her Licensed Practical Nurse license as well as her rent, car insurance, groceries, cell phone bill, utilities, a hair appointment and other unnamed expenses.

Zedaker denied there being any quid pro quo or expectation in return.

"I spend over $1,000 a year for gifts for my faculty and staff," he told investigators. "Gifts are given to both male and female employees without any intent or expectation other than a show of appreciation."

The Westcott Building at Florida State University.
The Westcott Building at Florida State University.

Zedaker's 'institutional authority'

The report found allegations of quid pro quo unsubstantiated because the advances were not "made (on) a term or condition of employment or used as the basis of an employment decision."

However, investigators noted a clear conflict of interest.

"Dr. Zedaker is expected to model professionalism and demonstrate restraint and good judgment at all times," the report said. "Additionally, he should be keenly aware of his impact and influence within the University and affiliated communities. Real or perceived power over a person makes a romantic and/or sexual relationship ambiguous."

In charge of the university’s COVID clinic that arose from the need to conduct tests, and later vaccines, on athletes, students and employees in the spring of 2020, Zedaker was in a clear position of power and “institutional authority,” according to the report.

He took over the clinic after a brief period when it was under the University Health Center (UHC).

In this position, he was tasked with creating, development and testing operational plans for large-scale “what if” scenarios related to medical response or other concerns as requested by senior university officials, according to Farnum-Patronis.

A key player in the founding of the School of Physician Assistant Practice at FSU, Zedaker held his position for more than a year after the program was placed on academic probation in January 2021.

The probation came after an accreditation commission issued citations saying there was a lack of evidence the program evaluates the process that ensures all sites meet program-defined "learning outcomes" related to a) physical facilities, b) patient populations, and c) supervision.

More: Physician Assistant program at FSU placed on accreditation probation

Former complaints: Zedaker previously accused of sex, race, age and disability discrimination

Before the complaint that sparked the recent investigation was sent to EDI, Zedaker was named in two prior formal complaints.

One was an investigation of disability discrimination towards a student. Zedaker was the named respondent, and the investigation ended in an unsubstantiated finding. There was a follow-up referral for training for Zedaker, the report says, however, it is unclear if he completed any training.

Then, again, Zedaker was named the respondent in another allegation. This time he was accused of "age, sex, and race discrimination towards an employee," the report read. This investigation "failed to pass threshold analysis," but it was referred to human resources for additional review.

Additionally, in the initial letter that began the most recent probe into Zedaker's work relationships at the clinic, one woman wrote, "myself and all of the women that Jim has treated this way are Black."

In 2018, another member of the FSU College of Medicine administration, Dr. Leslie Beitsch, was reprimanded for sexual misconduct after an internal investigation substantiated allegations of unwelcomed sexual advances by three women.

Furthermore, at least three FSU professors have been found to have violated the university’s sex discrimination and sexual misconduct policies within the last two years.

Back story:

FSU President to students, staff and faculty: If you report harassment, 'We will investigate'

Richard McCullough, Florida State University's 16th president, presents his State of the University Address in Dodd Hall on Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022.
Richard McCullough, Florida State University's 16th president, presents his State of the University Address in Dodd Hall on Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022.

Though he did not directly address the recent findings of the Zedaker investigation, FSU President Richard McCullough said the university is committed to protecting members of its community from "any type of harassment — including sexual harassment," during his first state of the university address Wednesday afternoon.

'Feet to the fire': FSU president lists 'audacious goals' in first state of the university address

He continued: "I have a long history of being on the investigative side of sexual harassment in my 30 years in university life."

"If you make that report, we will investigate," he said during the virtual address. "We will not hesitate and we will take disciplinary action when people are found guilty."

Contact Christopher Cann at ccann@tallahassee.com and follow @ChrisCannFL on Twitter.

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This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Florida State associate dean resigns amid sexual misconduct investigation

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