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Originally published Saturday, October 18, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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WSU did not verify provost's references

Washington State University President Elson Floyd said the university made a major mistake in not independently checking the references of former Provost Steven Hoch before hiring him. Hoch, meanwhile, says he was the victim of an employment bait-and-switch.

Seattle Times higher education reporter

Washington State University President Elson Floyd said Friday that the university made a major mistake by not independently checking Steven Hoch's references when hiring him for the $300,000-a-year provost's job.

And Hoch says he was the victim of an employment "bait and switch" — in which he got the title of provost but not the authority he needed.

Speaking at length for the first time about the turmoil that has roiled WSU for weeks, the two men painted starkly different pictures of what happened. And e-mails provided by Hoch Friday show there was a deep rift between the two — fully six weeks before Hoch even started his job.

Floyd officially stripped Hoch of his provost's job a week ago, after a September meeting chaired by Hoch in which tensions with senior staff boiled over into a hallway scuffle. Hoch, who was given tenure when he was hired, still intends to return to WSU as a history professor.

Hoch said he was led to believe, when applying for the provost job in the spring, that he would have control over the day-to-day running of the university, and that Floyd would play a more external role in fundraising and politics.

"I would not have applied for the position, nor in fact accepted the position, had it been something other than chief operating officer of the university," Hoch said.

In choosing Hoch for the job, Floyd said, "we missed quite a bit, unfortunately." A consultant did all the reference checks, Floyd said, without the search committee or the university doing any independent verification.

As his starting date neared, Hoch said, it became apparent he would have little real authority.

Floyd said the plan was always to have Hoch increase his responsibilities and his role over a four-year period. A job description given to Hoch outlines exactly which administrators were answerable to him, Floyd pointed out.

"I don't know how much clearer we could have been," Floyd said. "There were no misrepresentations by me or the search committee. It was his choice to come."

Hoch signed his contract in May. He said the rift in expectations became apparent in the first week of June, when he visited the campus. Three senior staff members in particular, Hoch said, made it clear they would not be answering to him, but only to Floyd.

"Things were heading south very quickly," Hoch said.

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Hoch then sent a June 11 memo to Floyd, recapping an earlier conversation and laying out his expectations for the job, including who would be reporting to him. Floyd wrote back a week later.

"I write to tell you that I find your memorandum ... deeply troubling for several reasons: 1) In over three decades of university administration, I have never received this type of confirming correspondence from a colleague. In my judgment, it sends a strong signal of lack of trust; and 2) I do not intend to have a relationship with colleagues desirous of reducing conversations to writing."

Floyd goes on to say in the e-mail that as "you gain a deeper familiarity with the WSU culture and climate, you will come to understand that I have created an organization that is more driven by relationships than reporting lines."

"I was shocked by his memo," Hoch said. "I was absolutely shocked, both in its tone and its content. I was mortified. At that point, I should have said, 'No. I'm not coming. I'm going to work something out at the University of Kentucky.' "

Floyd said that in the correspondence, he was trying to be very clear about his expectations. After Hoch arrived, Floyd said, there "were days in which things worked extremely well, and days in which they did not."

On Sept. 10, after just six weeks on the job, Hoch was asked to host a meeting of senior staff because Floyd was away from campus. A subsequent report shows the meeting ended in yelling, swearing and a physical altercation in the hallway between Hoch and Greg Royer, the vice president for business and finance.

"It was the first occasion in which I was away from the university, and Steve came in as the No. 2 person here," Floyd said. "And it all came apart very quickly."

After Hoch went on an open-ended leave Sept. 23 and returned to Kentucky, the university was criticized by faculty and students for not explaining what was going on. Floyd says he was acting under WSU policy not to prematurely discuss personnel matters, as well as legal advice not to release records before those involved had been informed. He said the administration never told anyone to destroy a subsequent report on the event and that he favors transparency.

Floyd said there is a "very clear" lesson for the university: to independently check references in the future.

It took The Seattle Times just a few calls earlier this month to the University of Kentucky, where Hoch last worked, to find faculty who both praised Hoch's management abilities but also raised concerns about his temper and people-skills.

Asked if, given all the recent acrimony, it was tenable for Hoch to return as a history professor — who will be paid $245,000 annually thanks to a faculty formula — Floyd paused.

"I guess at this point, it's his decision," Floyd said. "He's made a lot of disparaging comments about a lot of individuals, including me, and that is the environment into which he will return."

But WSU has little choice. Typically only in cases of "moral turpitude" — a very high bar — can the university strip a faculty member of tenure. For his part, Hoch said he's looking forward to getting back into the classroom after a break of nearly a decade.

WSU Regent Rafael Stone said the regents had discussed the Hoch matter, but had no comment. He said "there's no question" that the regents have confidence in the way Floyd has handled things.

Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or nperry@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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