October 17, 2008 in City

WSU dust-up details emerge

Most witnesses critical of provost
By The Spokesman-Review

A Washington State University provost who contends he was assaulted after a meeting of senior university administrators had been behaving in a way that most witnesses described as “disrespectful, rude, condescending and arrogant,” according to an assistant attorney general’s report.

That meeting, according to the vice presidents, executive directors, department heads and chancellors who were in attendance, degenerated into name-calling, profanity, hurt feelings and ultimately a minor physical confrontation in the hallway.

The end result: Steven Hoch, who had been at WSU just six weeks, was removed as provost. But he remains at the Pullman campus as a history professor, drawing $245,455 a year in pay.

No other tenured history professor at WSU makes more than $87,000. That’s also the top pay among history professors at Eastern and Central Washington universities.

Hoch’s removal as provost generated so much interest from media and WSU employees that university President Elson Floyd issued a statement Monday saying the university had offered to pay Hoch $78,563 a year to teach history.

“However, it was quickly brought to our attention” that Hoch’s contract stipulated he would earn nine-elevenths of his salary if he were removed as provost, Floyd wrote.

That stipulation will not be included in future contracts, Floyd said.

University officials initially said they would wait until next week to release documents related to the confrontation between Hoch and Greg Royer, WSU’s vice president for business and finance.

However, that changed Thursday “because of the high level of public interest,” and the university released the internal report from Antoinette Ursich, WSU’s legal counsel through the state attorney general’s office. According to that report, which followed an investigation performed at Floyd’s request, Hoch chaired his first senior staff meeting Sept. 10 because Floyd could not attend. Fourteen top administrators attended, including 11 at the table and three by video.

Nearly all who were there “describe a very tense, even hostile meeting” and blame Hoch for that situation. The exceptions: Hoch and two of the video participants.

The other witnesses “indicate that Provost Hoch approached his colleagues as if they were stupid and as if they were the enemy or part of the problem with WSU, demonstrating that he did not value their opinions or value them as professionals,” Ursich’s report said.

The witnesses describe Hoch being dismissive of several people in attendance and calling WSU a “mediocre” school because it lacked a type of budgeting system used at many large universities.

Royer “became visibly upset,” Ursich wrote. “He ‘snapped’ and lost his temper; his comments were heated.”

Royer reportedly called Hoch “a piece of work.” Some witnesses say Royer added a profanity to the insult.

Hoch denies any inappropriate behavior, Ursich reported. He is supported by two of the three video participants, one of whom acknowledged that Hoch was “a bit defensive,” while the other described him as “not defensive but rigid.”

The two video participants said Royer acted unprofessionally, and Hoch described Royer’s behavior as a “personal attack,” according to the report.

Toward the end of the meeting, Hoch “made a statement regarding the importance of civility,” at which point Royer got up to leave – muttering an expletive as he did so, according to some witnesses.

A majority of the witnesses told the investigator that Hoch followed Royer. The two men might have bumped each other trying to get out the door, the report states.

From the hallway, witnesses heard Hoch yelling, “Don’t you EVER talk to me that way again,” the report states.

According to Ursich’s report, Hoch contends that Royer “called him an ‘arrogant prick,’ raised his arm and elbow to the provost’s chin and kept it there for a while, and then shoved the provost.”

Royer told the investigator he put up his arm defensively, trying to get more space as Hoch moved ever closer, behaving “viciously and irrationally.”

There were only two witnesses to the hallway confrontation, and they had only a five-second view as the door to the conference room closed automatically. One said Hoch put his hand in Royer’s face, prompting Royer to put up his arm and push Hoch “back a bit.” The other gave a similar description.

“While it may have been possible for V.P. Royer to turn and run, no witness felt that the push was unreasonable given the facts,” the investigator reported.

Hoch, in an e-mail to Floyd sent the day of the meeting (subject: “Not a good day …”) called his situation as provost “intolerable and untenable.” He had explored a return to his former position as a dean at the University of Kentucky, he wrote, but was also willing to become a tenured history professor at WSU.

“I truly regret this situation,” he wrote to Floyd.

Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email