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WSU president releases e-mails on staff dispute

FRIDAY, OCT. 24, 2008

Provost apologized for creating ‘tone of hostility’

It was Yom Kippur when Federal Express dropped off a package at Steven Hoch’s home.

Hoch was still provost at Washington State University, but he was on paid leave while university President Elson Floyd tried to sort out exactly what had happened during a meeting at which Hoch had exchanged heated words and had a minor physical altercation with university Vice President Greg Royer.

Opening the package and reading the enclosed assistant attorney general’s report, Hoch learned what his colleagues thought of his behavior that day: “disrespectful, rude, condescending and arrogant.” So, on the Jewish Day of Atonement, he wrote a letter of contrition to everyone who’d been at the meeting.

“I set a tone of hostility and disrespect, rather than one conducive to thoughtful and constructive discussion. I created an atmosphere of tension. I wish to apologize to all of you, and most especially to Greg. On this day, all I can do is ask for your forgiveness.”

A few days later, he hired an attorney – or threatened to – to make sure that when he was removed as provost, he would continue getting most of his salary, as stipulated in his contract. An expert in Russian history, Hoch is now the highest-paid history professor at any of Washington’s four-year state colleges – at $245,000 a year. This, after Floyd had offered him $78,563 to teach at WSU.

Many of those details are contained in e-mails from WSU computers used by Hoch and Floyd. The electronic documents, which were released this week in response to public records requests, show that even before Hoch arrived at Pullman in August, Floyd was concerned about his behavior.

“I write to tell you that I find your memorandum … deeply troubling for several reasons,” Floyd wrote in June.

It’s not clear what exactly in Hoch’s memo about wide-ranging subjects was so troubling. But Floyd characterized it as “a strong signal of lack of trust.”

Floyd did, however, note that he appreciated Hoch making a contribution to the Silver President’s Associates – something Hoch had brought to his new boss’s attention in that earlier e-mail. The   title is reserved for those who contribute $2,500 to $4,999.

Hoch’s Oct. 9 apology to colleagues was a marked change for the man who in the weeks since the dust-up had confided in friends that he hated WSU and the people who had put him in that situation.

“I still hate it here, but I’m feeling better,” Hoch wrote on Sept. 15 to a confidant and former colleague at the University of Kentucky.

And on Sept. 16: “I am not dead. But there are some people I could …”

“Sorry about the schmucks,” the colleague wrote back. And later, “so you survived another week with all the rotten people.”

That friend advised Hoch on the best way to approach UK administrators about the possibility of returning to the job he’d left just a few months earlier, as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

He could try returning as the prodigal son, “but that’s a horrible narrative,” wrote the Kentuckian, whose name is blacked out in the documents. “My point is there has to be a narrative and it can’t be, ‘UK sucks, but WSU sucks more.’ ”

The e-mails show that Hoch was supported by many at WSU. Twenty-one department chairs, directors and associate deans signed a statement in late September, saying they hoped he would continue as provost. Others sent individual notes of sympathy and support.

From Paul Whitney, interim dean of the College of Liberal Arts: “Confusion now hath made his masterpiece. – Macbeth.” Whitney later wrote that he had learned more from Hoch in a few months than in the past 10 years of working for other administrators.

From John Hinson, chairman of the department of psychology: “The administrators responsible have cast the reputation of WSU into the barathrum,” an obscure word for hell. Hinson called Hoch’s departure “an unmitigated disaster for WSU” and apologized for “the shabby treatment you have been given.”

But there also were people who wrote Floyd to complain about Hoch.

Librarian Vicki Croft wrote that Hoch had been rude to a student employee “who just happens to be the granddaughter of a prominent WSU donor and benefactor.”

And Roger McClellan, who in May received WSU Regents’ Distinguished Alumnus Award – the highest award given to alumni – wrote about introducing Floyd to the principal of Warden High School, who desired warmer relations between the university and her school district.

“Later I asked her to give me her reaction to Hoch,” McClellan wrote. “Her response was, ‘He blew me off!’ ”

Added McClellan: “I felt the same way.”

Contact Dan Hansen at (509) 459-3938 or danh@spokesman.com.

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