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Originally published October 10, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 10, 2008 at 8:29 AM

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Questions linger after WSU Provost Steven Hoch leaves

Washington State University Provost Steven Hoch left abruptly on paid leave two weeks ago, leaving students and facultywondering what happened. Sources say a power struggle and physical altercation preceded the departure.

Seattle Times higher education reporter

At 3:13 in the morning — just seven weeks into his new job as provost of Washington State University — Steven Hoch dashed off an e-mail to his inner circle:

"Dear All, I have requested personal leave as Provost and Executive Vice President. President Floyd has approved my request. We have not established any expressed ending date for this leave. I should like you all to know how much I enjoy working with you. Cordially, Steve."

More than two weeks later, the university has yet to offer any explanation for his absence. Hoch is back living in Lexington, Ky., with his family and is continuing to draw his salary of more than $1,000 each weekday. The dean of the veterinary college has taken over his duties in Pullman. Faculty and students, meanwhile, are furious that they continue to be kept in the dark.

Through interviews both on and off the record, a picture is emerging of the events that took place leading up to Hoch's departure. Senior WSU sources say Hoch believed firmly that the university's vice presidents and senior leaders should be answerable to him, the No. 2 man in the organization. But some of those vice presidents saw themselves as his equal and felt they were answerable only to President Elson Floyd.

In just a few weeks, tensions built to the point where there was a major argument in a meeting of senior staff, followed by a physical altercation in a university hallway. Hoch left within days.

Hoch, previously the dean of arts and sciences at the University of Kentucky, succeeded Bob Bates, who stepped down as provost after Floyd took the reins in 2007. It is not unusual for a new president to bring in his own team, including a new provost.

In a May announcement, Floyd said it was "outstanding news" that Hoch would be taking the role, describing him as having "an excellent mix of experience as a scholar, a teacher and an administrator."

But a different picture of Hoch emerges from UK faculty.

"He has a strong personality. He was very quick to tell you what he thought," said Brandon Look, a UK philosophy professor and deans' adviser. "He has very good skills when it comes to organization and managing the budget. But he has very few people skills."

Look said Hoch would get angry at times.

"I've seen him get very testy," Look said. "He's got a temper."

Look said a colleague — surprised to be listed as a reference for Hoch — warned the WSU search committee about what he saw as Hoch's shortcomings, but came away feeling the committee had already made a decision.

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Pat Mooney, the chairman of the UK sociology department, said he thought Hoch was a "very good dean" who was straightforward and let people know exactly where they stood.

"He wanted to make sure that within the organizational structure, the lines of authority and responsibility were clear," Mooney said.

That desire for a clear structure appears to have been at the center of rising tensions at WSU. Sources say Hoch may have misunderstood the role expected of him when he took the job. Exactly what role the provost plays tends to vary by institution.

"I can understand it can be stressful if you are living in Lexington, Kentucky, and then end up in a wheat field wondering 'What the hell did I just do?' " said one source.

A source within the WSU administration says Hoch and about 10 senior staff — but not Floyd — attended a regularly scheduled meeting in late September. The meeting erupted into a contentious argument over the extent of Hoch's authority.

At one point, Hoch and Greg Royer, the university's vice president for business and finance, ended up in a corridor outside the meeting room, according to another source. What happened next remains the subject of an internal review, the source says, although it appears one of the men tried to push aside the other — perhaps with a hand to the shoulder — during a brief physical altercation.

Pullman Police and WSU Police say they haven't received any reports about the incident.

Hoch, who is paid $300,000 a year, had been living in an apartment in Pullman while his family stayed back in Kentucky so that his son could finish his senior year at high school.

Reached at his Kentucky home this week, Hoch said, "I really don't have any comment on anything."

President Floyd also declined requests for an interview. Royer could not be reached. A WSU spokesman said the matter is a personnel issue that it hopes to resolve within a week.

Meanwhile, The Daily Evergreen, WSU's student newspaper, has taken Floyd to task.

"President Elson S. Floyd's declaration of transparency suffers every day the university carries on with no information about the provost," the paper wrote in a Thursday editorial. "It has been two weeks since Provost Steve Hoch abruptly left, and there is still no information about why he left or when he'll be back, if ever. A major state university willingly withholding important information from students, faculty and alumni is unacceptable."

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

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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