Tuesday, October 21, 2008


Clueless in Seattle

An alert reader sent me this story from the Seattle Times. It's about the hiring and abrupt firing, with allegations of physical assault, of Washington State University Provost Steven Hoch. It's worth reading in its entirety, since every detail seems sillier than the one before it. Even without any additional information, I read the story very differently than its author apparently does.

A quick read would suggest that Hoch is the bad guy, and he may be. (I don't know any of the principals in this case, and I don't have any inside information about it.) Certainly the headline -- “WSU did not verify provost's references” -- would lead a casual reader to suspect that Hoch had, say, a taste for heroin or a penchant for streaking. But read on, and a few gems come to light.

Apparently, prior to starting there, a few administrators Hoch thought would report to him “made it clear that they would not be answering to him, but only to [President] Floyd.” Alarmed, Hoch sent a memo to the President, outlining what he thought the proper chain of command actually was. The President, Elson Floyd, responded:

"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."

Wow. Just, wow.

“I have created an organization that is more driven by relationships than reporting lines.” If there's a more succinct summary of narcissistic management, I haven't seen it.

Reducing unclear (or high-stakes) conversations to written summary is Management 101. It's done specifically to prevent misunderstandings that can result from selective memory, inattention, ambiguous language, or worse. Hoch encountered a scenario different from the one he thought he had agreed to, so he tried to get written clarification. That's what you're supposed to do. It's a way of clarifying boundaries. The President took offense, since narcissists hate boundaries.

Later, when Hoch started the job, the underlings took offense when he took the written chain of command literally. He reacted badly, but he was right to be shocked.

Now, the President is insinuating – without proof – that there's a deep character flaw in Hoch. (That's the subtext of “we should have checked his references.”) There may or may not be, but that sort of tut-tutting is straight out of the manage-by-favoritism playbook. If someone didn't play along, the only possible explanation is a character flaw. (Soviet psychology worked by the same principle – if you're unhappy in the workers' paradise, you must be insane.) It couldn't be, say, a realization that the courtier system is fundamentally flawed.

Now Hoch looks bad for accepting the extraordinarily well-paid fallback position to which he's contractually entitled, and the President is quoted in the story as deliberately fostering a hostile work environment. Amazing.

Honestly, I couldn't make this stuff up.

It's notoriously difficult to spot toxic situations before getting into them. People are often on their best behavior during the interview/courtship phase, and enough of that ritual is scripted that it can difficult to pick up red flags while there's still time. At that point, information is limited and filtered, and often viewed in the most optimistic possible light. And very few people have enough self-awareness to know their flaws, let alone the confidence to confess them. (Weirdly, I've seen plenty of people with just enough self-awareness to explicitly deny their own flaws, even while displaying them. How exactly that works I'll leave to the psychologists.) Besides, if you're on the market in the first place, it's probably because there's something unsatisfying about your current situation, so you may be willing to discount red flags at the new place on the grounds that hey, at least it's not the old place.

I suppose it's possible that WSU is the land of milk and honey, in which peace and love reign, and into which an outsider attempted to introduce sin. Anything's possible, I suppose.

But I don't buy it. I wish Dr. Hoch well in his new faculty role. And I suggest that if he wants to clear his name, that he publicly donate a huge chunk of his salary to the WSU foundation for student scholarships. Kill them with kindness.

"Clueless in Seattle" might be a nice headline, but WSU is actually located in Pullman, on the Idaho border in the far east of Washington state.

Unless, of course, you're referring to the cluelessness of the Seattle Times, which is usually a good bet :)
WSU is in Pullman. That's over 300 miles from Seattle. I have to say this because I am from the pathetic eastern half of washington state and 90% of my high school friends went to wsu.
ah! we were posting at the samet ime.
"that is the environment to which he will return"

... whoa, was that a threat?
As much as I'd like to ascribe the cluelessness to the west side of the state, WSU is indeed here in Pullman.

I wouldn't be surprised if you got comments from actual faculty, albeit anonymously, but as a brazen grad student I'll just offer my two cents on the matter. It's been media overload central for the last week or two here, exacerbated by the attempt to keep the situation "in-house" (read "quiet") until enough people raised a fuss about the need to clarify rumors, etc that the information finally came out.

Suffice to say, Pullman is not the land of milk and honey, although I'd rather be here than a heck of a lot of other places. Anecdotal evidence suggests that in these parts, sentiments are similar to those you expressed in your post. There's blame on both sides. But as someone with a serious amount of business background before this grad school thing, the attempt-to-clarify roles and responsibilities is management 101.

And I agree totally with your suggestion that if Hoch does end up coming to the History dept, that he take that 167K or so difference in salary and give it directly back to either his department or heck, the Coll. of Liberal Arts in general. That would chap some hides, for sure...except the ones he'd be working with the most.
The article that I thought completely missed the point was in the Seattle Times, so I'll hang my hat on that.

I'll confess to having no idea where WSU is.
Wow. I am with you DD. The comments by the President do not inspire trust or belief in his management style. I have worked with someone who believed "more in relationships than reporting lines." I think it is incredibly common in settings where there has been a longtime leader, where everyone (including the leader) has gotten comfortable in relationships. This can lead to poor definitions of reporting and job roles and responsibilities, as the leader reassigns job tasks to personalities. This leaves newcomers flummoxed when titles and responsibilities have little to do with one another, and seeking clarity is something of a bother for the longtimers.

Obviously, Hoch might have handled this better, but in my experience, most provosts are a little heavy-handed and find the need to make an impression as a leader more important than listening and getting to know the culture.
"I do not intend to have a relationship with colleagues desirous of reducing conversations to writing."

That sends my lawyer antennae right up. I hope college counsel is in his office spanking him and telling everyone in authority who will listen that that is TOTALLY unacceptable and a recipe for lawsuits. That's INSANE for someone in a managerial position!
I already saw a story about that situation (in IHE? in another blog?) and had the same reaction to that particular statement by the President.

As for your question about the general state of WSU, one need look no further than football: They are 1-7 after getting stomped 69-0 by USC, having beaten only Portland State. More relevant, however, would be another story in the Seattle Times:
Coach inherits mess off the field.

Not only have they lost players to various criminal difficulties, but they lost 8 scholarships to the NCAA "academic progress" requirements. That approaches the level of Legend (the only reason I knew enough about it to google up the story for you), and is in territory that falls directly under the President's purview. (The NCAA says the buck stops in the President's office for football and basketball issues, regardless of the chain of command.) If you know what is considered "adequate" academic progress by the NCAA, you would be amazed at the situation at WSU.

No offense to the person commenting from there, but an athlete was quoted in the story as saying "WSU is a hard school to go to, man," Williams says. "You ain't got nothin' to do but get drunk and smoke weed, and not go to class because you're too tired from doing what you're doing."

And the President doesn't want conversations put in writing....
UD had this one recently, and yep, I came away in favor of Hoch sending the memo too. But I hadn't picked up on the "relationships not reporting" line.
I was pleasantly surprised to see Pullman come up here, though I'd rather it had come up in a more positive situation than this one.

There's been little talk on campus that doesn't come back to this Hoch business. The consensus doesn't seem to be very favorable to Hoch, but the college newspaper here (the Evergreen) hasn't been exactly outstanding in its reporting.

Having met President Floyd, albeit briefly, I can't profess myself impressed by his management style. Just aside from the major cuts he has been making to the Liberal Arts parts of the University (and the corresponding pay raise for himself) he has proven himself pretty much adversarial to a great deal of the faculty. The other day I was told he had actually countenanced the idea of removing "classics" (by which he meant humanities, history, etc.) but ultimately decided against it.

It's not a pleasant time here.
I first encountered this story via UD, and I too thought that Hoch was following standard procedures by sending a written memo of an important conversation. And if Anonymous@1:58's comment has any truth to it, it's deeply disturbing--both the conflation of classics with humanities and the desire to do away with them. Is WSU a university or a trade school? What does Floyd think?
Whether additional reference calls would have affected WSU's decision to hire Dr. Hoch is impossible to know. But I'm still trying to get my head around the notion that nobody on campus contacted references. Search consultants can be helpful in checking references, but because the people on campus will have to live with the hire, those people should be making calls as well. By all means, coordinate efforts with the consultant, but don't delegate this important task entirely!
I'll take partial blame for the geographic issue, as I was the one who sent in the article from the Seattle Times without noting that WSU is on the other side of the state.

Boy, there sure is enough blame to go around on this one! It seems like anyone who did a rudimentary background check would discover that Hoch has anger management issues and had a poor reputation for managing employees. I would also like to think that when hiring a high-level position like a Provost, the President would have had extensive discussions with the applicant, regarding reporting lines, responsibilities, expectations, etc.

Still, I would like to figure out how to get a job as a History Prof with a $245K salary.
If nothing else, this indicates a major breakdown in the hiring process, but I don't think it was in the checking of references. Did they really go through however many rounds of interviews without asking each other "how do you envision this job?"

"Soviet psychology worked by the same principle – if you're unhappy in the workers' paradise, you must be insane."--actually, in his former research life Steven Hoch studied Russian serfdom, which seems like a dangerous precedent for a provost...
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