PULLMAN – Moments before Washington State University announced the hiring of its 10th president Wednesday morning, many top administrators and faculty leaders had yet to even shake hands with Elson S. Floyd.
By late afternoon, some on the WSU campus were noting the sharp contrast between the way that professors and deans are hired – with lots of participation and public input – and the relatively cloistered process surrounding Floyd’s appointment.
About four months after the announcement that President V. Lane Rawlins would retire in June, WSU’s Board of Regents voted Wednesday morning to hire Floyd, the current president of the University of Missouri system. The decision followed two days of closed-door meetings in Seattle and took many on campus by surprise.
Floyd said he was contacted by the search panel about a month ago and didn’t enter “substantive conversations” about the job until Tuesday night.
“It’s not how we do any other hires in the university,” said Ken Struckmeyer, a former faculty senate chairman.
Struckmeyer said Floyd, a former Eastern Washington University administrator and state education official, seems to be a strong candidate, and that he understands the rationale for moving quickly. With other high-profile schools out trolling for candidates, and many top-flight administrators eager to avoid appearing to be out job-hunting, regents said that moving quickly to hire Floyd was the best way to ensure WSU got its top candidate.
It’s not an uncommon process for high-profile hires, several university officials said, and there’s some debate over how open the process should be. In many cases, hiring a university president takes longer, and some schools bring finalists to campus for a series of meetings with faculty and students. EWU did that earlier this year before hiring Rodolfo Arevalo as president.
Charles Pezeshki, chairman of the Faculty Senate and a member of the search committee, said he understands that some on campus may complain that the process wasn’t more democratic.
“I’ve gotten some flak from people,” he said.
But he emphasized that the search committee included representatives of all aspects of the WSU community and that a private search process is just a fact of life for top administrators – who don’t want to be fired for going through an interview.
Like other members of the search panel, Pezeshki said Floyd was the best candidate out of a great field.
“I feel that Dr. Floyd is going to be one of the more open, egalitarian presidents we’ve ever had at WSU.”
Regent Rafael Stone, who headed the search committee, and several other regents emphasized before their vote Wednesday that the search team had held public forums all around the state and gathered a lot of public input before the hiring.
“There were five other major institutions who were looking,” Stone said. Had the committee not moved quickly, “we would not have gotten Elson.”
Floyd, 50, brings a Washington background to the presidency of WSU. He served in several vice presidential roles at EWU from 1990-93, and served for two years as the executive director of the state Higher Education Coordinating Board, which oversees higher education in Washington.
“This is a homecoming for me. I’m very familiar with the state of Washington,” said Floyd, 50, who was reared in North Carolina by a factory-worker mother and bricklayer father. He and his wife, Carmento, have two adult children.
As president of the University of Missouri system, Floyd has developed a reputation as a charismatic, “spellbinding” presence who has pushed for some radical changes in the state’s university system that have met with resistance, according to a June profile in the Columbia (Mo.) Daily Tribune.
In addition to persistent budget shortfalls, he’s also been in the spotlight over controversies in the athletic department, including the firing of men’s basketball coach Quin Snyder and questions over Floyd’s relationship with a basketball player who landed in legal trouble.
“It has not been an easy time,” Floyd told the Tribune.
At WSU he will have a five-year contract with an annual salary of $600,000, about $160,000 more than he earns at the much larger university complex in Missouri and 6 percent more than Rawlins is paid.
His contract includes retention bonuses of $50,000 in the second and third years, $100,000 in the fourth and $150,000 in the fifth year.
Although details are still up in the air, Floyd said he expects to arrive in Pullman full-time in May. But, he said he will make visits to Washington in the coming months to meet as many people as possible at WSU and to spend time in Olympia with Rawlins.
Floyd said fundraising would be one of his priorities to help keep costs as low as possible for students while maintaining excellence.
“We’re going to focus very, very keenly on private giving,” he said.
Speaking to faculty and staff at Wednesday’s announcement, Floyd told them that their work sends ripples well beyond Pullman.
“It’s through your teaching and your research and your service and through your intellect generally that you’re making a significant difference,” he said. “And if we make a difference here in this community, we’re making a difference in our state.
“And if we’re doing that right, we’re making a national impact. And if we’re doing that right, we’re making a global impact.”
Provost Bob Bates, WSU’s top academic officer and the main administrator on the Pullman campus, said Floyd looks like a strong president, and he expects to continue the current division of duties that Bates and Rawlins had – with Rawlins focused more on the statewide system, fundraising and lobbying, and Bates taking daily oversight of the Pullman campus.
Floyd will be the first African American to lead WSU, which has made a concerted effort in recent years to increase diversity. Currently, 2.4 percent of WSU’s 23,000 students and 1.4 percent of its faculty are black.
Former EWU President Mark Drummond, now chancellor of the California Community College system, said he was fortunate to hire Floyd very early in his career and had the opportunity to watch him grow.
In 1990, Floyd became EWU’s vice president for student services at 34 years old. He left in 1993.
“He is a very talented man, a very ethical and strong leader,” Drummond said on Wednesday. “Washington State is lucky to get him, and I’m glad he’s back in the West.”
Drummond said Floyd worked with him in increasing diversity, and EWU quickly found itself with the highest Latino enrollment in the state and made great strides with the African American and Native American numbers, as well.
“The most outstanding thing about him is, he is a passionate believer in student success, a great advocate for students from lower economic backgrounds,” Drummond said.
Floyd has been president at the University of Missouri since 2002 and had previously been president of Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.
“I salute President Floyd for his statewide leadership as he has worked very hard all across Missouri to build a strong coalition for public higher education that will benefit our state’s citizens and particularly our future students,” Missouri Chancellor Brady Deaton said.
Floyd began his career in 1978 at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he served until 1990 and again from 1995 to 1998 in various administrative posts, according to the University of Missouri web page.
At the meeting to approve Floyd’s appointment, regents and others praised Rawlins for his service to WSU and said they hoped Floyd would continue his legacy. Rawlins told the crowd that they shared in whatever success he’s had.
“If you lifted me up,” he said, “lift him higher.”