COLUMBIA, Mo. – When Elson Floyd enrolled at the University of North Carolina in the 1970s, it wasn’t because of the school’s academic standards or research record.
It was simply because he could afford it.
He knew that if he lost his scholarship he could always work his way through.
“That stuck with me,” said Floyd, who was named Washington State University’s 10th president last week. “Affordability is very, very important.”
It’s been a mantra of Floyd’s four-year tenure as president of the University of Missouri system, and it’s likely to be one during his time as WSU’s president.
Floyd leaves Missouri with a record of having pushed for cuts in administrative costs to help bolster classroom spending. This year, at his urging, chancellors at the system’s four universities have identified $20 million in administrative cuts.
“Those savings are going directly back to students,” said Angela Bennett, president of the UM system’s Board of Curators, a governing body similar to WSU’s Board of Regents.
Floyd’s time at the UM has been marked by several achievements – and some controversy. He has helped bring the system back from the brink of a historic budget crisis, overseen the resurgence of the system’s ailing health care network, and pushed ambitious proposals to limit tuition and streamline administrative tasks that met with legislative resistance.
His dedication to affordability is personal. Floyd, 50, who will be the first black to serve as WSU president, grew up in segregated Henderson, N.C., on an unpaved street.
“We couldn’t even afford paper when he started marking in the sand to add up numbers,” said his mother, Dorothy Floyd, 78. “He always loved education.”
She worked in a factory, and her late husband was a bricklayer. Although they never finished high school, they urged their four sons to pursue college educations.
“I was determined that if I had children, that would be our dinner table talk and our breakfast table talk – education,” said Dorothy Floyd, who has spent the last few months recuperating from a broken hip at her son’s home in Columbia.
She remembers him coming home from school in the eighth grade weeping because his white friends were headed off to college prep schools. Dorothy approached a counselor, who helped Elson get into Darlington School, a college-prep boarding school in Rome, Ga.
Once Elson Floyd graduated from UNC, he helped put his three brothers through school. Now they’ve all got college degrees – though Elson, with his doctorate, still holds the senior position.
“They all call him Dr. Floyd,” said his mother. “And I do too, sometimes.”
Elson Floyd just had a heck of a week. It started with flying to Seattle to meet with the WSU Board of Regents about the possibility of replacing the retiring V. Lane Rawlins.
At that point, he said, he was “maybe” considering becoming a candidate for the job.
Two days later, his hiring was announced in Pullman. It meant a return to Washington, a chance to lead a university whose mission and strategic plan are in sync with his ideas, and a substantial raise to an annual salary of $600,000 with substantial bonuses.
Thursday, he returned to Columbia for an early morning press conference, the start of a two-day Board of Curators meeting, and a World War III-style headline in the Missourian newspaper: “SURPRISE ENDING.”
Friday night, he hosted 150 people at his home for his annual Christmas party.
“It’s been a whirlwind week, a very exciting week,” he said during a brief break at the gathering.
Floyd’s return to Washington – where he was a senior administrator at Eastern Washington University and the executive director of the Higher Education Coordinating Board during the 1990s – comes after four years at the helm of the UM system.
During that time, he’s built a reputation as a charismatic and personable president who led the system through rough budget waters, redirected spending and priorities from administration to academics, and developed a new emphasis on economic development and a “culture of entrepreneurship.”
Many of Floyd’s priorities at the UM system align with those at WSU – both are land-grant institutions with a mission to provide statewide extension programs in addition to academics and research. He’s also been an effective lobbyist with lawmakers, and led the UM system’s $1 billion fundraising campaign.
WSU was looking for those qualities in a new president, as it works to extend Rawlins’ legacy of working well with the Legislature and as the university prepares to begin its own fundraising campaign.
Floyd’s many admirers in Missouri say he came to their system when it was in dire straits. As president, he oversees the four campuses and the chancellors who run them.
State budget shortfalls had led lawmakers to cut the system’s budget by $200 million, and steep tuition increases had resulted. The university system’s network of hospitals and clinics – which accounts for about a quarter of the system’s revenues – was several million dollars in the hole.
He began making millions of dollars in cuts, looking for ways to make the system more efficient, and developing a public-private partnership to provide scholarships for needy students. He also named a new CEO of UM Health Care and assumed direct oversight of that position.
In the past three years, the health care network has shown profits of $26 million and $33 million twice. The university system is out of the worst trouble, and officials hope for a slight increase in state funding in the next legislative session.
“When there’s trouble, Elson Floyd steps into it,” said Jim Ross, the health care system’s CEO. “He doesn’t step away from it.”
When the faculty revolted against the chancellor at UM-Kansas City in 2004, leading to her resignation, Floyd went to Kansas City himself. He served as interim chancellor for several months, instructing administrators to open budget records to the faculty leadership, and eventually installing a new chancellor.
“He changed the tenor of things in a very important way,” said Gary Ebersole, a professor of history and religion, and chairman of the Faculty Senate in Kansas City.
“I am not a fan of administrators,” said Ebersole, who led the effort to hold a faculty vote of no-confidence on the previous chancellor. “There’s no president or chancellor who I ever lamented their departure. But with Elson I will.”
‘A little too robust’
Floyd’s tenure at the helm of the UM system hasn’t been without its troubles.
He’s pushed for changes that met with resistance, such as his attempt in 2004 to bring a fifth campus into the university system. He’s also proposed merging some administrative positions and freezing tuition with plans that did not gain support.
“As I’ve looked back on my tenure here at the University of Missouri, the pace that I had for change was a little too robust for the culture,” Floyd said.
He has acknowledged some differences with the system’s Board of Curators. The board often splits in 6-3 votes, along the lines of those appointed by previous Democratic Gov. Bob Holden and the three new members appointed by current Republican Gov. Matt Blunt, according to news accounts. Some observers said that with three new appointments looming, the possibility of further conflict seemed likely.
Floyd also became enmeshed in scandals surrounding UM athletics. He took on a mentoring role for a basketball player, Ricky Clemons, who was accused in 2004 of assaulting his girlfriend. While staying in a halfway house, Clemons broke the house rules and attended a Fourth of July party at the Floyds’ home, where he was injured riding an ATV.
Later, jail records revealed that Floyd’s wife, Carmento, had spoken to Clemons on the phone several times while he was in jail, and at one point she had urged him to stop dating white women. The story became a high-profile controversy.
Ultimately, the UM basketball program was placed on three years probation for violations associated with Clemons and the program’s coaches – although not for the Floyds’ relationship with him.
Floyd called the situation a “nightmare” in interviews at the time, but he resisted calls to resign.
Another controversy erupted over the departure of men’s basketball coach Quin Snyder, who resigned in February in a confusing and controversial manner that left many uncertain over what had occurred and whether top administrators had forced him out. A university investigation concluded Floyd was not involved in the decisions surrounding Snyder’s departure.
Floyd skirted the topic of the athletic controversies in an interview at his home last week. But several people said Floyd wasn’t directly responsible for the Snyder matter and that he was trying to help a troubled young man in the Clemons case.
“No president or chancellor is immune to things happening that are out of your control,” said Tom George, a former provost at WSU who is now the chancellor of UM-St. Louis. “But because you’re in charge, you’re responsible. That’s just how it is.
“Anyone can survive the good times. It’s a question of how you handle difficulties. We all get them, and he’s handled them extremely well.”
Talk to enough people about Floyd, and you’ll hear a steady stream of praise for his charisma and personal magnetism. People laud him for his speaking style, his quick read on complicated policy issues, his friendly manner, and the ineffable personal qualities of leadership.
“He’s one of those people who can command a room,” said John Gardner, whom Floyd appointed to the new position of vice president of research and economic development in 2005. “In private, he’s open and generous – he’s not guarded.”
Like several others, Scott Charton, director of communications for UM and a former Associated Press reporter, raved about his boss’s interpersonal skills.
“I have never seen anyone since Bill Clinton with the personal magnetism that Elson Floyd displays,” said Charton, who covered Clinton when he was governor of Arkansas.
Floyd is good with students – he’s been dubbed “E-Flo” by some in the UM system. Students at his previous college, Western Michigan University, nicknamed him “Flo-Dog,” according to a 2003 profile in the Missourian.
John Andersen, student body president at UM-Columbia, said the system was in bad shape when Floyd took over. “Now I think the situation is turning around, due in no small part to Elson’s efforts,” he said.
Faculty members and administrators at UM say Floyd is decisive and moves quickly to address problems, but he’s also a listener and collaborator.
“He’s not wedded to his own ideas,” said Michael Devaney, an engineering professor who was chairman of the faculty at UM-Columbia when Floyd took over.
Faculty members had concerns about Floyd when he arrived because of his lack of classroom experience. He’s spent his entire career in university administration – moving directly into a job at UNC after earning his doctorate, taking several vice presidential roles at EWU, and serving as president at Western Michigan University before moving to Missouri.
“But that turned out to be very much in the faculty’s favor, because he would defer to faculty on academic issues,” Devaney said.
Even his critics acknowledge his strength in this area, though they tend to call him “slick” rather than “charismatic.” One member of the search committee that recommended hiring Floyd for the UM post told the Missourian newspaper last week that Floyd was evasive during the interview process.
“In pressing questions, we could not get deeper than about a quarter of an inch beneath the surface,” Frank Moss told the newspaper. “I sort of didn’t like that.” Yet Moss recommended hiring Floyd, saying he was the best candidate for UM.
Floyd’s mother describes her son as unflappable – “always jolly” no matter what’s happening. Like many others, she recognizes his gift for speaking and inspiring.
“I wanted him to be a preacher,” she said, “but he wanted to do higher education.”
‘Apostle of education’
Floyd does have an evangelistic zeal about higher education. He’s traveled all over the state, holding forums to push his proposals, meet constituents and promote education, supporters say. Charton calls him “an apostle of education.”
Floyd has a dedication to diversifying the student body and faculty, informed by his own experiences. Growing up amid Southern segregation, he said, he didn’t always realize how pervasive racism was. It was something he had to realize as he grew up – he couldn’t go certain places or do certain things.
He’s careful to note that racism is not all in the past. Even as a longtime university administrator who dresses in natty suits with pocket squares and cufflinks, he encounters it everywhere, he said.
“It’s something I’ve dealt with all my life, and I don’t dwell on it,” he said.
The timeline for Floyd’s arrival in Pullman remains uncertain. He plans to visit the region and work with Rawlins in the weeks to come and perhaps be on the job sometime in May.
Meanwhile, here in Missouri people in the higher education community are getting ready to replace him – something many say will be difficult.
“I think Elson Floyd is the best system president in the United States,” said Tom Atkins, a member of the Board of Curators.
“I’ve been quoted saying it, and I’ll continue saying it. It’s unequivocal.”