PULLMAN – Walking around his university campus as an undergraduate, Elson S. Floyd remembers seeing leaders in suits who never spoke to him.
Now putting on his own suit, WSU President Floyd said he will always reach out to and talk with the students he sees on his own campus.
“I want to make sure we are doing all that we can do as an institution to make this the best experience imaginable,” Floyd said. “That’s a carry forward from growing up very, very poor when people look at you as though you are invisible. That happens all too frequently, and I don’t want it to happen here.”
Floyd grew up in North Carolina as the oldest of four boys. A first-generation college student and the first African-American to graduate from the Georgia college preparatory school, Darlington School, he said his mother acted as his strongest motivator to attend college.
“In her judgment, it would give her sons opportunities that they would not be able to do otherwise,” he said. “I’m sitting here as a university president in my 15th year, which is a great tribute to her in large measure.”
Floyd said he started as an assistant dean right after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in political science and speech from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. During the next 29 years, he obtained his doctorate in higher and adult education, served in several administrative roles including the university president of Western Michigan University and University of Missouri and then accepted his current position as the WSU president in 2007.
For Floyd, though, family has always taken precedence despite his academic and career accomplishments. His father died six years ago, but he said he still has his mom, wife Carmenta, daughter Jessica and son Kenny.
“I enjoy being a dad. Now, I sort of transition my relationship with my children in that we are really best friends,” he said. “That is a phase we are going through in our lives together.”
Working 12-hour days nearly six days a week, Floyd said he always dedicated Sundays to family time. At every job he took he made it clear that he would not work on that day. Instead, he and his family spent time playing board games, swimming and doing everything they didn’t have time for during the week.
His commitment to his children, Jessica, 28, and Kenny, 29, carries over to his treatment of the students at WSU, he said.
“What I will tell parents and others is that I’m going to take care of their sons and daughters as I would mine,” Floyd said. “I am not going to place their sons and daughters in harm’s way in the same way I would not place mine.”
Joan King, the WSU associate vice president and chief university budget officer, said working with Floyd has allowed her to see how engaging and connected he is with the students. In one meeting a few years ago with the Daily Evergreen, she said he surprised the room by handing out his personal cellphone number for them to use whenever they needed.
“He said, ‘Call me on my cellphone if you have questions.’ One of the students said, ‘Do you answer your own phone?’ ” King said. “He said, ‘Go ahead and dial it.’ Very few presidents would give students his personal cellphone number and then ask them to call him.”
Taylor Hennessey, the Associated Students president, said he and Floyd don’t always see eye to eye in their work together, but this mentoring relationship has allowed him to enrich his leadership and legislative skills.
He remembers how nervous he was before the first time he interacted with Floyd personally. He said he and his colleagues walked through the door of the president’s house on Colorado Street expecting a formal suit-and-tie dinner but immediately were told to relax and take off the tie.
“My favorite time when I’m around is when we are behind the scenes. He’s pretty witty,” Hennessey said. “He’ll come in, he’ll talk to people. He’s always the first person there and always the last to leave.”
Floyd said he has plans to continue improving residence halls on campus and commit to supporting the university’s academic programs. But the ultimate goal is providing students with an academic and overall college experience they will celebrate with their communities back home.
“I flat-out have the best job in the country,” Floyd said. “There is something special about WSU and even more special about being a Coug. It’s about family taking care of family.”