Washington State University President Elson Floyd is taking a leave of absence to battle colon cancer.
The request was approved Friday by the university’s board of regents, which was meeting in the Tri-Cities for its annual retreat.
“These have been incredibly challenging times for me, and it is with great regret I ask to take a leave of absence to address this personal battle with cancer,” Floyd, 59, said in prepared remarks.
WSU Provost and Executive Vice President Dan Bernardo will take over the president’s day-to-day duties.
Floyd has led WSU since 2007, replacing V. Lane Rawlins.
“I have the greatest job in the world,” he told the regents. “There is no place on earth like WSU, and I cannot wait to return to the office and all the great work we are doing once my health allows. In the meantime, please keep me in your thoughts and prayers.”
Questions about Floyd’s health surfaced periodically this year because of rapid weight loss, which was readily apparent whenever Floyd worked the Legislature in Olympia, where he successfully sought approval to establish a WSU medical school in Spokane.
But he ducked general health questions, and university officials describe him as an extremely private individual.
Board of regents Chairman Ryan Durkin noted that Floyd has the board’s “full, unequivocal support.”
“Elson Floyd’s accomplishments during this past year have been phenomenal,” Durkin said.
The announcement spread quickly through Olympia.
Gov. Jay Inslee, who was traveling Friday, sent a message of support via Twitter shortly after news of Floyd’s leave of absence broke: “great work can be seen all across WA, east & west. I look forward to seeing him getting back to it soon. #GoElson and #GoCougs!”
Floyd served as a co-chairman of Inslee’s transition team after the 2012 election, and “his fingerprints are all over this administration,” said David Postman, an Inslee spokesman.
“He remains an important voice in a lot of what we do,” Postman said. “Dr. Floyd has been somebody the governor leaned on.”
Floyd was described as “the strongest voice in the state” for higher education by state Sen. Mike Baumgartner, R-Spokane, who has worked with WSU on its efforts to start a medical school on its Spokane campus.
As the proposal to give WSU the authority to start its own medical school wound its way through the committee process, Floyd made frequent appearances at hearings and put the full-court press on lobbying legislators. He celebrated with legislators after the bill cleared its final vote and was at Gov. Jay Inslee’s side a few days later when the bill was signed.
“Elson’s impact on higher education in this state can’t be overstated,” said Baumgartner, who added he had talked with Floyd earlier in the day, and the president said he was very optimistic about beating the cancer.
Floyd is such a workaholic that the greatest challenge might be to get him to focus on his health rather than on issues involving WSU and higher education, Baumgartner said.
Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, described Floyd as “the leader in higher education” for the state, adding, “I’m keeping my good friend Elson Floyd in my prayers daily.”