Elson S. Floyd, whose love for education took him from writing math problems in the sand as a boy when his family could not afford paper to the leader of major university systems, died Saturday.
Floyd, 59, led Washington State University since 2007. His work at WSU culminated earlier this year in the state Legislature’s decision to allow WSU to start its own medical school after a hard-fought and public battle – first with the University of Washington and then with some lawmakers.
“Higher education has lost a giant, and the world has lost one of its kindest human beings,” Ryan Durkan, chair of the WSU board of regents, said in an email sent to WSU faculty and staff Saturday morning. “His tenure was unprecedented.”
Floyd was rushed to Pullman Regional Hospital where he died surrounded by family early Saturday, said WSU provost and acting president Dan Bernardo.
On June 5, Floyd took a leave of absence as he fought colon cancer, but he vowed he’d be back.
“I have the greatest job in the world,” he told the WSU regents at the meeting where they approved his leave of absence. “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.”
Floyd was known affectionately by current and former students as “E Flo.” After his leave of absence was announced, many of them took to social media to express their love and concern for him.
In response, Floyd posted his final Twitter comment on June 5. “Appreciate your thoughts and kind words more than you could ever know,” it read. “Thank you for your prayers. #GoCougs.”
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.
Bernardo said he was very close to Floyd but never talked to him about his illness.
“He was extremely private,” he said. “The amazing thing about Elson was that until quite recently it never really impacted how he went about his business. With us it was business as usual until about a month ago.”
The last time U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers spoke to him was just after his leave of absence was announced.
“He kept a very positive attitude and wanted to focus on beating it,” she said. “We’re going to miss him dearly.”
‘What a leader looks like’
Katie Walsh, who recently graduated from WSU after taking online classes, was a member of the Global Campus student senate. She was able to meet Floyd several times, including at a recent presidential award dinner.
She recalls him taking the time to speak to each student waiting to have their picture taken.
“He really seemed to care,” she said. “He just seemed like such a wonderful man. He inspired me as a leader and showed me what a leader looks like.”
Bernardo said he and Floyd’s family appreciated receiving an outpouring of support and condolences from around the country.
“It’s been really heartening,” Bernardo said. “He touched a lot of people and it shows in their reactions today.”
Floyd oversaw completion of a successful $1 billion capital campaign, legislative approval for a WSU medical school and the highest student enrollment in the university’s history. He also established the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication and a major new research center with the Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health. He coordinated a massive reorganization of colleges and programs. He also hired football coach Mike Leach, a controversial move that sparked new excitement among Cougar fans.
The WSU regents will meet within the next week or two to appoint an interim president while a search is launched for Floyd’s replacement, Bernardo said.
Committed to health sciences, Spokane
Before the Legislature granted WSU permission to start its own medical school, Floyd created a new College of Medical Science at the Riverpoint Campus in Spokane and consolidated all the health sciences programs there.
Rich Hadley, former CEO of Greater Spokane Incorporated, said Floyd came to meet with his group years ago, where he was told of the group’s goal of establishing a medical school in Spokane.
“He adapted that,” Hadley said. “He had it in his head anyway, I think. He got the regents to agree to that.”
Former state Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown became chancellor of the WSU Spokane campus in January 2013. She worked with Floyd briefly at Eastern Washington University, where he was an administrator in the early 1990s. It was clear he was a rising star, Brown said. She was in the Legislature when he returned to Washington to take the post at WSU.
“It was clear he was going to take the university to the next level and that Spokane was going to be part of that,” she said. “He saw that concentrating the efforts on health sciences would be most successful for Spokane and WSU.”
Hadley worked with Floyd during WSU’s push for funding to construct the buildings required for the Riverpoint expansion and for permission to launch a medical school.
“I don’t think we could have gotten there without him,” he said.
As he reflected on Floyd Saturday, Hadley said he was amazed that someone so dynamic and successful could be so humble.
“Oh my gosh, it’s like losing your best friend,” he said. “There aren’t very many people like Elson in a career that you get to meet.”
Brown said she’s confident that the work Floyd began in Spokane will continue because everyone from the regents to the faculty is invested in the plan.
“The good news is that there’s a lot of momentum and consensus around the university’s major initiatives,” she said. “His work will continue.”
Leading during a recession
When he came to WSU, Floyd put an emphasis on keeping tuition low. But as the recession hit, and the state Legislature slashed budgets, the university approved major tuition increases, including 14 percent in 2009, 14 percent again in 2010 and 16 percent in 2011.
In 2012, Floyd worked to pressure the Legislature to stop the cuts. He promised to keep tuition at inflation if the Legislature didn’t make cuts. At the same time, he came up with a plan for employee raises that focused on lesser-paid workers.
“My challenge is this is virtually a zero-sum game,” Floyd said in 2012. “We can’t keep using tuition as a panacea to offset expenses. Our families can’t sustain it. No one can sustain a 16 percent increase year after year.”
Guiding WSU through economic difficulties may have been Floyd’s greatest accomplishment, state Sen. Mark Schoesler said.
“Anybody can be a success when times are good in budgets,” he said. “Only a great leader can be a success when times are tough. WSU was better able to survive really tough times because of his leadership.”
Schoesler, whose district includes Pullman, said he came to consider Floyd a personal friend.
“Coug Nation is grieving today and I have to say I’m grieving myself,” he said. “Elson was in many ways like a brother to me.”
Bernardo said he doesn’t consider any particular building or program to be Floyd’s greatest achievement. Rather, it was all those things together.
“Elson Floyd taught WSU how to dream big and then he was able to help us realize those dreams,” he said. “There was no ‘It can’t be done’ in his vocabulary. Elson was never, at any time, even the least bit stymied by those types of considerations.”
Floyd, the 10th president of WSU, helped the university accomplish so many things simply because of his sheer will and determination, Bernardo said.
“Universities are known for their glacial pace of change and Elson put WSU in a different gear,” he said. “That’s really why he accomplished so much in his eight-year presidency.”
Family stressed education
Before arriving at WSU, Floyd had been president of the University of Missouri system since 2002, overseeing four campuses, more than 63,000 students and a hospital system.
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. He arrived at Eastern Washington University in 1990 to become vice president for student services and then vice president for administration and executive vice president. He left EWU in 1993 to become the executive director of the Washington State Higher Education Coordinating Board.
Floyd, the first black WSU president, grew up in segregated Henderson, North Carolina, on an unpaved street.
“We couldn’t even afford paper when he started marking in the sand to add up numbers,” his mother, Dorothy Floyd, told The Spokesman-Review soon after Floyd was hired at WSU. “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,” Dorothy Floyd said. She remembered him coming home from school in the eighth grade weeping because his white friends were headed to college prep schools. Dorothy approached a counselor, who helped Elson get into Darlington School, a college-prep boarding school in Rome, Georgia.
Once Elson Floyd graduated from the University of North Carolina, he helped put his three brothers through school. They graduated from college – though Elson, with his doctorate, held the senior position.
“They all call him Dr. Floyd,” his mother said in the 2006 interview. “And I do too, sometimes.”
Memorial services are pending.
Floyd is survived by his wife, Carmento; his mother, Dorothy; daughter, Jessica Floyd Middlebrooks (and husband Shaun); son, Kenneth Edwards; brothers Michael, Dennis and Garrett Floyd; and granddaughters Victoria, Kenae’ and Kennedy.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks that memorial gifts be made to the Elson S. Floyd Founders Fund for the WSU College of Medicine.