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Opinion >  Editorial

Editorial: WSU President Elson Floyd set the bar high in academia

Many across Washington have been moved by the death of Elson Floyd because his leadership brought profound change to Washington State University and the communities it serves.

As many mourn the loss of a friend.

Spokane, of course, has benefited greatly from Floyd’s vision of a second medical school for Washington, and his view that regional campuses forge their own identities. Cougar Country now extends to all four corners of the state, and health care will move closer to the people, too, if we fulfill his dream.

Floyd’s advocacy for a medical school was grounded in his belief that communities can heal themselves if given the right tools: A shortage of medical care in a small town can be solved by residents becoming doctors and nurses and returning home.

As a legislator and as chancellor of WSU Spokane, Lisa Brown witnessed Floyd’s leadership, vision and resolve. She says he never viewed the medical school as a Spokane initiative but as a response to a severe need for more doctors in a state that educated too few. Once he settled on that as a goal, nothing could stop him, even his own ailment. It was others who needed to keep up. The medical school initiative moved on “Elson time,” she said, which is faster than normal in the world of academia.

Floyd met with the editorial board on a number of occasions to press the point firmly. His commitment was unquestioned. Under his leadership, the College of Pharmacy moved its operations to Spokane – a crucial signal. The steady accumulation of health-related programs culminated in 2013 when WSU formed the new College of Medical Sciences. Along the way, a new nursing building and health sciences center were built on the Riverpoint Campus.

Floyd’s impact goes beyond the medical school. Current and former students praise his personal touch, and it predates his time in Pullman. He was also president of Western Michigan University and the University of Missouri system, and executive vice president at Eastern Washington University.

It’s the rare academic leader who understands higher education’s connection to economic development, but Floyd got it. He didn’t see universities as mere educational outposts but as institutions that could help spur commerce. Under Floyd, WSU increased its number of federal grants and community partnerships. He led a $1 billion capital campaign, drove the university to its highest enrollment and greatly expanded research opportunities.

To revive a moribund sports program, he hired a new athletic director and gave him the freedom to rebuild. Cougs are excited again about sports.

Floyd’s death comes at a time when the University of Washington is searching for a new president, and Western Washington University soon will be, after its president recently announced that he’s stepping down next year. Higher education in Washington will need a fresh infusion of leadership.

Finding another Elson Floyd may not be possible. He set the bar high, not just at Washington State University but throughout academia. He will be greatly missed.

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