PULLMAN, Wash. – Elson S. Floyd, the 10th president of Washington State University and a nationally respected voice for affordable, accessible higher education, died this morning of complications from colon cancer. He was 59.
“Trudi and I send our deepest condolences to Carmento and Elson’s family, friends and colleagues,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said. “This was a man wholly devoted to serving his state and expanding opportunities for all of Washington’s students. He turned Washington State into Cougar State, dramatically expanding the scope of the university on both sides of the mountains. He loved inspiring students and challenging them. Thanks to Elson, there are Cougars all around the world engaged in innovative and influential work.
“I personally appreciate the counsel he’s provided me over the past three years, starting with his help as co-chair of my transition team,” Inslee continued. “Many of the strides we’ve made these past years in everything from higher education funding to student aid to innovative new research programs have Elson’s handprints all over them. He was an incredible leader and his legacy will be one of excellence and dedication. Elson will always be remembered as one of the greatest Washingtonians.”
WSU Board of Regents Chair Ryan Durkan shared the news of President Floyd’s death with the university community in a prepared statement.
“The university’s progress during President Floyd’s tenure is unprecedented,” she said, “And his legacy will serve the people of Washington, the nation and the world for generations to come. We have lost a visionary and one of the most compassionate leaders I have had the pleasure of working with.”
President Floyd transformed WSU into a top-tier research university while navigating some of the worst fiscal challenges in the institution’s history. Under President Floyd’s leadership:
- Overall student enrollment grew to record highs, hitting 28,686 in fall 2014. The number of students of color nearly doubled.
- Annual research expenditures grew by 57.5 percent from approximately $213.2 million in 2007 to more than $335.9 million in 2015, placing WSU in the top 11 percent of public universities for research funding.
- All of WSU’s health sciences programs were consolidated on its Spokane campus, including the colleges of nursing and pharmacy, and the new College of Medical Science.
- WSU won bipartisan support in the Washington State Legislature to create its own, separately accredited medical school at WSU Health Sciences Spokane.
- The university established the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication.
- WSU completed 30 major construction projects from 2007 – 2015, including one of the world’s most technologically advanced wine science centers at WSU Tri- Cities.
- The Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health opened with anchor gifts from Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
- The university successfully completed the $1 billion fundraising Campaign for Washington State University.
Affectionately known as “E Flo,” President Floyd was a favorite among WSU students. He always went out of his way to greet and visit with the students he encountered and knew many of them by name. He once told a student reporter that as a college student he often felt invisible and didn’t want any WSU student to feel that way. He and his wife, Carmento, attended many student-centered activities, including WSU sports events where they were known to cheer from the student section. Thousands of students followed a Twitter account Dr. Floyd started as a way to better connect with them. He gave many students his personal cell phone number and encouraged them to contact him if they needed anything.
President Floyd was deeply committed to WSU’s land-grant mission. He was a visionary with enormous understanding of the modern land-grant university and the manner in which it should serve the public. He pursued educational programs and research efforts that aligned the resources of WSU with the needs of Washington State and its people. A champion of broadening access to higher education, President Floyd expanded WSU’s urban campuses in Spokane, Tri Cities and Vancouver, and established WSU North Puget Sound at Everett.
President Floyd took WSU’s land-grant responsibility into the field of health care, arguing successfully for a change in state law to allow WSU to create a fully accredited medical school that will produce more primary care physicians for Washington’s underserved communities.
He was a skilled and committed statesman, who spent hours working with state and federal lawmakers on issues advancing WSU and higher education. He was a forceful spokesman for the value of higher education. President Floyd became the face of higher education leadership in Washington. He drew upon his own background as an example of the transformative power of higher education.
A man of modest origins, Elson S. Floyd was born in Henderson, N.C., on Feb. 29, 1956, but celebrated his birthday on March 1. He was the eldest of four sons of Dorothy and the late Elson Floyd. His father was a brick mason, and his mother a third-shift tobacco factory worker. Neither of them attended high school. However, both of his parents – especially his mother – emphasized a strong education for all of their children. A bright, diligent student, he won a scholarship to attend the Darlington School in Rome, Ga.
From the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he earned a bachelor of arts degree in political science, a master of education degree in adult education and a doctorate in higher and adult education. He began his professional career in 1978 as an assistant dean for student life at UNC and worked in higher education for the rest of his life. After holding leadership posts at Eastern Washington University and the Washington State Higher Education Coordinating Board, he returned to UNC as a vice provost and executive vice chancellor, posts he held from 1995-1998.
Dr. Floyd became president of Western Michigan University in 1998, a position he held for five years. He served as president of the University of Missouri from 2003 until 2007, when he became president of Washington State University.
Dr. Floyd served on numerous national boards, including the American Council on Education Commission on Leadership and Institutional Effectiveness, the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, President George W. Bush’s Advisory Board for the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, the Association of Public Land-Grant Universities and the Oregon State University Board of Trustees. He chaired the PAC-12 Conference CEO Group in 2014-2015, and under his leadership, the conference adopted sweeping reforms for student-athletes.
He is survived by his beloved wife, Carmento of Pullman; his mother, Dorothy; his daughter, Jessica Floyd Middlebrooks, (her husband Shawn) and granddaughter Victoria; his son, Kenneth Edwards and granddaughters, Kenae’ and Kennedy, all of North Carolina; and brothers, Michael and Dennis Floyd of North Carolina, and Garrett Floyd of Tyler, Texas.
In lieu of flowers, the family suggests memorial gifts to honor President Floyd be made to the Elson S. Floyd Founders Fund for the WSU College of Medicine.
The family plans services for President Floyd at noon, Saturday, June 27,in Henderson, North Carolina. Because he was such a student-focused president, the official university celebration of life honoring him has been scheduled for Wednesday, Aug. 26, after the students return for fall semester. It will be held in Beasley Coliseum on the Pullman campus.
Kathy Barnard, University Communications (509) 335-8055, firstname.lastname@example.org