Elson Floyd leaves a remarkable legacy, on and off the Palouse.
WASHINGTON State University President Elson Floyd was a populist among the elites, pushing the expertise and resources of the ivory tower across the state with a powerful combination of will, intellect, humility and old-fashioned Southern charm.
Just last month, Floyd stood in the aisles of the WSU graduation ceremony to personally shake the hands of thousands of students. He was noticeably thin and drawn from the effects of colon cancer, but that did not stop some students from greeting him with bear hugs. He was “E Flo,” the president who readily handed out his personal cellphone number.
Floyd’s death on Saturday leaves a significant vacuum, both on the Palouse and in the state’s education community. In Pullman, his legacy includes surging student enrollment, research funding and university fundraising. He helped WSU weather the Great Recession by cutting his own annual salary by $100,000 for two years. He leaves the university with new colleges and schools, including his signature achievement: a just-authorized medical school in Spokane.
Away from Pullman, Floyd was a galvanizing force for a more broadly imagined education continuum: “cradle to college.” He brought together the state’s colleges and universities to speak as a single voice against the Legislature’s wrongheaded policy of jacking up tuition, and was an equally eloquent advocate for early learning. As the University of Washington went through four presidents during Floyd’s eight years, he emerged as the steady, credible elder statesman of higher education in the state.
Floyd did not forget his humble roots; his parents didn’t graduate from high school. Growing up in the segregated South, he climbed the academic ladder at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to earn his Ph.D., and then went on to lead three universities.
His death was shocking, coming just three weeks after he’d taken medical leave. He chose to work up until the end, continuing to advocate and educate as he was in increasing pain.
In his tenure, the number of students of color at WSU doubled, and an astonishing number were the first in their families to graduate. Floyd, standing resplendent in crimson robes just last month, got to congratulate many of them.