Washington State University President Elson Floyd, a much-admired leader with a personal touch who led the effort to create a WSU medical school, died of cancer Saturday.
Elson Floyd, the beloved president of Washington State University who fought successfully for WSU to have its own medical school even as he himself was ill with cancer, died Saturday.
Across the state, leaders praised President Floyd, calling him one of the most respected and admired educators in the country, and a giant in his field.
In the last five months of his life, he successfully pulled together support from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle that allowed WSU to create its own medical school, which is expected to begin teaching its first class in fall 2017. He made dozens of trips to Olympia, arguing passionately for the need to train more doctors to work in underserved rural areas.
“He was the engine behind that bill — but it was not an easy one to get passed,” said state Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane. After the bill was signed Baumgartner and others joined President Floyd in singing the WSU fight song and talked about the challenges he was facing with cancer. “I’m sure glad that he got to see that bill get passed before he went.”
A tall, broad-shouldered man with a deep voice, President Floyd commanded attention. He often touched on the theme of needing to broaden access to higher education and worked to make WSU accessible to more students, especially those who would be the first in their families to go to college.
He was known to pass out his personal cellphone number to students, urging them to call if they ever needed help, and he and his wife, Carmento Floyd, often sat in the student section during games, cheering the teams on. Students called him by his nickname, “E Flo.”
The eldest of four sons, President Floyd grew up in a small town in North Carolina; his parents did not graduate from high school.
He was the first black president of WSU, and while he often downplayed the significance of that role, WSU’s minority enrollment doubled during his tenure — an achievement often cited by WSU’s governing board of regents.
Gov. Jay Inslee, who tapped President Floyd to co-chair his transition team after Inslee was elected governor, described President Floyd in a statement as “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.”
President Floyd was the 10th president of WSU, and university regent Mike Worthy has called him the school’s most impactful president.
Research grants tripled under his leadership and WSU’s overall enrollment grew by 17 percent. WSU completed 30 major construction projects, including a Wine Science Center at WSU Tri-Cities, which opened in the last month. And WSU completed a $1 billion fundraising campaign.
“We have lost a visionary and one of the most compassionate leaders I have had the pleasure of working with,” said WSU Board of Regents chair Ryan Durkan.
The university has posted an extensive digital memorial to President Floyd on its website.
Dan Bernardo, the executive vice president of WSU, will continue to assume the duties of president, a role he took on when President Floyd took leave.
Wrote Ana Mari Cauce, interim president of the University of Washington: “He was a great champion of higher education and his leadership has left an indelible imprint on our state and students for generations to come. We are all Cougars today.”
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State Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, said that while President Floyd wanted to increase the number of graduates in science and technology fields, he also recognized the importance of a broad-based liberal-arts education, to help students “learn and adapt to a world tomorrow that we might not be able to envision today.”
President Floyd took a leave of absence from the university for cancer treatment just two weeks ago. At the time, he told state lawmakers he was optimistic he would be back on the job soon.
He grew up in the small town of Henderson, N.C. His father, Elson, was a brick mason and his mother, Dorothy, a tobacco-factory worker.
He received a scholarship to go to Darlington High School in Georgia, a private boarding school, and often said that the school changed the trajectory of his life. He went on to graduate from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, earning a bachelor’s, master’s and a doctorate there.
College “really is a gateway to success,” President Floyd told The Seattle Times in a video made by the editorial board two years ago.
He held leadership posts at UNC, Eastern Washington University and the Washington State Higher Education Coordinating Board, worked briefly again at UNC as its vice provost and executive vice chancellor, and then served as president of two universities — Western Michigan University and the University of Missouri — before coming to WSU.
State Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, said President Floyd was a man who could relate to people of all backgrounds and “embodied an academic who did not isolate himself in the ivory tower.”
Baumgartner agreed, saying he admired that President Floyd used his background to demonstrate how higher education can be an engine for success.
“You look at where he came from — the disadvantaged background and how he used access to higher education in his own life,” he said. “I think he never forgot that … He just knew that higher education could be this real vehicle for the American dream.”
Besides his wife, Carmento, he is survived his mother, Dorothy; his daughter, Jessica Floyd Middlebrooks, (and her husband, Shaun); and son Kenneth Edwards, all of North Carolina; brothers Michael and Dennis Floyd of North Carolina and Garrett Floyd of Tyler, Texas; and three granddaughters.
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.