The next president of WSU seemed to impress everyone he met and spoke of how eager he is to return to Washington.
Elson Floyd’s commanding presence and easy eloquence seemed to impress all who met him Wednesday as he flew into Pullman and then Seattle to introduce himself as Washington State University’s next president.
“He’s a brilliant statesman. You can tell from the second he comes in the room,” said Zach Wurtz, the WSU student-body president. “He had everyone captivated. He has that way of making a full room think that he’s talking to people one-on-one.”
Floyd, president of the University of Missouri system, described coming back to Washington as “a type of homecoming to me” after working here for five years in the early 1990s. He said he fell in love with the state prior to that when visiting Seattle for a conference. At the time, he made up his mind he would work here one day, he said, but never thought he’d get a second opportunity.
Floyd will face a different kind of homecoming reception today when he meets the UM board of curators back in Columbia, Mo. Many at UM woke up Wednesday to discover their president was leaving.
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“It’s a bummer. I really liked him. His personality is so dynamic and yet so personal,” said Maria Kerford, the UM board’s student representative. “Students really love him … ; we made buttons we all wore which said, ‘I [Heart] E-Flo.’ “
Floyd, 50, was voted WSU’s 10th president by the board of regents Wednesday. He will earn $600,000 annually plus retention bonuses that start at $50,000 in his second year. It’s expected that Floyd will take on an increasing role at the college in coming months then take the reins after commencement next May. Retiring President Lane Rawlins’ contract officially expires June 30.
Named 10th president of Washington State University
Education: Bachelor’s degree in political science and speech; master’s degree in adult education; doctorate in higher and adult education, all from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Career: President, University of Missouri system, 2003-present; president, Western Michigan University, 1998-2003; Executive Vice Chancellor, UNC, Chapel Hill, 1995-98; Executive director, Washington state Higher Education Coordinating Board, 1993-95; various administrative posts, including vice president for student services, Eastern Washington University, 1990-93; various posts, including assistant vice president for student services, UNC, Chapel Hill, 1984-90.
Source: University of Missouri
Floyd, the oldest of four brothers, was raised in Henderson, N.C. His family was relatively poor — his father was a brick mason and his mother worked in a factory. He did well in high school and college, earning scholarships along the way, but also needed to work to help his brothers get through their schooling, he said.
He earned his undergraduate, master’s and doctorate degrees from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He didn’t get a chance to pursue law school as he would have liked, he said. He also began his professional career at UNC.
He said that his experiences growing up have kept the issues of college affordability and access at the forefront of his agenda throughout his professional life.
After working at Eastern Washington University and for the state Higher Education Coordinating board, Floyd returned to UNC as executive vice chancellor in 1995. He was named president of Western Michigan University in 1998, then started his presidency at UM in early 2003.
He acknowledged feeling some frustration with UM’s severe budget problems and with the difficulty making major changes with so many constituent groups to please. “I had an ambitious agenda. If anything, it might have been a bit too aggressive,” he said.
“We did have some successes,” such as making administrative savings and moving the money into student aid, he added.
Floyd declined to discuss the controversy surrounding a comment his wife made to an African-American student — suggesting that the student shouldn’t date white women. He said the incident occurred three years ago and both he and his wife had moved on.
WSU regents and faculty involved in the search said that particular controversy — and others — were robustly discussed, but the feeling was they had no impact on Floyd’s abilities as a leader.
“If you want to hire someone with a spotless record, it means they’ve never taken any risks in their life, and that they don’t have much character,” said Chuck Pezeshki, chairman of the WSU Faculty Senate and a member of the presidential search advisory committee. “Elson has character and depth and all those things.”
Others around the state, including University of Washington President Mark Emmert and Gov. Christine Gregoire, congratulated WSU on the hire and welcomed Floyd back to Washington.
“It’s been absolutely exhilarating,” said WSU Board of Regents Chairman Ken Alhadeff. “Dr. Floyd has been received by the Washington State community with enthusiasm and excitement.”
Floyd said his first priority would be to meet with faculty, staff and students at WSU’s four campuses. He also wants to start visiting each of the state’s 39 counties and may take a role advocating for WSU in the upcoming legislative session.
That kind of work should come to him naturally, according to Scott Charton, a veteran Associated Press reporter who joined Floyd’s communication team at UM last year.
“He’s got the best political chops I’ve ever seen for someone who has no ambition to run for office,” Charton said.
Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or firstname.lastname@example.org