Growing up in segregated Henderson, North Carolina, Elson Floyd did math problems in the sand because his family couldn’t afford paper.
Little wonder that the man who became Washington State University’s first black president eight years ago worked hard to keep college affordable and accessible.
Cougar Nation is in mourning this week following Floyd’s death Saturday, but his passing truly is a loss for all of Washington. Floyd was a dynamic advocate for higher education at a time when competition for state dollars is keener than ever and tuition is having to pay for an ever larger share of universities’ costs.
Floyd was more than an inspirational leader; he was also a friendly, gregarious person who enjoyed interacting with students, who dubbed him “E Flo.” Many of them gathered with faculty members at an impromptu memorial Monday upon hearing of his death. They spoke of his interest in their concerns and their dreams for the future.
At 59, Floyd should have had many more years leading WSU. But what he accomplished as president since 2007 is significant.
Most recently, he led the campaign to win legislative approval for a WSU medical school in Spokane, convincing lawmakers that the state badly needed to educate more doctors, especially for underserved communities. It would be more than appropriate were that school to be named in honor of Floyd, who set the stage for establishing it by creating a new College of Medical Science in Spokane and consolidating WSU’s health science programs there.
Under Floyd’s leadership, a $1 billion capital campaign was completed and WSU established the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication and the Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health. WSU’s colleges and programs underwent a massive reorganization. Enrollment hit record levels, and the number of federal grants and community partnerships greatly increased.
Perhaps Floyd’s greatest contribution was in setting the tone for WSU’s future. As Provost and acting President Dan Bernardo put it, “He taught us to think big and enabled us to get there. He taught Cougars to think differently about ourselves and the institution. That will be his legacy; he launched us into a new and bigger era for WSU.”
He will be missed.