A star rises in Eastern Washington

Whatever the prospects for Cougar football, the hard-charging person to watch in Pullman is Elson Floyd, the new president of Washington State University.
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Elson Floyd, president of Washington State University. (WSU)

Whatever the prospects for Cougar football, the hard-charging person to watch in Pullman is Elson Floyd, the new president of Washington State University.

In the 1980s, the president of the University of Washington, publicly feuded with the Legislature. "I'm expected to run a champagne university on a beer budget," groused William Gerberding. One legislator fired back that the UW was wasting money on an architectural center in Rome, Italy.

The incident is worth remembering because it's almost impossible to imagine that happening today. The UW and its cross-state rival, Washington State University, did well in recent funding, and no one would expect such a self-defeating complaint from today's UW president, champion charmer Mark Emmert.

The presidency of any public university, including those in Washington, involves recognizing some harsh realities. State taxpayers will never fully support everything needed to achieve excellence. The modern university is just too big and expensive. So a principal task of a president is to build alliances, especially in the business community, and – let's not be too subtle – get the money.

A case in point is the new president of Washington State University, Elson Floyd, who succeeded the retiring V. Lane Rawlins in May. Floyd is a dazzling presence. Like Emmert, he has a gift for putting people at ease and connecting with them at a personal level.

Floyd, who wears elegant suits over an athlete's body, puts his arm on your shoulder when you meet, asks how you are doing, solicits your ideas about a topic, and it feels genuine. He's got charisma to burn, and you can see the effect in people's faces from photographs from his previous job at the University of Missouri, where students nicknamed him "E-Flo."

I expect Floyd, 51, will have similar popularity in Washington, especially with the business community.

For starters, he talks like a businessman.

He often calls himself the university's chief executive officer. He refers to the Legislature as "our banker." He wants to "leverage resources" and increase the "ROI" (return on investment). Moreover, Floyd embraces the notion that a university is an economic asset.

While some in academia might speak of jobs as a happy benefit of teaching and learning, Floyd makes economic development a specific obligation. "We must serve as a catalyst and economic driver for the state," he says.

There's nothing new about the UW and WSU acknowledging a role in economic development, through technology transfer programs, business-friendly degree programs, and the like. But Floyd wants WSU to rev the economy.

In July, he created a position called vice president for economic development and extension, filling it with John Gardner, who held a similar position in Missouri. An agronomist, Gardner was the founder of a company that produced and processed specialty oilseeds, a hot market in the search for an alternative to petroleum. Floyd wants Gardner's work felt far beyond the Pullman campus.

"Economic development is a vital part of what we do for our state and region," Floyd says. "As a land-grant university, we have the responsibility to extend ourselves in every county in Washington." Floyd decided that Gardner should work out of Seattle, where WSU already keeps offices and where a second residence is kept for the president.

Floyd is a personal example of the transformative power of education. He grew up poor in the town of Henderson, N.C. Neither of his parents had finished high school. His escape from poverty began with his admission to the Darlington School, a residential college prep school in Rome, Ga. Floyd earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, one of the nation's best public universities. He held a number of faculty and administrative jobs at UNC before his rise through university administration, including as executive director of the Washington State Higher Education Coordinating Board and executive vice president at Eastern Washington University. He's paid $600,000 a year at WSU. He drives around eastern Washington in a Chevy Tahoe (great for rural roads, he says) or takes flights to Seattle and elsewhere.

It's a fishbowl life, living in a house on campus, but he loves it. For privacy, he enjoys outdoor sports and bird hunting.

WSU is already an institution on the rise, ranked by the Carnegie Foundation among the nation's top 100 research universities. So Floyd talks about building on that foundation, especially in graduate and professional education. That, he says, is "where we will generate the research dollars and the private dollars that will advance the university."

Details have not been announced, but some basic ideas emerge. Floyd wants WSU to assume world leadership in research on animal disease that affects humans, such as bird flu. He wants the aggressive work the university's extension offices do to help businesses adapt to particular communities. He wants improvements to online learning so WSU can connect to students around the world.

This guy is worth watching. There's candor, energy, and drive that will be good for WSU. And no, he's not angling for a job elsewhere.

"I'm here as long as the regents want me here. I'm very much at home."


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About the Authors & Contributors

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O. Casey Corr

O. Casey Corr is a Seattle native, author and marketing communications consultant.