PULLMAN — Elson Floyd, president of Washington State University, whose leadership helped establish WSU’s growing presence in Everett, has died at 59 of complications from colon cancer.
Floyd had been president since 2007 and went on medical leave earlier this month. He died Saturday morning at Pullman Regional Hospital, said a school spokeswoman, Kathy Barnard.
“Though his prognosis and outlook remained positive, recently the illness took a more serious turn,” wrote Board of Regents Chair Ryan Durkan in an email to the faculty and staff members.
“Higher education has lost a giant, and the world has lost one of its kindest human beings,” Durkan said in the statement.
Floyd saw WSU’s mission as a land-grant institution to serve the entire state, including Snohomish County, said Bob Drewel, the former Snohomish County executive who was hired to lead efforts to bring a branch campus to Everett.
“He is one of the most principled, kind human beings I’ve ever met,” Drewel said Saturday. “I’ve never met anyone who has that passion in his heart for the profession.”
During every discussion, Drewel knew he could count on Floyd to ask what was best for students, he said. It was Floyd who led, nurtured and supported the plan to build in Everett.
Floyd visited every county in the state during his tenure, including at least four trips to Snohomish County, Drewel said.
“His heart was deep in what we were trying to do in Everett,” Drewel said. That dream “becomes all the more important now.”
Floyd was a man of facts and reason, but also a hard worker with a big heart, someone who treated others with respect, Drewel said. He was a leader who listened.
“I’ll miss him dearly,” Drewel said.
Durkan listed a future medical school in Spokane as among Floyd’s successes. Durkan also noted the university’s record-breaking $1 billion capital campaign, its largest enrollment in 125 years and Floyd’s successful effort to double the number of students from minority groups.
Floyd, a native of North Carolina, was the 10th president of the school, whose main campus is in Pullman among the rolling wheat fields of far Eastern Washington.
His university biography lists previous posts as president of the four-campus University of Missouri and president of Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. He began his career at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he had done his undergraduate and post-graduate work.
Referring to Washington State’s athletic mascot, Gov. Jay Inslee said Floyd “turned Washington State into Cougar State, dramatically expanding the scope of the university on both sides of the mountains.”
Under Floyd’s watch, the school last year launched Washington State University North Puget Sound at Everett with expanded course offerings. WSU also manages a consortium of other four-year schools at the University Center on the campus of Everett Community College and plans a $61 million new building for the program nearby, on North Broadway.
Floyd’s most recent accomplishment in the statehouse was convincing the Legislature to establish a second medical school in the state after years of dominance in medical education around the region by the University of Washington in Seattle.
U.S. Sen. Patty Murray of Washington called him “truly one of a kind. He led WSU with incredible energy, passion, and a deep and personal commitment to our students and communities.” U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington cited his enthusiasm for a range of initiatives, from biofuels to medical education.
Details of a memorial service are pending, the school said.
In an official obituary online, the university cited some of Floyd’s other accomplishments:
- Student enrollment grew to 28,686 last fall.
- Annual research expenditures grew by 57.5 percent from approximately $213.2 million in 2007 to more than $335.9 million in 2015.
- The university established the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication, which has since added course offerings in Everett.
- WSU completed 30 major construction projects, including a wine science center at WSU Tri-Cities.
- The Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health opened with anchor gifts from the Microsoft co-founder and the Bill &Melinda Gates Foundation.
Everett had sought a university presence for years, first when lawmakers more than 20 years ago looked to place what would eventually become University of Washington Bothell.
More recently, city, county and state leaders thought UW would build a branch campus somewhere in the county. But UW retreated amid infighting among civic leaders on a location and the feared cost of construction a new college.
In stepped WSU under the leadership of Floyd.
In 2012, the university started offering classes for a mechanical engineering degree through the University Center. Last fall WSU added bachelor’s degree programs in electrical engineering, communications and hospitality-business management.
Floyd was one of the highest-paid public-college presidents in the country, even though he voluntarily reduced his own salary by $100,000 a year during the recession and its aftermath. He described that pay cut as leading by example, at a time when faculty salaries were frozen, programs were being cut and tuition was growing by double-digit percentages.
In 2014, his contract was extended by seven years after he told the board of regents he had a lot of work he wanted to accomplish at WSU and intended to stay until he retired.
According to the Spokane Spokesman-Review newspaper, Floyd grew up in segregated Henderson, North Carolina, on an unpaved street.
“We couldn’t even afford paper when he started marking in the sand to add up numbers,” his mother, Dorothy Floyd, told the newspaper soon after Floyd was hired at WSU. “He always loved education.”
She worked in a factory, and her late husband was a bricklayer. Although they never finished high school, they urged their four sons to pursue college educations.
“I was determined that if I had children, that would be our dinner table talk and our breakfast table talk — education,” said Dorothy Floyd.
She remembers him coming home from school in the eighth grade weeping because his white friends were headed off to college prep schools. Dorothy approached a counselor, who helped Elson get into Darlington School, a college-prep boarding school in Rome, Georgia.
Once Floyd graduated from UNC, he helped put his three brothers through school.
Floyd posted his final Twitter comment on June 5, the day his leave was announced and students took to social media to express support and concern.
“Appreciate your thoughts and kind words more than you could ever know,” it read. “Thank you for your prayers. #GoCougs.”
Herald writers Jerry Cornfield, Chuck Taylor and Rikki King and the Spokane Spokesman-Review contributed.