Elson S. Floyd had managed just a few hours of sleep before his cell phone started ringing, kicking off one of the biggest days of his career. It was mid-December and he and his wife, Carmento, were staying in a Seattle-area hotel after meeting with Washington State University’s Board of Regents for a job interview. The regents were scheduled to meet, vote, and announce the hiring of the university’s 10th president the next morning. But word of the job offer had hit the papers early, and journalists back in Missouri, where the 50-year-old Floyd was serving as the president of the University of Missouri system, wanted to talk.
Later that morning, the Floyds boarded a small charter plane and flew to Pullman, where a crowd had packed into a Lighty Administration conference room to witness the announcement of the new president.
Floyd and his three younger brothers were raised in Henderson, North Carolina by parents who believed a good education would lead to a good life. His family taught him to believe in leadership by example, he said. On this December day, his example was one of confidence and charisma. In the minutes before the meeting, he worked his way through the room, shaking scores of outstretched hands and introducing himself.
Rafael Stone, the regent and Seattle attorney who led search committee, said the four-month process of finding a new president went more quickly than even they expected, but the result was to capture the best possible candidate for WSU. “Elson was exceptional among a pool of exceptional people,” said Regent Connie Niva ’62, who sits on a number of citizen advisory boards statewide.
As president of Western Michigan University and the Missouri university system, Floyd has already led two universities that look a lot like WSU, said Regent Laura Jennings, a Seattle-based business consultant. Add to that his previous ties to Washington, and then to meet him in person, it was an obvious choice, she said.
As an undergraduate, Floyd studied political science at the University North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He stayed on to earn a doctorate in higher and adult education and started working there at UNC in 1978. He moved through the administrative ranks rather quickly, taking on deanships in student affairs and arts and sciences before becoming the assistant vice president for student services for the 16-campus UNC system in 1988.
Floyd is no stranger to Washington. Starting in 1990, he held several administrative posts at Eastern Washington University, serving as executive vice president before leaving to head the Higher Education Coordinating board for the state. Then he returned to UNC Chapel Hill to assume another senior administrative post. Next he moved to Western Michigan to serve as president, leaving in 2002 for Missouri.
Floyd said he hadn’t been looking to leave his job in the Midwest, but when the opportunity to return to Washington came and the search committee called earlier that week, he had to consider it. He said he was attracted by the strong strategic plan President V. Lane Rawlins and his administration had enacted, and by the values and mission of the land-grant university.
At a reception with the faculty in the Alumni Center later that morning, Floyd talked about the responsibility of providing the best service to students, adding to the faculty, and promoting cutting-edge research and scholarship. That afternoon, after meeting hundreds of faculty, staff, and students, and even stopping to talk shop with the mayor, he left for Missouri, where he would make a public announcement of his resignation the next day.
Some campus members said the presidential search progressed too quickly, not offering faculty and staff the time to meet the candidate before he was hired. With a number of other searches going on around the country at the same time, a great pool of candidates had surfaced, said Regent Francois Forgette, a Tri-Cities attorney. WSU’s advantage was that it was more nimble, able to act quickly and get the best candidate, he said.
In deciding to hire Floyd, the regents considered his accomplishments and charisma, as well as his passion for leadership, said Ken Alhadeff, chair of the Board of Regents. “It was not a hard choice to make.”