Beloved University President, Supporter of Underrepresented Students Dies

Elson S. Floyd, who led Washington State University (WSU) as its president for the past eight years, passed away June 20 after a battle with colon cancer. He was 59.

Floyd had announced just two weeks ago that he would take a leave of absence for his health. He remained active throughout his illness, though, and in April, Floyd succeeded in having legislation passed to change a law, enabling WSU to establish its own medical school.

The Seattle Times says that Floyd was devoted to ensuring access to higher education for all students — especially first-generation students — and was known to give out his personal cellphone number, urging students to call him if they needed help.

Floyd was the first African American president of WSU, and under his leadership, university minority enrollment nearly doubled, overall enrollment increased 17 percent, and research grants tripled during his tenure — despite major cuts in state funding. WSU also completed 30 major construction projects and a $1 billion fundraising campaign while Floyd was president.

“We have lost a visionary and one of the most compassionate leaders I have had the pleasure of working with,” said WSU Board of Regents Chair Ryan Durkan in a statement to the university.

Floyd was born the oldest of four sons to a brick mason and tobacco factory worker in Henderson, N.C., in 1956. Although neither of his parents completed high school, they emphasized the importance of education.

He attended a boarding school in Rome, Ga., on a scholarship and completed his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill.

In 1978, he began a life-long career in higher education as assistant dean for student life at UNC. During his career, he also served as president of Western Michigan University and of the University of Missouri system; he was the first African American to do so at each university. He also held leadership positions at Eastern Washington University and on the Washington State Higher Education Coordinating Board.

Following Floyd’s passing, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said in a statement:

“This was a man wholly devoted to serving his state and expanding opportunities for all of Washington’s students. He turned Washington state into Cougar State, dramatically expanding the scope of the university on both sides of the mountains. He loved inspiring students and challenging them. Thanks to Elson, there are Cougars all around the world engaged in innovative and influential work.”

Floyd’s family requests that donations may be made in his honor to the Elson S. Floyd Founders Fund for the WSU College of Medicine. Visit the university’s memorial page to send condolences or share a story.