Elson Floyd, WSU leader and former UNC administrator, dies at 59

Elson Floyd, a former UNC-Chapel Hill administrator who was seen as a rising star in higher education in North Carolina, has died at 59 from complications of colon cancer.

Floyd, the popular president of Washington State University whose influence in higher education and politics spread beyond the school, had gone on medical leave this month. He died Saturday morning at Pullman Regional Hospital, school spokeswoman Kathy Barnard said.

Floyd’s most recent accomplishment in the Statehouse was convincing the Legislature to establish a second medical school in Washington state after years of dominance in medical education around the region by the University of Washington in Seattle.

WSU Board of Regents Chair Ryan Durkan listed the future medical school in Spokane 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.

When the school announced his medical leave two weeks ago, Floyd had said he hoped to return to his duties at some point. His death came as a surprise to many.

“Though his prognosis and outlook remained positive, recently the illness took a more serious turn,” Durkan said in a statement. “Higher education has lost a giant, and the world has lost one of its kindest human beings.”

Floyd was born in Henderson and went on to earn three degrees from UNC-Chapel Hill, including a doctorate in higher and adult education.

In the 1970s and ’80s, he spent his early career in various roles at UNC, where he was an assistant dean for student life, student affairs and the College of Arts and Sciences. He also was an assistant vice president in the UNC system for two years.

In the 1990s, he left for a job at Eastern Washington University and later the Washington State Higher Education Coordinating Board. But he returned to UNC in 1995, where for three years he was the executive vice chancellor – the No. 2 administrator under Chancellor Michael Hooker.

Floyd left UNC in 1998 to become president of Western Michigan University. Less than a year later, Hooker died of cancer at age 53.

D.G. Martin, a former vice president of the UNC system, said Saturday that Floyd’s friends in North Carolina were happy to see him get so much recognition for his contributions in Michigan, Missouri and Washington.

“I thought so much of Elson and had high hopes for him,” Martin said. “Many of us thought and hoped he would come back and lead the [UNC] system someday.”

At WSU, Floyd was one of the highest-paid public-college presidents in the country. Earlier this year, the regents approved an increase that brought his annual salary to $775,025.

In 2008, Floyd asked for and received a $100,000-a-year salary reduction 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.

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.”

Details of a memorial service for Floyd are pending.

Staff writer Jane Stancill contributed.