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Celebration of Life honors WSU president Elson Floyd's contributions

While Elson Floyd's legacy at Washington State University will likely be the tangible results of his ability to dream big dreams and then guide others to achieve those dreams, his most enduring memory may be the intangible of his remarkable ability to convey a personal connection with all he met.

The WSU family and friends will gather on campus August 26 for a Celebration of Life, honoring the WSU president who lost the private battle he waged with cancer even as he pursued and achieved what may have been his biggest dream, a WSU medical school.

Following the celebration, a more intimate group has been invited by interim WSU President Dan Bernardo to gather to share memories of the man whose eight years guiding the Pullman school transformed its role as Washington's land grant university into something far broader.

There won't be time, at Bernardo's reception, for everyone to share memories but some selected will, and I share a few here.

When the national advisory board of what is now the Carson College of Business (named for former Boeing Commercial President and alum Scott Carson) and of which I was a member welcomed Floyd soon after his arrival on campus in 2007, he impressed most of us with his understanding of the job-creating mission of higher education.

"We need to communicate with the Legislature and policymakers that we understand that we are about creating jobs, about economic development," Floyd said at his first meeting with the advisory board.

Understanding the economic development role for higher education guided Floyd to create the positions of vice president for economic development both at WSU and, before that, at the University of Missouri system. That put him at the national forefront of college leaders in understanding that the role of universities in economic development was destined to become the issue it has become in most states.

Referring to Floyd's gift of connecting, Lisa brown, chancellor of WSU's Spokane campus, said "Elson made everyone he met feel like they had a special relationship with him," adding "He had a command of a room so that everyone wanted to hear what he had to say."

John Gardner, Vice President for Development and CEO of the WSU Foundation whom Floyd brought with him from Missouri when he left the presidency of the University of Missouri system to come to WSU, agreed that Floyd "had the ability to convey a personal connection to all those he met."

But Gardner added that Floyd, who tapped him to be one of the first vice presidents for research and economic development in the country soon after they met on the Columbia, MO, campus in 2002, added that Floyd had not only an ability to befriend others quickly, but also "to size up a situation, a person, a deal very quickly."

"He had, In Malcolm Gladwell's terminology, an ability to take a 'thin slice' and inform himself immediately of his next step," said Gardner, whom Floyd once described to me as "like a brother to me" as we discussed Gardner's departure for a time a couple of years ago for another opportunity.

"He took a thinner slice than anyone I know and was right an unbelievably high percentage of the time," added Gardner. "This intuition served him very well and, as a result, he wasted little time on opportunities that weren't destined for a high yield."

Discussing Floyd's philosophy about WSU's land grant status, Gardner said "he became enamored with the land grant role and scope in discovering its power while at Missouri (also a land grant institution). He immediately embraced its connection to the economy (thus economic development) as well as its commitment to access."

All now know that getting the 2015 Legislature to approve creation of a new medical school at WSU was his crowning achievement as he worked tirelessly, testifying for hours on front of committees and engaging lawmakers in one-on-one meetings, even as he battled cancer that proved terminal.

Less high-visibility than his achieving the medical school, which WSU Regents have said they intend to name the Elson S. Floyd School of Medicine, have been his steps to spread WSU's educational presence across the state. Those include creation of WSU North Puget Sound, on the Everett Community College campus, where classes will be taught not only by resident faculty but also interactively from other WSU campuses, and recent steps toward a similar arrangement with Bellevue College.

And Lawrence Pintak, founding dean of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication, recalled in a message to his faculty, staff and students that Floyd's vision for the Murrow School came even before his selection as president.

"While still a candidate for the presidency, Dr. Floyd asked a member of the presidential search committee (a Murrow alum) why the then-Murrow School was hidden in the then-College of Liberal Arts," Pintak recalled. "'Murrow needs to be a college!' he declared. And he made that happen."

"Dr. Floyd recognized that the Murrow program was, and often said publicly, a 'crown jewel' of Washington State and he understood the value of Edward R. Murrow's legacy in leveraging WSU's influence in the media industry and academia on the national level," Pintak added.

A couple of years ago, after attending a breakfast interview with Floyd, I told him, "I don't know your party, but you should run for governor or senator as your next career stop." He merely smiled.

Bernardo referred to Floyd's ability to teach others how to dream big, then act to realize the dreams, as "transformational for WSU," shifting from the school's long-accepted role as the state's "ag school" to a leadership role in addressing the needs of the whole state.

Bernardo said that Floyd took WSU's "quiet humility" and just kind of stepped up and said we can be something bigger. He led us there. That transformation will be the most important to WSU."

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Elson Floyd name on new WSU medical school would ensure support for future

Just as it was WSU President Elson Floyd's personal presence in the legislative halls that overrode doubt and opposition to bring about creation of a new medical school for his university, naming the medical school after him would ensure that his spirit and memory provide the support for the school to weather challenges ahead.

Elson Floyd

As the awareness spread in the days following his death from cancer last week that Floyd was waging an eventually losing battle with the disease while he waged the legislative struggle to fulfill his vision of a new medical school for WSU, the idea of putting his name on the school has logically surfaced.  

There are apparently a number of bills making the rounds in the Legislature to name the medical school after Floyd, who died last week in Pullman at the age of 59 after the colon cancer he had been battling for months suddenly worsened and claimed his life.

And a move on social media emerged yesterday urging that the medical school be named for Floyd, since his personal immersion in the struggle to convince the Legislature that the state needed more than one approach to training doctors and that WSU could make the difference won the day with lawmakers.

Floyd had spent hours in Olympia early this year testifying before committees, meeting one on one with legislators and building WSU's case for why a second medical school made sense, even while UW lobbyists were saying it didn't. In the end the legislation that will allow WSU to create a second medical school in this state passed by an overwhelming margin. It was signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee the first week of April.

"A lot of legislators knew of his battle with cancer," said John Gardner, vice president for development and CEO of the WSU Foundation. "But he handled his personal health like he handled every other issue he confronted in life, never using the challenges to advance a cause."

"His privacy was something Elson was consistent about, never wanting his burden to become someone else's burden," said Gardner, whom Floyd brought with him to Pullman from the University of Missouri when Floyd took the WSU job in 2007 and was one of Floyd's closest friends.  

While it's logical that the lawmakers who came to know and respect Floyd, and were saddened by his death would seek to put the final mark of his name on his medical school, the Legislature may not be the right forum for that decision.

The established university processes may deserve to be served in Floyd's case in particular, and the forum for a decision on naming the WSU medical school after him should remain the province of the WSU Board of Regents.

And since it seems more than likely that the school will eventually carry his name, that will virtually ensure that future legislative battles over funding to produce doctors from both UW and WSU will unfold with lawmakers sensitive to whose name is on the WSU medical school.  

Just as there was legitimate and understandable opposition to a WSU medical school from supporters and fans of the UW medical school that is one of the finest in the nation, that opposition will surface in coming legislative sessions over the appropriations necessary to provide sufficient funding for now two medical schools.

Elson's name on the school is the most certain way for WSU to weather those certain legislative funding storms, first for the focus on the initial class of 40 medical doctorate candidates who are to be welcomed in the fall of 2017, then for the funding challenges that await through 2024 when the first graduates will complete their residencies.

If that naming decision comes from the lawmakers themselves, it would likely assure that each issue is weighed on the basis of a legislative reaction that "we named this place for Elson."

But the reality is that the decision belongs in the hands of the regents of the university where he left many imprints, one of which was his vision for a WSU medical school.

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Economic development mission for higher ed as old as creation of land-grant colleges

(Editor's NoteThis is the second of two articles exploring the challenges faced by higher education in coming to grips with the role of four-year colleges and universities in serving the economic development needs of their regions and states.)

  

The concept of an economic development mission for higher education is as old as the creation of land grant colleges more than 150 years ago. And Elson Floyd understood that from the time he arrived at Washington State University in 2007 as president of this state's first land grant university.

 

"As a land-grant university, economic development is a core part of our mission," Floyd said, noting that one of his first acts upon arriving in Pullman from Missouri, where he had been president of the University of Missouri, was creating an office of economic development.

Elson Floyd.

                                                           

When Congress created land-grant universities, their educational mission was is to focus on the teaching of "practical studies like agriculture, science, military science and engineering."

 

And those constituted the educational focus of what was Washington Agricultural College and School of Science from its founding in 1890 until 1905 when it became Washington State College.

 

That land grant status is an important historical asterisk as Floyd's four-campus university is among the colleges and universities around the country challenged by the emerging effort to press higher education to play larger roles in the economic development initiatives in their states.

 

That linkage between higher ed and economic development has been under scrutiny around the country as various states have been exploring what role colleges and universities should play in helping grow the economies of their states.

 

The issue was brought to the fore in this state in recent weeks with a report to the board of regents of the University of Washington by the Washington Future Committee, headed by former regent William Gates Sr., which suggested UW could do more despite itsobvious and significant economic impact.

 

The group of business and civic leaders Gates chaired urged UW to increase the number of in-state students, keep tuition affordableand increase the number of STEM degrees and do a better job of telling its story to key stakeholders.

 

UW President Michael Young and the regents will now have to digest the report and weigh its relevance to how the state's major research university charts its future.

 

For the state's other major research institution across the state, Floyd says "Our economic development activities are many," pointing to "research and its translation through commercialization," the small-business development centers WSU operates around the state as well as extension activities in every county in the state.

 

"From the beginning of my tenure here, I knew we could have a tremendous regional economic impact by leveraging our institutional strengths through our array of programs," Floyd said in an exchange of emails for this column. "The power of the research university is tremendous in helping to drive economic impact."

 

But Floyd noted "WSU cannot be all things to all people. In our ongoing effort to continue to refine our mission and ensure we are aligned with the state's needs, our institution is continually asking our stakeholder how we can better serve them."

 

"We have listened to our communities and, as a result, have made 

changes to what we do and where we do it," he added, noting the health sciences focus in Spokane, the bio and alternative fuels focus in the Tri-Cities with PNNL and aerospace programs in Everett in cooperation with the local community college

  

The economic-development look is also under way at the state's regional universities, including Central Washington University in Ellensburg.

James Gaudino

 

CWU President James Gaudino, who spent 15 years looking at higher education from the outside as executive director of National Communication Association, says "It would be irresponsible for a public institution to ignore the economic-development need" of its state or region.

  

Gaudino, an Air Force Academy grad who came to Central as president on January 1, 2009, says all of the state's universities, in looking at programs in the wake of increasing budget restrictions, used workforce demand for students in the various programs as a key factor in the belt tightening.

 

"While we have a growing awareness of how a major fits the industry needs, we retain a strong commitment to liberal arts," said Gaudino, who was the founding dean of the College of Communication and Information at Kent State University before coming to Ellensburg as president of one of the three regional universities.

 

Gaudino, who drew praise for turning the Kent State program into a center of innovation in the new information age, notes all the universities have advisory groups from industry for each of their schools to "keep an ongoing dialogue about industry needs and how we can best satisfy them."

 

But, in an observation that would be echoed by presidents of all six universities in the state, Gaudino said: "We don't want to live in a society that doesn't have artists and humanists or where people have no knowledge of or appreciation for history. And no one would want to move their company to such a place."

 

Gaudino has launched a Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and it is the focus on innovation that the University of Washington, in particular, would say is a key contribution it has made to economic development.

 

Yet ironically, what's called tech transfer is an area where the efforts by the state's universities have drawn criticism for a lack of focus or commitment.

Len Jessup, former dean of the business school at WSU and now dean of the Eller College of Management at University of Arizona in Tucson, concedes that many research universities across the country just haven't been able to deliver on the tech transfer and commercialization front.

 

"For some it just hasn't been a priority, for others it just wasn't accepted by their campus cultures, and for others 'wanting' to do more of it just wasn't enough to overcome their inexperience in this area," Jessup told me in an email exchange. 

 

 

"On the other hand, I would say that nationally the collective of all the research universities has gotten better at this as more and more universities improve on metrics like faculty invention disclosures, patent filings, licensing, start-ups, start-ups that get to revenue, and jobs created as a result," Jessup added. "Things are clearly getting better and they are leading to new jobs."

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WSU's long-time role in distance learning paves way to top ranking for online MBA

To those who have watched the leading role Washington State University has played in distance education for nearly a quarter century, word that WSU's online MBA programs have been ranked No. 1 in the nation by U.S. News & World Report will seem like appropriate recognition.

 

But the honor isn't viewed by College of Business Dean Eric Spangenberg, or WSU President Elson Floyd, as the culmination of a chase for rankings. Rather, as Floyd put it, "Our goals are to increase access, improve quality and push the envelope of educational innovation. We have and will continue to experiment with the most promising approaches to digital instruction for connecting students to WSU."

Eric
Dean Eric Spangenberg

  

Indeed the success of Spangenberg and his team in being chosen as at the forefront of online MBA programs nationally is far beyond the early distance learning WSU established when a microwave-tower relay system brought higher ed to new branch campuses in Vancouver and the Tri-Cities.

 

But the early '90s commitment to distance learning that had WSU staff sometimes out in snow storms straightening up

 

the towers so the offerings of faculty on the Pullman mother campus could reach students at the new campuses was no less vital than the initiatives evident today.

 

In the view of Sam Smith, who as WSU president at the time oversaw launch of the branch campuses and was the key college president involved in development in the late '90s of Western Governors University (WGU), the WSU honor is a key indicator of this state's leadership in on-line education.

 

Smith was instrumental in getting legislative approval two years ago for the launch of WGU-Washington to provide online baccalaureate degrees. And he suggests:"Watch our state's two-year colleges because they are on the forefront of one of the next real stages of this evolution."

 

"It has long been predicted that America' system of higher education must evolve new and more creative models of institutions to meet the needs of our students and our country," Smith said. "The state of Washington, with WSU's leadership, is doing just that and if you combine it with the online, competency based WGU-Washington, we are truly leading this evolution.".

 

Janis Machala, long involved in coaching entrepreneurs and now guiding online programs at Bellevue College, picks up on Smith's comments by noting she "fell in love with the role of the community colleges" because of their ability "to be more flexible and entrepreneurial in meeting employer needs and because of the focus on employable job skills versus theoretical education."

 

While there's more than a little challenge to bringing those getting their degrees and MBAs online into the normal university experience, the social media evolution is enhancing the opportunity to do that, says Cheryl Oliver, director of graduate business programs at WSU.

 

Oliver, whom Spangenberg credits with being the person largely responsible for putting the WSU MBA programs in place, says "We don't want to just be pushing information out. These online students are WSU students, Cougars, and it's important for us to find ways to engage them so they have the same circle of experiences as other students, trying to make sure we are using best practices to keep them engaged."

 

"I think one of the biggest challenges we have had in entering the online arena is a public misunderstanding," Oliver noted. "People tend to believe that going online means boxing up a brick and mortar program and trying to replicate a traditional classroom online. While we do offer the same core material (course topics, etc...) online education is a class unto itself."

 

Spangenberg, who praises Floyd for being "instrumental in encouraging us to pursue excellence in this learning space" and for "allowing us to pursue our own destiny" in this online development, views online offerings as a global opportunity.

 

"Online programs are the most effective and efficient mechanism by which we can positively influence communities around the globe," he says."While the education of many communities is prohibitively expensive on both sides of the equation for face-to-face programs, they are readily and economically reachable through online access."

  

 

 

Smith, the emeritus president of WSU, carries a lifetime conviction about the importance of higher education's broad accessibility.

 

As a youngster, Smith was a crop picker in the fields of the Salinas Valley until an academic scholarship to University of California-Berkeley proved to be his ticket to higher education, a career in academia and eventually to a college presidency. He maintains a strong belief that "our higher education system must evolve and once again be accessible to the average person," an accessibility he calls "the key to our country's future."

  

 

 

 

 

  (Editor's Note: I have been a member of the national advisory board of the WSU College of Business for nine years)
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