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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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