Charismatic leader is bound for UM system

Thursday, November 14, 2002 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 9:52 p.m. CDT, Saturday, June 28, 2008

A student rally planned to encourage Elson Floyd to stay at Western Michigan University turned into a display of affection and respect Wednesday afternoon, hours after Floyd announced he would leave Western to become president of the University of Missouri System.

Students dressed on a chilly afternoon in hats and mittens at the rally, where they turned around signs that said, “Missouri boo, stay at WMU” and “Once a Bronco, always a Bronco” and wrote messages of support, including “Dr. Floyd, please take me with you.”

“People kind of came with the attitude of knowing that he’s probably leaving,” said Rose Hoelzle, a senior at Western who helped coordinate the rally. More than 100 students signed a posterboard card at the gathering, which was held in front of the administrative office where Floyd works.

Floyd, who will take office Jan. 6 as the 21st president of the UM System, has been president of Western for four years.

Students, faculty, fellow administrators and area businessmen characterized Floyd as an open and honest man with exceptional people skills.

“Elson Floyd is an outstanding administrator, an excellent fund-raiser and a superior friend-raiser for the university,” said Richard St. John, president of Western's Board of Trustees. “He is extremely personable. He has the undying loyalty of his faculty, the students love him, and his board can’t do without him.”

Floyd, 46, is a native of Henderson, N.C., who earned bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He and his wife, Carmento, have two children, Kenny, 19, and Jessica, 17.

Before coming to Western, Floyd spent 13 years at UNC, where he held positions including assistant vice president for student affairs and executive vice chancellor.

“Once you’re with him, the most powerful impression about him is his energy,” said Dick Richardson, who worked as provost and vice chancellor during Floyd’s time at UNC. “People in Missouri are going to have to unplug him once in a while to let him rest.”

Floyd was a standout from the beginning of the search that brought him to Western, said Ariel Anderson, who was on the selection committee.

“When he walked into the room, there was a poise and an air of being in control that was quite remarkable,” Anderson said.

She said Floyd also was a man of humility and character.

“He is a man of principle and a man of power, and I mean that in the most positive way,” Anderson said.

Peter Krawutschke, president of Western's faculty senate, said Floyd has been able to cut through red tape at Western since his first month in office.

“I feel like I’m gushing, but it’s true,” Krawutschke said. “Somebody might have something bad to say about him, but I don’t.”

Many of his colleagues described Floyd as a popular and effective manager who schedules monthly dinners with administrative officers and faculty union leaders.

“Elson is a hands-on person,” said St. John, who attributed a large part of Floyd’s success to his managerial style. “There is very little that he doesn’t have his hand in.”

Gary Mathews, president of Western's chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said Floyd created an open and constructive atmosphere during recent contract negotiations.

“We didn’t always agree on things, but there was a certain degree of dignity and respect,” Mathews said. “That’s the type of climate Elson Floyd is able to engender.”

The faculty signed a three-year contract in June, when they were given a 4 percent across-the-board pay increase, Mathews said. Although Floyd only sat at the negotiation table once, Mathews said it was clear he played a large part in the smooth negotiations.

“He has done outstanding things for the university,” St. John said. “In doing so, he has had to merge a lot of different opinions and come out with a viewpoint that was satisfactory to himself, to the board, the university and often-times the state.”

Western's new research and technology park was one such creation, St. John said. The park, which is under construction and expected to cost more than $12 million, will integrate technological businesses and research operations with the university’s new college of engineering.

Anderson, who said she considers Floyd among her closest friends, said she feels “an impending loss of great magnitude” over his departure.

“He is able to make the human connection in amazing ways,” Anderson said. “He treats the food-service employee as honestly and graciously and kindly as he does a top-level administrator.”

Not only does his personal approach appeal to university employees and administrators, but many students and faculty who know Floyd enjoy telling the so-called “boot story” of Floyd’s first winter as president of Western. Floyd was driving through the snow that winter when he spotted a student in gym shoes. He got out of his car and stepped into the cold to ask the student why he wasn’t wearing boots. The student told Floyd that he couldn’t afford boots, so Floyd took off the pair that he was wearing and gave them to him.

“That’s the kind of heart he has,” Anderson said. “He went home and found out that his extra boots had fallen apart and he had to go get new ones.”

Missourian reporter Rick Kennedy contributed to this report.

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