University of Missouri searches for new leader

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Elson Floyd will be the new president of Washington State University.

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Elson Floyd helped raise the profile of the University of Missouri during his four years as president, generating attention both positive and negative.

He led the four-campus system during a time that included a massive fund-raising push, an aborted expansion effort and a scandal-plagued basketball program.

But with Wednesday's announcement that he will be the new president of Washington State University, the Board of Curators must start the hunt for a new leader.

The board had a meeting scheduled for today anyway and could discuss the direction of that search.

Higher education officials praised Floyd on Wednesday, saying he worked hard to promote better funding for higher education, which had suffered state funding cuts until recently, and had a charisma that helped him reach out to all kinds of people.

"He personifies what we expect as citizens and a state of our education leadership," said Greg Fitch, the former director of the Missouri Department of Higher Education, who now holds a similar job in Alabama. "He had education for Missouri citizens at the forefront of everything he did."

Missouri State University president Michael Nietzel said Floyd did a good job advocating for all public higher education, not just his campuses, and helped the higher education community present a united front to the public and in seeking state funding.

"Elson was always articulate and forceful," Nietzel said. "He's been working with the other presidents to make our case for how important the investment in higher ed is for the state."

Not all were as glowing.

Curator David Wasinger didn't talk much about Floyd.

"He has a lot of positive attributes. I don't want to get into evaluating him. I wish him well in his new endeavors," he said.

But troubles in the basketball program at the flagship Columbia campus won't be easily forgotten.

In 2004, the program was placed on probation for three years and lost three scholarships for recruiting violations involving Ricky Clemons, a troubled point guard who became close to Floyd and his wife, Carmento.

"He learned a lot in Missouri as a leader. He learned a lot about the Midwest, he learned a lot about people, about big-time college athletics," said John Gardner, who is a friend of Floyd and the university system's vice president for research and economic development. "He never shirked responsibility, and he never shirked his own role in that. I think that will also be remembered."

In 2003 Clemons was arrested on domestic assault charges for choking his girlfriend and preventing her from leaving his apartment. He pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors, served a 60-day jail sentence, and eventually left the school.

Floyd had to apologize for candid comments his wife made to Clemons. In taped conversations, Mrs. Floyd gave Clemons some advice on avoiding such trouble by not being involved with white women.

"No pink toes," she said.

Floyd also worked on a merger that would have expanded the University of Missouri system to include Northwest Missouri State University, but the idea failed amid opposition from some loyal to the Maryville school.

He also angered some alumni of the University of Missouri when he relented and allowed what had been Southwest Missouri State University to drop its regional designation. The idea had been around for years but always faltered under pressure from backers of the University of Missouri-Columbia.

In the past year, Floyd has been a strong supporter of an effort by Gov. Matt Blunt to sell some assets of the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority and use the profits to fund a construction boom on college campuses. The plan has been revised several times, and the latest version needs legislative approval next year to move forward.

On Wednesday, education leaders were also looking ahead to what the university system needs in a new president.

Wasinger wants Floyd's successor to focus on stabilizing tuition and improving academic performance.

"He or she has to have a passion for higher education and the University of Missouri and a desire to take the University of Missouri to the next level, from good to great," he said.

He declined to speculate on how long it would take to find a replacement but said appointing an interim leader is possible.

Fitch said the Board of Curators should find a president with the same kind of personality and ability to relate with people, especially lawmakers who hold the purse strings.

He said the next president should also be a leader beyond the university system, "where that institution by its condition and its effort sets the bar for the rest of them."

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