By Assunta Ng
Northwest Asian Weekly
The first black president of Washington State University (WSU), Elson Floyd, died of colon cancer on June 20. He was 59 years old.
The last six months of his life was critical to the success of WSU establishing its own medical school, thus ending the monopoly of the University of Washington (UW) as the only academic institution running a medical school in the Northwest.
President Floyd gave it all to WSU, including sacrificing his life to found the WSU medical school. I don’t think he saw any other options during his fight with UW to get the state’s approval for the medical school. He knew the dire consequences and troubling implications if WSU couldn’t achieve its goal even though it was an impossible dream at the beginning. My guess is that, he cared more about WSU than his life for the following reasons.
1. Dealing with scrutiny as an African American university president
While Floyd was a role model for the African academic community, he had very few models himself. There are not that many African American men heading a four-year college, especially a predominantly white university. The mainstream community, which often lacks understanding toward minority communities, judges them through the lens of a few individuals of color. Floyd was determined not to fail. The pressure and stress on him was difficult to imagine.
2. The timing of his illness
Floyd kept his colon cancer quiet for fear of distraction in the middle of the battle to attain the medical school for the university. He should have taken a leave much earlier to take care of his health instead of a few weeks before his death. He couldn’t during the legislature. He needed to earn every vote from the legislators, not to mention that he had worked tirelessly to make WSU a world-class university from day one when he was president in 2007.
Studies have found that early detection and immediate treatment can cure a patient’s colon cancer. Cancer is a serious sickness, no one should delay aggressive treatment.
Research suggests that anywhere from 40 percent to 100 percent of people with cancer have fatigue. The much-needed rest for him had taken a back seat. There’s always one more phone call to return, one more visit you are obligated to make, and one more meeting to attend.
Perhaps if he would have taken a leave to fight the cancer, it could have been a different story. But he might have thought it was too risky to leave—WSU’s future was in his hands. The foundation for the medical school which he and his staff had worked so hard on, would be jeopardized.
From start to finish, he was relentless. His presence was critical to reassure skeptics, lobby legislators, and win the public over.
Every day, WSU’s dream of having its own medical school got closer and closer to becoming a reality. He must have felt as if he just wasn’t allowed to quit.
3. WSU and UW rivalry
When WSU made it clear they wanted its own medical school, UW folks were not happy. The competition between Cougars and Huskies has not only been constant, but personal since the universities have existed. Both schools’ alums are fierce loyalists to their own university.
Some Seattle elites view WSU as the second-best university in our state. In this medical-school battle with UW, WSU was clearly the underdog.
According to Malcolm Gladwell’s book David and Goliath, underdogs often work much harder and have the audacity to dream big. Floyd led his team with class, and built WSU’s case step by step with conviction and strength. After a well-executed public relations campaign, it was a game-changer for WSU in public opinion in Seattle and other cities. A charismatic speaker, he was well liked and respected. It was tough to say “no” to Floyd.
Meantwhile, UW was exposing its weaknesses: President Michael Young’s heart was somewhere else. He was actually planning to leave for another job (we learned afterwards). Now, we understand why he didn’t fight much at all.
For self-disclosure purposes, I am a Husky. At first, I too was blinded by the assumption that having another medical school would hurt UW medical school’s funding.
Perhaps, being a journalist, I am able to put my emotions aside and think objectively. Lets get to the facts. Who would gain from having one more medical school?
Washington state and our neighboring states including Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Idaho, which don’t have medical school themselves, will be benefited. Consumers and those who aspire to be doctors will have more alternatives. The idea of having two medical schools in our state makes me proud.
Who knows? Competition between the two giants may foster innovation and improvement, and perhaps, even collaboration between the two medical schools!
The only unexpected and unbearable outcome is that we lost an amazing and irreplaceable leader.
President Floyd, may you rest in peace and enjoy the legacy that you have left behind not only for WSU, but the state of Washington. (end)