On New Ground – DR. Elson S. Floyd

DR. Elson S. FloydPresident, University of Missouri systemEducation: Ph.D., Higher and Adult Education, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill; Master of Education, Adult Education, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill; Bachelor of Arts, Political Science and Speech, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill In early October, Black Issues caught up with Dr. Elson S. Floyd in Kansas City, Mo., where he greeted higher education leaders and supporters who were meeting in downtown Kansas City for the Brothers of the Academy think tank conference. Only 47, Floyd, the first African American president of the University of Missouri system, is recognized for having a wide-ranging set of administrative experiences that include four years as the chief executive officer of Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. A native of Henderson, N.C., Floyd spent 13 years at the University of North Carolina as well as three years at Eastern Washington University and two years as executive director of the Washington State Higher Education Coordinating Board. Floyd began his presidency of the 62,089-student, four-campus University of Missouri system on Jan. 6.
BI:  What are your goals for the University of Missouri system and how would you describe the challenges that you face in the job as president?EF: I have one goal and one goal only for the university, and that is I want to make the University of Missouri into one of the premier public universities in the country. It is absolutely essential for us to recognize the importance of continuing to invest in public higher education. The University of Missouri is the public land-grant research university here in the state of Missouri, and so we have an obligation and responsibility to make sure that the university reaches its full potential.
Probably the most daunting challenge that we face here in Missouri, but I would submit to you that every president is facing it who is leading a public university, is the retrenchment and the budget, the slowing of the economy. As a consequence, all of us need to be very mindful of the resources that are entrusted to us, making sure that we leverage the state’s investment in the university with project sources which will be manifested through philanthropy to the university as a consequence of fund raising, and also the generation of grants and dollars that will flow based on the research of our faculty.BI: How would you describe the impact of budgetary problems on higher education in Missouri?EF: It has had a huge impact on higher education. It’s required us to rethink many of our tuition and fee policies. For instance, here at the University of Missouri, we increased our tuition last year by 19.8 percent, and we still did not complete the gap, or fill the gap that existed with the decline in state appropriations. We’re trying to make sure that we articulate to our respective legislatures the investment that must continue to be made in the university, even with the slowing economy, and the value that the university adds. We have traditionally focused on teaching and research and service, and I think those three would remain the centerpiece of public higher education in this country. But equally important is economic development. So now you hear university presidents and others talking about the role that the university must play in propelling the economy forward in the states in which we reside. So it’s crucial that we continue to stay true to our core values of the university, but also recognizing the unique contributions that we must make.BI: How would you describe your strengths as a leader, and how do you see those strengths working for you in this position?EF: Well, one of the things that I pride myself on is the ability to listen well to individuals, to be a collaborator, so the collaborative approach to leadership and management are important values for me. I also manage by walking around, so I am thoroughly and completely engaged in the life of our students and faculty and staff, alumni, friends and supporters of the university. So it’s important for them to get to know me personally and it’s important for me to know them in a way that will reflect the core values of the university.BI: How would you describe the expectations of you in regards to maintaining and increasing diversity in the university system?EF: Well, there is no doubt that being African American there is increased pressure on me to make sure that the university is as diverse as it possibly can be. We have a long way to go here at the University of Missouri in improving our diversity. Whether I look at our campus in Columbia or our campus here in Kansas City or in Rolla or St. Louis, we still have a long way to go.  BI: Do you see the goal of diversity, as well as the push for higher standards, particularly with attracting top-notch faculty and competitive student bodies with strong test scores, as mutually compatible goals? If so, how would you describe your strategy in achieving these objectives, especially since public universities are under a lot of scrutiny over affirmative action?
EF: One cannot talk about the pipeline issues without understanding that it is important for us to continue to nurture those individuals of color to come into our universities who can benefit from a college education. The same will apply for faculty and staff who work in our institutions as well and for our faculty, obviously, to engage in teaching and research and service. By that I mean precisely this: We need to make sure that we have an open, inviting institution that fosters diversity. We understand the importance of inculcating a culture in which everyone is welcome and should be a productive member of a society that we’ve created through the university environment. So that will continue to be a huge priority of the University of Missouri under my leadership and my watch of the campus.BI: Specifically, what can you say about diversity goals at the University of Missouri? EF: What we have to do is make sure that we continue to be very aggressive in the recruitment of students coming into the university. That can be achieved, and we are doing much better at that, but as we’re reaching out to communities of color, especially African American communities, making sure that those students understand that we would love to have them come to the University of Missouri. And whether those communities are here in Kansas City or in St. Louis, primarily, we have virtually every high school talking about the value of an education from the University of Missouri system, something very tangible. On each of our campuses we are looking at the total environment at the university, making sure that if there are any deficiencies relative to the level of support that we provide, as well as amenities at the institution, that we are doing what we can to correct that situation, even in this budget retrenchment mode that we’re in. 
From a faculty standpoint, it’s absolutely crucial for us to continue to recruit and retain the best and brightest faculty. We need faculty of color to add to the university. It adds to the diversity, it just simply adds to the richness of the total educational portfolio that we have. So you’ll see the university continuing to be very aggressive in the recruitment of faculty of color. We should do that; we must do it; it’s a moral imperative for us to do exactly that.BI: How significant a role do you think race had in regards to your selection as president as well as your tenure?EF:  You know, race will continue to be a factor in virtually everything that we do. It’s unfortunate that we’re still talking about issues of affirmative action and diversity within colleges and universities and other organizations across this country.  So, is race a factor for me as the president of the University of Missouri? Absolutely. I wish I could say that it was not a factor, but it is. It is my hope and expectation that people will look at me as the president of the University of Missouri who is African American, as opposed to the African American president of the University of Missouri. I have an obligation to reach out to all communities throughout the state of Missouri and with the assistance of the citizens here, and with the faculty and students and staff around me, we should be able to do precisely that. 
But race continues to be a significant factor, and this (Brothers of the Academy) conference today is an example of how it’s important to make sure that we understand the unique aspects associated with people of color, especially African Americans, in higher education.  BI: Why was it a priority for you to be present at the Brothers of the Academy think  tank? EF: There is nothing more refreshing than being with friends and colleagues trying to reconnect and talk about some of our shared experiences and focusing on our universities and what’s happening within the classroom and what’s happening within administrative halls. So this is an important conference to bring together a cohort of individuals to focus in a very detailed way on the very vexing and complicated issues impacting all of us who work in higher education.BI: How would you describe the reception you got in Missouri and how does this experience compare to others for you?EF: The University of Missouri is a great place. I’ve enjoyed, and continue to enjoy my work and involvement here. The state of Missouri is a very diverse state. We’re here now in Kansas City, but I must tell you, if we were in St. Louis, some of the issues would be similar, but there would be many issues that would be very different. One could say that Kansas City looks to the west and St. Louis looks to the east. If we are in the northern part of Missouri, it’s very rural there; agriculture continues to be vastly important.  If we are in the southern part of the state — affectionately referred to as the boot heel — agriculture continues to be important there, but there is a slightly different focus. So one of the things that is truly reflective of the state of Missouri is the diversity that occurs here, and with that diversity it is important for the university to understand how we must relate to all Missourians through that. It is a manifestation of our land-grant obligation and responsibilities that we really do touch the lives of all Missourians. So, from my perspective as president of the university, I have felt very welcomed in the state. Whether I am in the northwest quadrant of the state or whether I am in the southwest, it really has been a very inviting and receptive atmosphere that I’ve enjoyed.BI: There’s been a great deal of press about Ricky Clemons, a former basketball player and student at the University of Missouri-Columbia whose legal troubles have brought attention to the school’s athletic program. Since there’s been an investigation ordered by you into the basketball program, what can you say you have learned about the management of major college athletics and balancing that management with keeping academic integrity and quality within the university system?EF: I think all of us who are responsible for Division I athletics will talk and think a lot about our athletic programs, making sure that the program, number one, has the integrity that is absolutely crucial in this environment; number two, is competitive; and number three, focusing on the retention and ultimately the graduation of our athletes who participate and give so much to our respective universities. With the athletic situation at the University of Missouri, we are doing that. Right now our basketball program on the Columbia campus is the subject of an investigation by the NCAA. We’ll see what will happen ultimately in that regard. But I must tell you, there are a number of very complicated, overlapping and very complex rules associated with NCAA sports now, so we’ll see how the program will be viewed by the NCAA at the end. But I have a lot of confidence in the leadership of the athletic department and the leadership of the university.
But, you know, what I would say about athletics is pretty simple. I mean, there must be a balance between athletics and academics, and that’s really our charge as university presidents, to make sure that we maintain the balance between the two while having competitive teams, but making sure that we are not competing in an unfair way, in a way that gives us a disproportionate advantage over another team or another institution. BI:  Some of the press attention around Clemons has been focused on you, given that after he sought and had a meeting with you at your home he was involved in a car accident. That accident led to further trouble for Clemons because he was found to have violated terms of a sentencing that had restricted the time he could be away from confinement at a halfway house. How do you view the media coverage of your role in this incident?  EF:  Let me just tell you a little bit about that situation, because a lot has been printed about it and a lot of it is not truly reflective. Some have characterized Ricky Clemons being at my home at a party. It was far from a party. In fact, there were seven people, total, at my home. My wife was there, we had two couples from Michigan. In fact, one person was a licensed psychologist there, the other is a retired executive from a major pharmaceutical company. I had a chief information officer at my home, as well. So the point is, it was just simply a group of individuals. Ricky asked to come over. My wife extended an invitation for him to come over. So, it was just individuals, together over for the Fourth of July. It really wasn’t a big issue. It has been blown way out of proportion, as far as I’m concerned.  While he was there, an unfortunate accident occurred. 
Do I have an obligation and responsibility to reach out to students at the university? Absolutely. Am I going to shy away from that responsibility? No, I’m not. Do I regret that the accident occurred? You bet I do. But accidents happen, and that does not mean that I should not embrace students who are at the university. 
In this instance, Ricky was already precluded from playing basketball, so being at my home had really nothing to do with his basketball career because he was not eligible to play for this coming academic year anyway. You know, it would have been fascinating to have heard the story of coach Quin Snyder asking me to spend some time with Ricky, which is what he asked me to do, and I obliged. Suppose I said, no, I was not going to do that? That would have been a story, too, but the focus of that story would have been fundamentally different. So I think it really has been blown way, way out of proportion, but I am very much committed to the students at the university. I am equally committed to faculty and staff, and if there are ways that I can help them matriculate to the university, I am going to do exactly that. I feel very strongly about it. 
I have had so many people who have helped me in my life, and I have an obligation to give back. It really was helping a young man who really does not have any family. The amount of time that I spent with him prior to that time was essentially none. I had encountered him on one occasion for about two seconds, with the other members of the basketball team, so I did not spend any time with him. And unfortunately, this accident occurred. I’m not sure what individuals would have had me do. Nonetheless, it happened, it’s unfortunate, but I do have an obligation to make sure that I do what I can to help our students at the university.  BI: How has being a native of the North Carolina and the South with its unique history around race shaped your career?  EF: It’s shaped my career in very significant ways. When I was growing up — I’m the oldest of four boys in my family — my parents talked repeatedly about the value of education. My mom and dad did not have the opportunity of graduating from high school, but they understood the importance of having all of us continue in the educational environment. I had the opportunity of going to undergraduate school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and I completed my master’s and Ph.D. degrees there. So, inculcated in everything that I do, is full and complete recognition of the value of education. So I bring that perspective with me. I also understand the value associated with a quality education experience. So if I can extend that and include it in my work that I’m involved in right now, I think it’s value added, and I’ll feel very good about my accomplishments at the end of the day. So, yes, having grown up in the South in a segregated environment, I understand fully and completely the importance of education and how education can, indeed, make a difference. It’s made a difference in my life, and if there are ways that I can create the same environment for others, then it is, indeed, a job well done. 



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