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Originally published September 7, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 7, 2007 at 7:36 AM

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Washington Voices

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Barely three months into his new job, Washington State University president Elson Floyd came to Yakima last week espousing an...

Washington State's new president has university changing course

Barely three months into his new job, Washington State University president Elson Floyd came to Yakima last week espousing an idea that may be revolutionary in educational circles: No single college can be all things to all students.

So, Floyd says, WSU must make the time and critical effort needed to decide what it excels at, put its resources into those programs — and (here's the unique part) shed some of those that don't make the cut.

Looks like interesting times ahead in Pullman — and Yakima, and everywhere else in the state touched by WSU.

That was the other part of Floyd's message during the stop in what he termed a "listening and learning tour" of the state.

Frankly, we don't think he has a very steep learning curve. His background already gives him an interesting understanding of higher education in Washington.

Floyd came to WSU at the end of May, after more than four years as president of the four-campus University of Missouri system. He was president of Western Michigan University from 1999 to 2002, and held several administrative positions at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, including deanships in student affairs and the College of Arts and Sciences.

But before that he spent two years as executive director of the Washington State Higher Education Coordinating Board based in Olympia, and from 1990-93, served as vice president for student services, vice president for administration and executive vice president at Eastern Washington University in Cheney.

That should give him a solid grounding in the "cultures" of politics, education and Eastern Washington.

Under his leadership, he said, the university will eliminate classes and programs at which the university does not excel and set strategic priorities to focus attention and financial resources on specific areas of study, such as the veterinary and agricultural programs that WSU is known for.

That, he believes, is the way for WSU to avoid mediocrity.

It is certainly not the way, however, to avoid controversy, or even grandstanding as professors, administrators, legislators and alumni all lobby for their favorite programs.

But it is a refreshing and, we believe, needed approach. Floyd understands that there are limits to how much money any college will have and that one way of stretching resources is by sharing.

Another way, of course, is specialization — focusing on what you're good at.

WSU today has money — its two-year budget is roughly $1.5 billion.

But it also has an increasing number of students to serve — total enrollment (including branch campuses) increased from 20,623 in 2000 to 23,428 in 2006.

If WSU's 10th president gets his way, students will be attracted to a smaller number of programs, with perhaps many offered exclusively at such off-campus sites as the Prosser Agricultural Center or in such partnerships as the one that exists at the Yakima Valley Community College.

That will almost certainly be a scary prospect for those tied to the Cougar tradition. Floyd's clarity and passion on the subject give us confidence that if anyone can change direction of the 115-year-old institution, it will be him.

— Yakima Herald-Republic, Sept. 5

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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