In Memoriam: Lloyd Elliott

Educator and university president led George Washington for 23 years.
January 07, 2013

Former George Washington President Lloyd Elliott, who died last week at age 94, was remembered as a gracious and unassuming leader who consistently put students’ best interests above all else. From humble roots as a teacher from a family of educators in West Virginia, Dr. Elliott became a 23-year leader of the university who helped transform it from a “commuter” school into a respected residential academic institution.

Dr. Elliott served as president from 1965 until 1988. During that time, he increased the university’s endowment from $8 million to $200 million, oversaw the building of three libraries on the Foggy Bottom Campus, and emphasized the study of world affairs, leading to the renaming of GW’s School of International Affairs to the Elliott School in 1988. He also created the “university professor” rank.

During his tenure as president, his behind-the-scenes leadership style allowed faculty members and administrators to flourish, said Dr. Elliott’s daughter, Patricia Kauffman.

“He was very much in favor of finding the right people to do specific jobs, and then letting them lead,” she said. “I can say it was truly never about him. It was about getting the right person for the right position and giving them every opportunity and encouragement to succeed.”

Richard Southby, executive dean and distinguished professor of global health emeritus, was both a colleague and a close friend of Dr. Elliott.

He was gracious and supportive,” Dr. Southby said. “Once he made a decision, though, he was firm. He was a very solid administrator without being flamboyant—he didn't need to have his name in the press. He stood up for things he thought were important.”

One of those things was his decision, in 1965, to disband the university’s football team, which cost the university a great deal of money, even though the team wasn’t particularly successful. Syracuse University had recently made the same decision, although the president of that institution reinstated the football team after alumni and students helped raise the money to cover the program.

“I remember that he faced a lot of resistance from students and alumni,” Ms. Kauffman said. “What he said was, if you can raise the money, like Syracuse did, that’s fine, but before the money goes to football, we need libraries, classrooms and more professors. If, after that, there’s still money remaining, then sure, let’s bring back football…His whole raison d'être was the students and their progress.”

Dr. Elliott’s focus on educational excellence included overseeing the construction of three libraries on the Foggy Bottom Campus: the Estelle and Melvin Gelman Library, the Jacob Burns Law Library and the Himmelfarb Health Sciences Library.

“He was extraordinarily proud of the libraries,” Ms. Kauffman said. “I remember when Gelman got its millionth book. He was very excited.”

She remembered her father saying that, as a child, he went to school 24 hours a day, seven days a week, because his own father, a public school teacher, was always educating him. Dr. Elliott’s early experience as a public school teacher and administrator imbued him with a sense of principle when it came to educational priorities.

In the mid-1980s, for example, when the White House requested use of the Charles E. Smith Center for a high-profile meeting between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Dr. Elliott refused, citing a disruption to students’ lives and studies during finals week.

“He always had a twinkle in his eye, but people who knew him knew when he was deadly serious,” Ms. Kauffman said.

After his retirement from GW, Dr. Elliott became the first president of the National Geographic Society Education Foundation, the National Geographic Society’s educational arm.

“He was very interested in geography and improving the teaching of geography in secondary schools,” Dr. Southby said.

During their retirements, Dr. Elliott and Dr. Southby often played handball together in the Smith Center.

“He really coached me and was very patient with me. He was a fierce handball player,” Dr. Southby said.

Ms. Kauffman said she hoped the university community would remember her father’s character.

“He cared about students above anything else. He cared about their opportunities, about making opportunities for them. He was absolutely what you saw—he never pulled punches. And people knew it intuitively.”