Former GWU president Lloyd H. Elliott, 94, helped modernize the university

LeRoy Woodson/THE WASHINGTON POST - Lloyd H. Elliott, center, president of George Washington University, talks with students about their grievances. His tenure as head of GWU lasted from 1965 to 1988.

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Lloyd H. Elliott, a low-key president of George Washington University who helped shepherd its transition from a regional commuter school in the mid-1960s to an institution of growing academic prominence in the late 1980s, died Jan. 1 at the university’s hospital in Washington.

Dr. Elliott was 94 and had a brain hemorrhage after falling twice, his family said.

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During his tenure as GWU president from 1965 to 1988, Dr. Elliott sought to steer clear of political battles and guard the independence of a university that lies just a few blocks from the White House.

At the height of national upheaval during the Vietnam War, students and others from around the country descended on Washington for antiwar protests. Many slept at GWU’s campus in Foggy Bottom, using it as a shelter, before heading to the White House, the Pentagon or the Mall for demonstrations.

Dr. Elliott’s former colleagues said he sought to keep the campus running, with minimal disturbance, while preserving freedom of speech for students.

One day in 1970, Dr. Elliott criticized D.C. police for “excessive use of force and indiscriminate arrests” in connection with a demonstration that started outside the Watergate apartment complex and then spilled onto campus.

“This was a potential tinderbox during the entire Vietnam period,” said Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, who succeeded Dr. Elliott as president of the university. “He handled that brilliantly, with a calmness I could only aspire to.”

In another test of his leadership in 1987, Dr. Elliott denied a federal request to allow international news media to use a campus gymnasium as a press center during a superpower summit meeting between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

A White House spokesman called Dr. Elliott’s decision “narrow-minded.” Some students complained that the university lost priceless international exposure. But Dr. Elliott was more worried about possible disruption to students and classes shortly before exams.

“It all depends on what you put first: the programs of the university or something in the way of a long grab for publicity,” Dr. Elliott later told The Washington Post. “I thought the decision was as simple as that.”

When he came to GWU in 1965, replacing a president who had died the year before, Dr. Elliott found initial skepticism on campus. Many faculty members had backed another candidate from among their own ranks.

But Dr. Elliott, who had previously led the University of Maine, won professors over with a pledge to be a collaborative educational leader and a strong fundraiser. “It’s nearly impossible to be one without being the other,” he said.

GWU’s endowment grew under Dr. Elliott’s tenure from about $8 million to more than $200 million. Student enrollment rose from 12,500 in 1965 to 19,200 in 1988, and the university gained a stronger national reputation.

The university built the main Gelman Library, the Jacob Burns Law Library and the Himmelfarb Health Sciences Library, among other core buildings. Dr. Elliott, seizing on GWU’s location in a seat of world diplomacy, put new emphasis on a school of international affairs that was named for him when he retired. He also disbanded the university’s varsity football program, deeming it too expensive.

Shortly before he left office, Trachtenberg said, Dr. Elliott helped broker the acquisition of land in Northern Virginia for a satellite campus that has become a research hub for the school.

“He looked more like a banker than an educator,” recalled Roderick French, a vice president for academic affairs under Dr. Elliott. “He was always immaculately dressed and behaved in a courtly manner. But he was what I’d call a stealth reformer. He was really the man who modernized GW.”

Lloyd Hartman Elliott was born May 21, 1918, in Clay County, W.Va., and was the fourth of four sons of a rural schoolteacher.

He married Evelyn Elder in 1936, the year before he earned a bachelor’s degree from Glenville State College in West Virginia. He received a master’s degree in education from West Virginia University in 1939.

After Navy service in North Africa and the Mediterranean during World War II, he earned a doctorate in educational administration from the University of Colorado in 1948.

Dr. Elliott held teaching and administrative jobs at Cornell University from 1948 to 1958, followed by seven years as president of the University of Maine. He helped bring President John F. Kennedy to the Orono campus to receive an honorary degree in October 1963, a month before Kennedy was assassinated.

Dr. Elliott’s wife, known as Betty, died in 2009. Survivors include two children, L. Gene Elliott of Spiceland, Ind., and Patricia Kauffman of Washington; two grandsons; and nine great-grandchildren.

In October 1966, Dr. Elliott showed a playful side to his leadership style that dovetailed with his desire to make friends among GWU students. That month, a headline in The Post declared that windows had been “smashed at GW.” Bricks had been hurled at a campus house on G Street Northwest. But this was no riot. It turned out that the house was about to be demolished to make way for a new student union.

Dr. Elliott, after conferring with the student council president, had come up with a novel start to the demolition. A picture in the newspaper showed Dr. Elliott, resembling a right-handed baseball pitcher, “hurling the first brick.”