Thinking big: Michael Benson delivers the goods at Snow, SUU

Published: Sunday, March 25 2007 12:00 a.m. MDT

Michael Benson, relaxing at the Alta Club, has won over students and faculty as the new president of Southern Utah University.

August Miller, Deseret Morning News

Not everyone was happy when Michael T. Benson — the ambitious, energetic, piano-playing, globe-trotting, Oxford-educated, low-handicap-golfing, speeding ticket-collecting, marathon-running grandson of the late LDS Church President Ezra Taft Benson — was appointed president of Southern Utah University.

Much to his dismay, Benson, who collects friends like a guy who just won the lottery, learned that a committee of students had rejected his candidacy 10-0 weeks earlier. Of the five finalists, he was the only one not to receive a single vote.

"Even the Boston Strangler would have received one vote," one SUU administrator quipped to Benson.

With his usual deft touch, Benson met with the 10 students and heard their concerns, then calmly addressed them one by one. Among the complaints: During the interview process he had vowed to raise $115 million in time for the school's 115th anniversary in 2012. The students thought he was campaigning with a promise he couldn't keep.

A couple of weeks later, Benson flew to New York and secured a $3 million donation. Before he had even officially begun his new job, he had collected the biggest donation in school history.

"I decided that if they were going to have a problem with me raising that money, then I'll show them," he says. "They saw me as being arrogant. It was confidence."

Benson earned a reputation for thinking big and delivering the goods during his five years as president of Snow College in Ephraim. He raised more money in those five years than the school raised in its previous 115-year history — almost $6 million in cash and $4 million in pledges.

This is no small feat at a school that, besides being based in a tiny, isolated town and having relatively few alumni (annual enrollment is about 3,000), alumni loyalties are usually divided between the junior college and the university to which many students subsequently matriculate.

Benson nevertheless made Snow the first Nike-sponsored junior college athletic program in the country.

He made Snow an all-Steinway junior college, securing 32 of the famous pianos for the music department through purchases and donations, some with a price tag of $90,000.

He made Snow the host for the famed Juilliard School of Music's annual summer camp.

He built the Eccles Performing Arts Center.

Told that the project would be scrapped if he didn't raise $2 million in one month, Benson did just that, collecting $1.5 million from the Eccles family and $500,000 from the Horne family in Arizona.

No detail escaped his attention, from conceiving and building a bell tower as a campus landmark to recruiting his older brother Steve, the Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist, to "mean up" the school mascot.

He put artificial turf on the football field.

He ran a marathon to raise $50,000 to pay for a new scoreboard and a charter flight to take the football team to a bowl game.

He lured Roger Reid, the former BYU head coach and NBA assistant, to Snow to become the head basketball coach (then this month hired him at SUU).

He brought Elie Wiesel, the writer and Nobel Peace Prize winner, to speak at the school.

Last month, funding was approved for a new library at Snow — Benson's long-time pet project.

"Not a week went by without him throwing out yet another big idea for Snow," says Rick Pike, who served as development director at Snow. "The trick was to stay focused long enough to get previous ideas accomplished before moving on to new ones."

After only a few weeks under Benson at SUU, Dean O'Driscoll, the school's marketing director, says, "This is going to be an amazing adventure.

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