CEDAR CITY — In quite a literal sense, Michael Benson is living proof that education will take you places.
The wunderkind of Utah higher education — he was just 36 when he was named president of Snow College in the year 2001, the youngest college president in the history of the Utah System of Higher Education — has tendered his resignation as president of Southern Utah University and on Aug. 1 will take over as president of Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, Ky.
At 48, Benson is still one of the youngest university presidents in America — 95 percent of his peers are over the age of 50 — but a 12-year track record of continued successes at Snow and SUU caused the Kentucky regents to make him an offer — his starting base salary is a reported $400,000, plus incentives — he chose not to refuse.
For Benson, it’s a step along a natural progression. After apprenticing under Bernie Machen as the presidential assistant at the University of Utah, he moved on to take over at Snow, a two-year school of 3,000 students, followed by SUU, a four-year university of 7,000 students.
In Richmond, he steps into a university with 16,000 students.
Before he’s finished, there’s no telling where academia is liable to take this native Utahn who graduated from Salt Lake City’s East High School in 1983 and then received a bachelor’s degree in political science from Brigham Young University. From there his horizons broadened dramatically. He earned a doctorate in Middle Eastern history from the University of Oxford in England and, while he was running SUU, spent his summer vacations at the University of Notre Dame where he added a master’s degree in non-profit administration from the Mendoza College of Business.
At the University of Utah, Snow and SUU, Benson displayed an uncommon talent for fundraising, particularly from private donors. In his five-year term at Snow the money raised during his administration exceeded the total of all donations in the school’s previous 117 years. In the past year alone at SUU, private individual gifts of $6 million, $5 million and $4 million were secured.
At Eastern Kentucky they will hope for more of the same. The school recently announced significant budget, job and program cuts because of the recession. In becoming the 12th president at a school that first opened its doors in 1906, Benson prevailed over a field of 69 candidates that included nine college presidents and 13 college provosts.
As he and his wife Debi and their three young children, Truman, Tatum and Talmage, pack up and say their farewells to Southern Utah, the Deseret News spoke with President Benson about his views on education in general and the state of higher education in Utah in particular.
DN: First of all, congratulations on your appointment at Eastern Kentucky.
MB: Thank you. It is one of those opportunities that don’t come along very often. We love it here but we realize there’s a big country out there and this gives us the chance to have an experience outside of Utah. It is very hard to leave. We have deep ties to Utah and particularly to rural Utah. That’s how the Bensons started. My great great grandfather, the first Ezra T., was with the first group of (Mormon) pioneers that came to the Salt Lake Valley and he was sent first to help settle Tooele and then to the Cache Valley. He’s buried in the cemetery at Utah State. Ezra Taft Benson, my grandfather, was one of 11 kids and the first in the family to go to college.
DN: So schooling is important to the Bensons?
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