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?
MB: Not just to the Bensons but to this state. What I’ve come to appreciate about Utah is how important education was from the very beginning. One of the first things the LDS Church did in starting these fledgling communities is establish schools. They called them stake academies. For a time I think there were 25 or 26 of them. When the Great Depression came along and the church couldn’t afford to run them anymore they gave them to the state. That’s how we got Snow, Dixie and Weber State. There’s this amazing legacy here that I don’t think people in Utah fully appreciate. These little farming communities with immigrants with probably not anything beyond an elementary education were willing to sacrifice what they had to build a school system. Three years after they arrived in the Salt Lake Valley they formed the University of Deseret, which became the University of Utah. Education was that important to them.
DN: Do you see education as being as important today as it was then?
MB: I see that same loyal component that keeps it going. We have a culture that really values education and I think part of that is the LDS Church and one of its principle tenets — the idea that the glory of God is intelligence. That we should learn as much as we can. I think we take for granted just how lucky in Utah we are to have as many colleges as we have for the size of our population. How many places can you go where there’s a university the size of Utah State in one community, then go down the road 45 miles and there’s another one, and then another one and another one? Salt Lake Community College is one of the largest community colleges in the country. Then there’s BYU and Westminster. We have this amazing, I would call, treasure trove of institutions that have been around almost 175 years. There aren’t too many states that can say that. Look at Wyoming. They have one university. I hope people realize what gems these schools are, particularly in the smaller communities. Snow College in my mind is the best two-year school in America. You go there, you can go anywhere. We had kids go on to Cal, Stanford, Cornell, Boston College.
DN: From your view, do these institutions of higher learning get as much attention as grades K through 12?
MB: Unfortunately, sometimes not as much. I’ve watched ebbs and flows. When the economy is good, higher ed always seems to be the beneficiary. But that cuts both ways. In my time we’ve seen a switch. It used to be 55 percent funding from the state and 45 percent from tuition. Now that’s flipped. The challenge we have in Utah is everybody thinks tuition is kind of our fallback policy. If your funding’s been cut you can always raise tuition. But you don’t do that in K-12. I’m all for paying for what you use, but there also has to be recognition that education is a public benefit and not just a private good.
DN: What exactly do you mean by ‘public benefit?’
MB: An educated workforce benefits all of us. People with a degree — and this is born out by Department of Labor statistics — get more jobs, they pay more taxes, they use less in terms of health and human services, they tend to be good citizens, they volunteer more, they run for the school board and city council, they vote and their health is better. All of that is tied to the depth of secondary education. And I’m not just making that up. If you want a better quality of life in the country, if you want a lower unemployment rate, get better education.
DN: The more we get into college, then, the better?
MB: Education should be for everybody. I’m a big supporter of resident tuition for children of undocumented workers. If there’s anything that can change that generational tide, that can change the future, it’s the education of those young people. If they graduate from high school the best they can do is go on to that next level. That access to education is critical.
DN: What makes an education so valuable?
MB: Education to my mind teaches you to write, to think, to reason, to be critical as to what you’re analyzing, to be able to read and comprehend and communicate both written and orally. That’s the skillset employers are looking for. It’s not really do you know the algorithm for Google or can you read a P and L (profit-and-loss) spreadsheet? It’s can you communicate effectively, can you appreciate different beliefs and attitudes, can you get along with your fellow employees? That’s what a traditional liberal arts and sciences education gives you.
DN: You’ve gained quite a reputation as a fundraiser, both publicly and privately. To what do you attribute your success?
MB: I think what’s worked is I’m hard-wired to be optimistic and forward thinking and excited about the future. People will take cues from the president. If we go around stoop shouldered, down in the mouth, complaining about how bad things are, others will pick up on that. But if you can establish a vision for an institution, get people to buy into that vision, and then secure resources to accomplish the vision — there is nothing more gratifying than that. To twin laudable goals and objectives with the philanthropic desires of private donors is one of the most rewarding aspects of my job. I love it.
DN: Just how high is the stress level at the top?
MB: You’d have to ask my wife, because she lives with it every day. It’s a job where you’re never off and you always have to be on. The phone rings a lot, and unfortunately when it rings late at night it’s usually not a good thing. In many ways it’s like running a small company. (At SUU) we have a $115 million budget and 700-plus employees. But I would say all the stresses and downsides are blown away by the positives. I’m surrounded by faculty who are experts in their areas, just fascinating people. If I want to go learn about whatever, I have them all right here. I enjoy being around people who are passionate about their particular field, and who want their students to excel. And then there’s the kicker that you’re around young people who are at this pivotal point of their life, and you can give them the tools and put them in position to succeed.
DN: As you look back at your time at Snow and SUU, what makes you most proud?
MB: At Snow I’m really proud of the fact that it was a really good little school to start with and I think we were able to raise its prestige and notoriety and reputation. We were able to complete the Eccles Center for the Performing Arts and start fundraising for the Huntsman Library. Here at SUU I think we’ve carved out a unique niche as Utah’s public arts and sciences university; we got in the Big Sky Conference, something we wanted to do for 20 years; and I’m proud that in the time I’ve been here we’ve both increased our admission standards and our graduation rate. The incoming ACT score for our freshmen has gone up and our graduation rate is 8 points higher. It was 38 percent when we came in, now it’s 46 percent. It’s one thing to get them in the door but quite another to get them out the door with a diploma in their hands.
DN: How would you describe the current state of higher education in Utah?
MB: It’s really pretty good. I love my presidential colleagues and we have a board of regents that really cares. As a percentage of the state budget, higher ed has gone down a little bit. It’s starting to come back up, but we’re competing constantly with roads, health and human services, liquor stores, public safety and all the rest for resources in the General Fund. We don’t have a dedicated kind of silo of tax revenue, we have to compete with all those things, so it’s an ongoing challenge. I applaud the governor’s goal of having 66 percent with some kind of post-high school diploma. But to do that we have to have people who believe higher education is the key to the future of the state’s economy. I would say the state has a bright future — a future that’s inextricably tied to the education of our citizens.
Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays. EMAIL: firstname.lastname@example.org