By Crystal Wylie
Register News Writer
RICHMOND — Eastern Kentucky University’s impact on the community was the focus of a speech given Friday by EKU President Dr. Michael Benson at the Business at Noon Luncheon, hosted by the Richmond Chamber of Commerce.
But before speaking on the economic impact of the university, Benson talked about how education could “change lives.”
Benson said a scientist he was “intrigued with” is George Washington Carver, an African-American who was “arguably one of the most distinguished scientists of his generation,” he said.
When it was being decided what to put on Carver’s gravestone when he died, “knowing what kind of person he was,” Benson said, “this is what they put on his tombstone: ‘He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world.’”
“We work in an industry, that at its core, is about changing lives,” Benson said. “We do that, we hope, on a daily basis, in a very real and meaningful sort of way when we see these students, many of whom are first-generation graduates, and how their lives have been transformed.”
The new president then offered what he called “tangible evidence” of the economic impact EKU has on the community.
• 3,300 full-time faculty and staff.
• 89 new full-time/part-time staff and faculty positions available and posted online at jobs.eku.edu.
• A monthly payroll of $13.4 million.
• A total budget, both state and auxiliary funds, of $332 million.
• Construction projects costing $61.4 million for the New Science Building; $32.6 million for the EKU Center for the Arts; and $21.4 million for a new residence hall.
• 4,985 available residence hall beds.
The new residence hall is the first to be built in 40 years. There are plans to tear down Combs Hall, Benson said, as the first step in a “process to address the aging bed population we have in our inventory.” Once the hall is razed, the university will find an appropriate place to put Earle Combs’ name, he noted.
Combs was a member of the EKU Board of Regents, a inductee into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and “was in the line up with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig,” Benson said. “That’s something we should all be proud of.”
Benson continued to list more bits of information about EKU:
• Students completed 4,375 service-learning hours in one semester last year.
• Since 2008, the university has had 43,226 students, 17,890 this semester alone.
• From Fall 1990 to Spring 2013, EKU graduated 52,819 students.
EKU’s reallocation efforts in May to reduce the university’s budget by 10 percent freed up an extra $16.5 million in both new revenue and reallocated funds to “direct into areas where we think it will have the most impact,” Benson said.
Money was allotted to “what I think is our most important asset, and that’s human capital” he said, with every employee receiving a salary increase.
Around $1.5 million was set aside for new positions and some “equity funding” for staff, he said.
Benson said “diversity” is important to the university. EKU apportioned $275,000 in diversity scholarships, he said, “to attract all kinds of students.”
“Diversity to me is more than diversity just in terms of one’s skin color,” said Benson, listing perspective, where a person is from and religious belief as other aspects of diversity.
Money also was earmarked to create additional work-study, hourly-wage opportunities for students “to keep them here on campus and to keep them here through the weekend,” he said.
The maintenance and operations budget also was assigned more funds while the university continues to seek more money from state coffers for Phase 2 of the New Science Building construction, which Benson called EKU’s “No. 1 building project.”
A new facility to house the College of Education and Model Laboratory School is No. 2, he said.
Economic impact of education
Benson spent the last few minutes of his speech talking about why attaining education “makes a difference.”
Many studies reveal that “the one thing that has the ability to change one’s position in life is access to education ... There’s not another panacea out there to address the world’s ills like education can.”
Benson presented data he used while president of Southern Utah University, prior to being named president of EKU.
Looking at the median wage of those with a certain level of education, he said, “there’s a direct correlation” between degree attainment and unemployment rates.
In Utah, for those with a high school diploma, unemployment was 8.5 percent, but for those with a graduate degree, unemployment was 1.4 percent, he said. “I think we can extrapolate an important lesson from that and apply it to the commonwealth as well.”
Benson pointed out a “startling disparity” in earning potential between those with a high school diploma versus an advanced degree.
In 2004, the average salary of someone with a high school diploma was $21,000, but with an advanced degree, the average earning potential was $78,000, he said.
Those who have a higher level of education tend to vote more, volunteer more, be active in public service and “they also have a direct correlation to increased health and well-being,” Benson continued.
There, of course, is a place in society for those who do not pursue a formal education, he said, such as his mother. She did not graduate college, but was a piano teacher who gave “all six kids opportunities that she never had.”
Among Benson and his five siblings, they have earned five bachelor’s degrees, three master’s, a doctorate and a Pulitzer Prize, he said.
“That’s only because of my mom and dad and their commitment to education,” he said.
But if the audience was to remember one thing from his speech, Benson said, he wants them to remember that “the two greatest social policies our country ever undertook came at two of our darkest moments in our history.”
One, he said, was during the Civil War when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Land-Grant Act to establish state universities throughout the country.
The second greatest social policy occurred 75 years later when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the G.I. Bill, which extended benefits for veterans, he said.
Benson then asked a few veterans in the audience to speak on how the G.I. Bill helped further their education.
“Talk to the 1,300 veterans that we have on our campus and ask them how the G.I. Bill has impacted their lives,” Benson said.
There was a “watershed moment,” the president said, when a few years ago, “we passed this threshold when the older generation in our society is now more educated than the younger generation.”
Benson then read a list of countries whose younger generation is more educated than the older, which included Canada, Japan and Korea. American placed ninth on that list.
He encouraged the audience to talk to the children in their lives about education “and tell them the thing that is going to enhance our economy in this country is the ability to have access to education and for our country to have an educated populace.”
Crystal Wylie can be reached at email@example.com or 623-1669, Ext. 6696.