By Bill Robinson
The opportunity to see students’ lives transformed is why he finds higher education so fulfilling, Dr. Michael Benson told an open forum Monday. Seeing donors’ eyes light up as he tells them how their support can and has transformed students’ lives is another reason he enjoys his current and previous role as a college president, he said.
Public higher education is “the great determiner” in the lives of states as well as individuals, he added.
Benson, one of three finalists to succeed Eastern Kentucky University President Dr. Doug Whitlock, was the first to visit campus.
He arrived Sunday evening and went through a whirlwind of meetings, including a public reception Monday night. His visit will conclude today at noon.
His leadership style can be summed up in four points, Benson said at the forum.
Articulate a clear vision, persuade others to buy into it, get the right people in place to carry out the vision and then get out of their way as they make the vision a reality, he said.
Asked what he would do during his first 100 days, if named EKU president, Benson said he first would “listen as much as possible” and “be out and about” to meet as many people as possible, especially students, so he could hear what they have to say.
He would pay special attention to the task force currently reviewing EKU operations to recommend ways the university can cut its expenses by 10 percent, Benson said. Such decisions should be made in a collaborative manner, he said.
U.S. President Harry Truman is his role model for leadership, Benson said.
When Truman left office, his approval rating was 23 percent, he said, four points below that of Richard Nixon’s when he resigned. Since he left office, however, Truman’s estimation has steadily risen until he is regarded as one of the nation’s best leaders, Benson said.
His once low approval rating showed Truman was unafraid of making difficult decisions and standing by them, he said. But Truman’s high regard today, in the eyes both historians and the public, shows the quality of this decisions.
Paradoxically, Truman was the only U.S. president in the 20th century who wasn’t a college graduate, Benson noted. However, as a self-taught student of history, Truman had read as much as any president.
Introduced on the stage of Brock Auditorium for Monday afternoon’s forum, Benson came down to the floor where he could be closer to the audience for nearly an hour of questions and answers.
Asked how he would improve EKU’s retention rate, Benson said graduating students was even more important than retaining them. Retention is up 3 to 4 percent at Southern Utah University where he has been president for more than six years, Benson said. Graduation is up 6 percent.
Regardless of how well a college may be doing, “we can always do better,” he said of Eastern’s record.
Universities must make students feel welcome and support them in areas where they may be having difficulties, Benson said. At SUU, faculty have been hired or reassigned to areas found to be “bottlenecks” for students’ progress.
He also believes in forming living/learning communities similar to what he found at England’s Oxford University where he obtained in doctorate in Middle Eastern history, Benson said. At Oxford, he lived in a house with 20 other students from 12 nations.
“I learned as much at dinner from the other students as I did in the classroom,” he said.
Intrusive advising, “in a positive way,” especially if monitoring of students’ progress shows they are slipping, is done at SUU, he said. Academic tutoring is available and proactively recommended as well.
Also, Benson said he has moved to create as much on-campus jobs as possible for students at SUU so they can afford to stay in college.
Raising graduation rates is one way of showing legislators a public university is worthy of state support, he said. However, funding for public higher education is down in many states, including Virginia, where it makes up only 10 percent of university budgets, and in Michigan where it is in the low teens, Benson said.
The next candidate, Dr. Gregg Lassen, vice president for finance and operations at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, will be on campus Wednesday and Thursday. His open forum is 3 to 4 p.m. Wednesday in Brock Auditorium with a public reception 6:15 to 7:30 p.m. at the EKU Center for the Arts.
The third finalist, Dr. Alan T. Shao, business school dean at the College of Charleston, will be on campus April 2 and 3 with an open forum and reception Tuesday, April 2.
Bill Robinson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org@email@example.com or at 624-6690.