By Bill Robinson
These are anxious times for Eastern Kentucky University, even if one key piece of the puzzle that is its future fell into place Friday.
Now that the next president has been selected, the university community can focus on what EKU will look like after a restructuring trims $23 million from the school’s budget and reduces the number of faculty and staff.
Such changes are not unique to Eastern. Last year, the University of Kentucky laid off more than 100 employees, and five years ago, Berea College went through a round of budget cutting.
Big changes are a cause for anxiety for individuals as well as institutions, but Eastern can take pride, and some hope, in the fact that a large number of well-qualified candidates believe enough in its future to want to take the helm.
All three finalists for EKU president were enthusiastic about the school’s assets, including an excellent faculty, a beautiful campus and an illustrious history. Each believed he was the right leader to take Eastern into a promising future.
Judging by the look in his eyes Friday, EKU Regents chair Craig Turner clearly believes Dr. Michael T. Benson is the person who can do that.
Every time he talks with Benson, Turner told me, Eastern’s next president is bursting with excitement and new ideas.
He also said the regents will give Benson all the tools he needs and expressed confidence the new president would stay at EKU "until the job is done."
Benson will hit the ground running, the regents chair said, "and we will all have to get some new track shoes to keep up with him."
While EKU’s next campus leader will be asking everyone to shoulder a heavier burden and probably make some sacrifices, Benson has the personal charisma and leadership style that will inspire people to follow him. That’s what he has done for the other two schools where he has been president, and Turner said he is confident Benson also can do that at Eastern.
Another part of Benson’s record that should bode well for Eastern, and was no doubt a big reason he was the successful candidate, is his success in fundraising.
In just six years as president of Southern Utah University, Benson led it in raising $85 million toward a $100 million goal. The campaign for a performing arts center raised $28 million. He also persuaded the Utah legislature to appropriate $20 million for a science center.
Benson will find some familiar challenges at EKU, where the second phase of the New Science Building awaits funding and the performing arts center will need private operating funds when it no longer enjoys state or university subsidies.
During a forum, Benson promised to boost EKU’s graduation rate, something he said state legislators will expect before the university asks for more money.
Global competition, competition from online schools, taxpayers weary of their burden and students deterred by the enormous debts they must incur to stay in school are just a few reasons why state universities like Eastern are under stress.
Without Eastern, the Blue Grass Army Depot and Interstate 75, Madison County would likely be just another pleasant rural Kentucky community.
After the big infusion of money to destroy the chemical weapons stored there, the depot may well wither away.
And, without a thriving EKU, the county’s future will be even more challenging than it would be without the depot.
That’s why everyone, on and off campus, should support Eastern’s next president.
Based on his record and the energy he exhibited during his campus visit, I don’t think anyone will work harder than Dr. Benson to create a bright future for EKU.
Because so much of our future is tied up with EKU’s, we all need to be just as motivated and creative as I expect he will be. Everyone’s future depends on it.