Incoming Coastal Carolina University President Dr. Michael Benson said he likes that the campus communities he previously worked with saw him as accessible and engaged.
“I think first and foremost, the student body and campus community have to feel the president is accessible and relatable. They can come visit me, they can Tweet at me, email me,” Benson said in a socially-distanced interview on campus Saturday morning. “I appreciate the fact that students have seen me at my other schools as someone that was not completely in the ivory tower and inaccessible.”
Benson was officially named Friday as Dr. David DeCenzo’s successor, who will begin serving in the role on Jan. 2, 2021. He will be working closely with the exiting president before DeCenzo’s retirement on June 30, 2021.
“We are excited to welcome Dr. Benson, and as a board, we firmly believe his leadership talents and experiences are an excellent match for Coastal Carolina University and the advancement of this dynamic institution," said Delan Stevens, vice chairman of the board of trustee's and chairman of the presidential search committee.
According to a university release, Benson served as the 13th president of Eastern Kentucky University from 2013-2020 and was named President Emeritus there in December 2019. Prior to EKU, he was the 15th president of Southern Utah University (SUU).
Benson and his wife, Debi, are the parents of Truman, Tatum, and Talmage, and has two children, Emma and Samuel, from a previous marriage.
While at EKU, he held an appointment as professor of government, and he is currently a visiting professor in the department of history and science and technology in the Krieger School of Arts & Sciences at Johns Hopkins University.
During his time at SUU, he gained admission into the Big Sky Conference for all athletic teams; completed new residence halls, a teacher education facility, and a science and engineering center; and directed the development and implementation of SUU’s largest and most ambitious comprehensive fundraising effort. This endeavor, named the “Future is Rising Campaign,” raised a record $105 million for SUU.
Born in Utah and raised in Texas and Indiana, Benson spent seven years working and studying abroad in Italy, England, and Israel. He is fluent in spoken and written Italian.
He holds degrees from Brigham Young University, the University of Oxford (St. Antony’s College), and the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame.
Currently, Benson is pursuing a Master of Liberal Arts (MLA) at The Johns Hopkins University and is on schedule to graduate in Fall 2021.
Benson also contributes regularly to the Huffington Post as a featured voice on higher education and has published work in a number of other publications.
Benson said that a lot of schools right now are facing enrollment issues due to COVID-19 and other factors.
“That doesn’t mean we can’t plant a flag for CCU in every single county,” he said.
Among the first things on his to-do list as president is to visit local high schools.
“Never take for granted your local population,” Benson said. “The ultimate barometer for how you’re doing as an institution is that in the presence of good choices, a student chooses you. If you’re their school of choice, you need to look at what is working, what needs to be improved upon.”
He said he is going to take his time and look at the entire institution to make sure he understands CCU’s own challenges, but was careful to call the challenges “areas of focus” rather than weaknesses.
“Sure, it [CCU] needs to fix some things, but I’m going to take my time and ascertain exactly what those areas are and what needs to be shored up,” Benson said. “I’d like to focus on messaging, and how the university presents itself … [CCU] does have some areas it needs to address as it relates to retention and graduation rates.”
He said the quality of the student body is continuing to trend in the right direction, and it’s an area of focus on which he hopes to continue to do even better. Benson did not yet want to comment on any possibility of future COVID-19-related budgetary issues like layoffs or athletics budget cuts.
Concerning his previous experiences with a number of different conferences including the Big Sky Conference and the Ohio Valley Conference, he said that he looks forward to working with CCU and the Sun Belt Conference.
“Conference affiliation is important, and the peer set that you compete with that you compare yourself to, people pay attention to that,” Benson said, saying he had spoken to former football coach Joe Moglia at breakfast Saturday morning. "Show me another school at this level that has been on national television for the last three weeks in a row … sure, we’re in the bottom quartile in terms of resources and tradition, but there’s a lot of runway ahead of us, and I think tremendous potential.”
He said he hopes that the class of 2024, this year’s incoming freshman, persist and get to graduation and feel like they came to a place where their wellbeing and their education came first.
“They chose us for a reason. Did we validate their decisions? Did we do everything we said we would do? The Latin word for university is alma mater, which literally means nourishing mother … the college experience gives birth to you as a whole new person, intellectually, socially, emotionally … in many ways it sets you on a path.”
Benson reiterated that students should know they can come to him with issues, saying that at previous universities, students would invite him to different campus events and he would regularly have lunches with different departments.
“I’m open to anything. We’re here for their benefit. We’re here because of students. That doesn’t mean we coddle them. We don’t pamper them. We don’t take the test for them, but put them in a position to be successful and make sure their experience is second to none.”
Dr. David DeCenzo has served as president of CCU since 2007.
Benson will be introduced at the next board meeting, and will be introducing his family to Teal Nation in the coming months.