Winning His Way to Eastern Kentucky

Eastern Kentucky U.

Michael T. Benson
May 06, 2013

Nothing endears an incoming president to his staff like a history of high-return fund raising.

Nor are faculty members likely to object to a new leader's championing of shared governance.

Members of a presidential search committee at Eastern Kentucky University liked what Michael T. Benson said about those subjects, and so have appointed him to lead the institution, starting in August.

This marks the third time that Mr. Benson, 48, has won advancement on the strength of being seen as an accomplished, amiable, energetic leader with fund-raising skills. "We're all very excited that he is joining us," says Malcolm P. Frisbie, a member of the search committee and a professor of biological sciences. "He has a track record of leading two institutions in Utah that moved forward with everybody on board, which means he was truly leading, not ruling by fiat."

Mr. Benson, since 2006 president of Southern Utah University, landed his first college presidency in 2001, at Snow College, also in Utah. He was 36 years old then, and a classical-piano-playing, much-traveled, University of Oxford-educated, marathon-running, low-handicap golfer.

For Utahans, his pedigree was even more impressive: His paternal grandfather was Ezra Taft Benson, who was president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the 1980s and 90s after serving in the 1950s as U.S. secretary of agriculture, in the Eisenhower administration.

Michael Benson earned a bachelor's degree in political science at Brigham Young University. He worked as a junior staff member for Sen. Orrin Hatch in Washington, and went to the University of Oxford for a doctorate in Middle Eastern studies. His book, Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel, appeared in 1997. In his mid-40s he went to the University of Notre Dame for a master's degree in nonprofit administration—to fill "a void in my training," he says.

But he attributes his success in college administration in part to such experiences as the church mission he completed in Italy, and the many months he spent as a young man in Jerusalem. Those, he says, helped him to hone his skills at interacting with many varieties of people. "Fund raising," he says, "is nothing more than building relationships—sharing objectives and desires with those of the donor. I really enjoy that, sowing the vision of a project."

At Southern Utah, he has led a campaign to raise $30-million for an arts center, a goal that is close to achievement. He has also directed a $100-million comprehensive campaign, and it, too, is nearing its goal, thanks to Mr. Benson's securing the university's largest-ever donations, for a Shakespeare theater and for science-and-engineering programs.

During his five years at Snow, a two-year college in tiny Ephraim, Utah, Mr. Benson raised more money than the college had in its previous 117 years. His enterprise led to such accomplishments as the purchase or donation of 32 Steinway pianos, at $90,000 each. He secured a performing-arts-center project by raising $2-million from two families in one month. He ran a marathon to raise $50,000 for the athletics program, including the replacement of a stadium scoreboard destroyed by lightning.

Among his successes in lobbying Utah's Legislature was to gain support in 2009 to expand classroom and laboratory space in the sciences. That, too, appealed to his search-committee colleagues, says Mr. Frisbie.

Mr. Benson comes to Eastern Kentucky with his wife, Debi, and their three young children, planning to help the university by stepping up its "relatively modest campaigns," he says. "That means there's a lot of untapped potential. I'm ready to go, to do a lot in terms of donor research" to increase the endowment, which is approaching $50-million.

Are Mr. Benson's skills transferable to Eastern Kentucky, far from his longtime connections? He believes he can quickly forge alliances: "There are certain skills I hope I've developed during almost 13 years as a president. And I have a passion for public higher education, where I've spent my entire career.

"We were really happy in Utah," he says, "but when I was approached" by an executive-search company about going to Eastern Kentucky, in Richmond, "it sounded like a really intriguing opportunity at this point in my career."


Correction, 5/15/2013, 8:27 a.m.: This article has been updated to correct an error in the endowment at Eastern Kentucky University. It is approaching $50-million, not $500-million.