President Michael T. Benson
Dr. Michael Taft Benson became the 13th President of Eastern Kentucky University on August 1, 2013.
A Transformative Leader
Dr. Benson’s presidency has been marked by the University’s highest enrollment in decades, record levels of private support for each of the past three years, much improved retention and graduation rates, the best academically prepared freshman classes in the institution’s history, and an ambitious campus revitalization initiative that is transforming the way students live and learn at the University.
While preserving EKU’s strengths – high-quality programs and faculty, an unwavering commitment to student success and a friendly, welcoming atmosphere – Dr. Benson recognized early in his presidency a campus that was beginning to show signs of wear and tear, with several facilities needing expensive upgrades and retrofits just to maintain their viability and usefulness. As state appropriations continued to decline, the Benson Administration began to pursue creative public-private partnerships to reshape the campus and make it more appealing to today’s students. During his tenure, the University has opened the doors to three new residence halls, a Scholar House for single parents pursuing higher education, a new stand-alone dining hall and the University’s first parking garage, and numerous enhancements to athletics facilities. Under his leadership, the Student Senate approved a student fee to finance a new recreation center and renovations to the student union. Also, the second phase of a state-of-the-art Science Building opened, giving EKU the largest such facility on a college campus in Kentucky, and the University added a Student Success Center, a pedestrian overpass across a busy adjacent thoroughfare and a nearby garden designed by noted landscape designer Jon Carloftis.
At the same time, the University made great advances in sustainability, hiring a full-time sustainability manager, earning LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold honors for two of its residence halls in the last four years and achieving a Bronze STARS rating from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, the first such honor for the institution.
More than concrete and steel and all the aesthetic improvements, his oft-repeated mantra, “Make No Little Plans,” borrowed from famed architect Daniel Burnham, has infused the campus with an infectious can-do spirit.
His Past Was Prologue
No one familiar with Dr. Benson’s prior presidencies at Snow College (2001-06) and then Southern Utah University (2006-13) should be surprised that he has found similar success at EKU.
The youngest college president in the history of the Utah System of Higher Education when he was appointed at age 36, Dr. Benson helped Snow College raise more private money during his tenure than had been secured in the previous 115 years of the college’s history combined.
At Southern Utah, Dr. Benson helped secure the designation for SUU as the state’s public liberal arts university, established the Hispanic Center for Academic Excellence, led the University’s entry into the Big Sky Conference for all athletic teams, completed new residence halls, a teacher education facility and science and engineering center, and directed the development and implementation of the institution’s most ambitious comprehensive fund-raising effort. Central to the campaign was an effort organized and launched by Dr. Benson that helped raise $38 million for the Beverley Taylor Sorenson Center for the Arts. The Center opened to much fanfare in June 2016.
A Visionary President
Dr. Benson’s passion for higher education, especially the value of the liberal arts and study-abroad opportunities, is deeply rooted in his own life experiences. The Utah native who grew up in Texas earned his B.A. cum laude from Brigham Young University in 1990 with a major in political science and double minor in English and history. In 1995, he completed his doctorate in Middle Eastern history from the University of Oxford (St. Antony’s College), where he was a Rotary Foundation Scholar and recipient of the Oxford Graduate Overseas Fellowship. He also earned a master’s degree cum laude in non-profit administration in 2011 from the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame, where he was the recipient of the prestigious Father Theodore Hesburgh Founder’s Award. Currently, Benson is pursuing a Master of Liberal Arts (MLA) at Johns Hopkins University and is on schedule to graduate in May 2021.
Dr. Benson has worked and studied abroad for seven years in Italy (he is fluent in spoken and written Italian), England and Israel. Michael was a regular contributor to the Huffington Post as a featured voice on higher education and other issues for six years and his articles have appeared in various publications including the Jerusalem Post, the Kansas City Star, the Louisville Courier Journal, the Lexington Herald-Leader and Inside Higher Ed. His book, Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel (Praeger 1997), has been hailed as a landmark work in the research of American foreign policy and the U.S. presidency.
He and his co-author, Hal R. Boyd, recently completed College for the Commonwealth: A Case for Higher Education in American Democracy (University Press of Kentucky 2018). Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and former Rhodes Professor of American history at the University of Oxford, Daniel Walker Howe, wrote this about College for the Commonwealth: “Benson and Boyd present a convincing case for why higher education needs and deserves public support. From practical examples they demonstrate how investment in higher education enables a society to rise to the opportunities presented by the future.”
Michael’s next book, “Every Epoch Requires a Fresh Start”: Daniel Coit Gilman and the Birth of the Modern American Research University, is currently under contract with Johns Hopkins University Press.
A Servant Leader
Dr. Benson is highly regarded in the national higher education community and beyond through his service on various boards and commissions. That service has included:
- Consulting historian and essayist for the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles and the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library in Independence, Missouri.
- An appointment to the Utah Appellate Court Nominating Commission in 2009 as one of just two citizen members.
- A two-year term on the Board of Advisors for the Center for Policy Analysis of the American Council on Education.
- Membership on the Council of the Presidents of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.
- A seat on the Presidents’ Trust for the Association of American Colleges and Universities.
- An appointment to the Task Force on University Partnerships of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.
- Chairing the nine-person NCAA Honors Committee, the group charged with awarding the NCAA’s highest recognitions each year.
- Past chair of the Presidents’ Council for the Ohio Valley Conference and leadership roles with both the Summit League and the Big Sky Conference.
- One of three higher education representatives on the Kentucky Rising Committee.
- Co-chair of the Higher Education Consortium for Bluegrass Tomorrow, serving presently as the convener of all the presidents of Kentucky’s public universities.
- Membership on the regional boards of Wells Fargo Bank and Zions Bank.
- The Rotary Club, with which he is a Paul Harris Fellow.
- Various other volunteer, civic and church activities.
A Personal Touch
This former college athlete and competitive marathon runner is also an Eagle Scout and classically trained pianist, which explains why he is comfortable in most any setting or situation.
It is not uncommon to see Dr. Benson mingling with faculty, staff and students in formal and informal settings alike. He stays in close touch with students through his adept use of social media, especially Twitter, where he has more than 12,000 followers. His interest in students’ welfare and his responsiveness to their concerns is legendary. When one student wondered on Twitter if he could make it out of his snow-covered driveway to make it to class, Dr. Benson drove approximately 10 miles to shovel the student’s driveway himself. That selfless act of service gained national notoriety for both the president and the University.
He has also been known to play the piano at campus events and make it a part of his holiday e-greeting. The youngest son of a piano teacher, Dr. Benson holds the distinction of being the only university or college president who has made two institutions All Steinway schools by helping both Snow College and Southern Utah University raise the private funds required to purchase all new instruments for their respective schools of music.
The desire to maintain close contact with students is also behind Dr. Benson’s endeavoring to teach within his home department of Government, where he holds the rank of professor.
A Family Man
Dr. Benson can often be seen at campus academic and athletic events with his entire family at his side: wife Debi and their three children, Truman, Tatum and Talmage, all students at Model Laboratory School on the EKU campus. He occasionally peppers his fall convocation addresses with photo slides of their summer travels. He also has two grown children, Emma and Samuel.