President Mike Benson brings his high-profile vision to Coastal Carolina University
If you’re looking for the third president of Coastal Carolina University (CCU), chances are, you won’t find him where you’d think he’d be.
You won’t find him in his office in the Singleton building on the CCU campus. More likely, you’ll find him handing out donuts to students on the Prince lawn. Or sitting in the Edwards auditorium, listening to a piano lesson. Or talking to a faculty member. Or speaking to local high school students. Or meeting with the Rotary club.
Michael T. Benson, CCU’s new president as of January 2, 2021, promises to be many things to many people; he checks boxes as a scholar, a musician, an athlete, a historian and a world traveler. But first and foremost, as he embarks on this journey, he’ll be available.
“In my first 100 days, I’ll be visible in Kiwanis and Rotary and Lion’s clubs; I’ve made it a priority to visit feeder high schools,” says Benson. “I have some ideas of what I’d like to tackle right out of the gate, but, mostly, I want people to know that I’m accessible, that what you see is what you get.”
This energy and enthusiasm for people is both central to Benson’s identity and a key ingredient to his success as a presidential leader in higher education. Benson brings to CCU 17 years of experience as university president at three different institutions: Eastern Kentucky University (EKU, 2013–2020); Southern Utah University (2007–2013); and Snow College in Ephraim, Utah (2001–2006). In each of these roles, Benson has delivered transformative accomplishments in fundraising, campus infrastructure, resource development and program building. Most notably, his achievements are rooted in relationships.
“Mike is unique in his ability to really connect with students, with people, with faculty,” says Chase Palmer, who was a student at Snow College under Benson’s leadership, went on to work with him at Southern Utah University, and is now regional director of development at Stanford Graduate School of Business. “I’ve seen him have some intense conversations with faculty members, but he can deflate it and make it so that it’s about them. Students have concerns? The door’s open. Come talk to me about it. As the president of an institution, you just don’t see that very often.”
As the youngest of six children and grandson of the late president of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints, Ezra Taft Benson, Michael Benson’s career is rich in academic study, travel, leadership and family. An avid basketball player and skilled pianist in his early years, Benson earned his BA in political science with double minors in English and history at Brigham Young University. He worked and studied abroad for seven years in Italy, England and Israel, which included a doctorate in modern history from the University of Oxford in 1995—where he also played on the basketball team—and publication of Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel in 1997. At age 36, in 2001, he became the president of Snow College, making him the youngest institutional president in the history of Utah’s higher education system—but his education wasn’t over yet. He earned a master’s degree in non-profit administration from the University of Notre Dame in 2011 and is currently finishing a master’s degree in liberal arts at Johns Hopkins University (to be awarded in fall 2021), where he was a visiting professor in the Department of History of Science and Technology in 2020. He spent the better part of 2020 holed up in the EKU library researching and writing a book, forthcoming in early 2021, titled Gilman at Hopkins: The Birth of the Modern American Research University.
“About every ten years I think it’s time to go back to school,” says Benson. “I’ve always been curious. Walt Whitman said, ‘Be curious, not judgmental.’ I’ve tried to follow that my whole life.”
Benson’s perspective on education stretches backward and forward, rooted in family life and extending into his plans for CCU.
“My grandfather was the first in his family, the youngest of 11, to go to college,” says Benson. “That changed forever the trajectory of his life and those of all the kids and grandchildren that followed.”
At EKU, Benson established a tradition of honoring first-generation students at graduation, a point of emphasis he plans to forward at CCU.
“It’s an emotional moment, because families are there, those who have made sacrifices to allow that child to go to college,” Benson says. “You can see the pride they have in that accomplishment and the fact that that life has been changed, but you also think about the collateral impact that will follow.”
Benson’s experience also extends to two-year institutions, such as Snow College, and he plans to strengthen the ties between CCU and neighboring Horry-Georgetown Technical College.
“I’m a big believer that there are points of entry for students across a broad spectrum, and the role of a technical college is really significant,” says Benson. “It’s part of the ecosystem of higher education in America, so I look forward to partnering with our friends at Horry-Georgetown and making sure the pathway, the interface between our campuses, is seamless for students.”
Jon McNaughtan, a former student and mentee of Benson’s and later employee at Southern Utah University, said Benson’s philosophy guides his work.
“I know few people that believe in the underlying altruistic vision of higher education as much as Mike Benson,” says McNaughtan. “He truly believes it’s a place that can be the great equalizer, a place you can come to improve your standing in life and your knowledge of the world. He lives that.”
Benson moved to Horry County in late 2020, while his family—wife, Debi, and three children: Truman, 13; Tatum, 12; and Talmage, 10—will follow in early summer 2021. Benson also has two children from a previous marriage, both at Brigham Young University: Emma is a senior and Samuel, a sophomore. With the Benson family comes enthusiasm for the Chanticleer and an immediate immersion in Horry County life.
“I love the Chanticleer. How many mascots in America were developed by an English professor and draw from Geoffrey Chaucer?” Benson quips.
Mary Richards, Benson’s older sister, confirms his ardor for the chicken.
“We’ve all learned how to pronounce [Chanticleer]—he sent us the little video, so we’ve all been educated,” says Richards. “His whole family is prepped and ready with CCU gear.”
And, clearly, the Bensons are prepared for traditional Southern hospitality.
“They’re going to be all in,” says Palmer. “Be ready to enjoy and invite, because they will come. His whole family will show up on your front doorstep for a barbecue if you invite them.”
Final advice for CCU from a longtime Benson friend?
“I would just say, buckle up,” says McNaughtan. “He’s going to take you places. You’re going to move. Your programs will move forward. Facilities will move forward. So, buckle up, because there’s a ride coming your way.”