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September 8, 2015
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One-on-One: EKU president Michael Benson

Benson finds endless inspiration in advocating the panacea to all public ills

By Mark Green

Dr. Michael T. Benson is the 12th president of Eastern Kentucky University, a position he assumed in August 2013.  Prior to coming to EKU, Benson was president of Southern Utah University, where he directed the development and implementation a $100 million comprehensive campaign. Born in Salt Lake City and raised in Texas, Benson earned his bachelor’s degree from Brigham Young University with a major in political science and a double minor in English and history. He received his master’s degree in nonprofit administration from the University of Notre Dame and completed his doctorate in modern Middle Eastern history from the University of Oxford (St. Antony’s College). He is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post as a featured blogger on higher-education issues and his book, “Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel” has been hailed as a landmark work in the area of American foreign policy and the U.S. presidency.

Dr. Michael T. Benson is the 12th president of Eastern Kentucky University, a position he assumed in August 2013. Prior to coming to EKU, Benson was president of Southern Utah University, where he directed the development and implementation a $100 million comprehensive campaign. Born in Salt Lake City and raised in Texas, Benson earned his bachelor’s degree from Brigham Young University with a major in political science and a double minor in English and history. He received his master’s degree in nonprofit administration from the University of Notre Dame and completed his doctorate in modern Middle Eastern history from the University of Oxford (St. Antony’s College). He is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post as a featured blogger on higher-education issues and his book, “Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel” has been hailed as a landmark work in the area of American foreign policy and the U.S. presidency.

Mark Green: EKU’s enrollment in 2010 was 16,567, which is close to present numbers. Your strategic plan elements include recruiting more students and enhancing their success. Is there a student body growth goal, and how does that fit into the overall strategy?

Michael Benson: I’ve been president of three institutions, and every school grapples with this question: What is our ultimate sweet spot? You don’t just chase growth for growth’s sake. It’s one thing to get students through the door and quite another thing to retain and graduate them, our ultimate goal. We need to make sure we have the infrastructure in place, whether it’s housing, food service options, the degree programs and the proper faculty-to-student ratio. EKU is not a Tier 1 research institution, so the faculty come here primarily to teach. We really believe in our small class size. We use a very high proportion of full-time faculty to teach – teaching within a setting that is very manageable.

MG: How does a regional comprehensive university like EKU fit into the state’s workforce development strategy?

MB: We try to be finely and highly attuned to the state’s needs. We for a long time have produced a great percentage of the teachers through our teacher education program. Among 108 degree programs, our most highly sought-after are our occupational therapy and nursing programs. We just started offering another doctorate; we now have four clinical doctoral programs. We now have a Psy.D., which is a psychology doctorate for a clinical practitioner. We have programs that the workforce demands.

I just came back from Ashland where we signed another Two Plus Two agreement for our aviation program. A student can go to the local community college, technical college, and get those two years of general coursework done, and then we bring our aviation program to them. That has proven to be hugely popular and very sought after.

MG: Does EKU have satellite campuses? How much of the overall class catalog do those students have access to? 

MB: We have two very handsome stand-alone structures in Corbin and Manchester for which the state legislature appropriated building funds. We then have operations in different leased spaces in Somerset, Danville and Lancaster. While we try to be as broad as we can in our offerings, access to everything is certainly not possible on a scale where you may not have the student demand.

A high-school student can come to one of our satellite locations and take a dual-credit class during his or her junior or senior year. We try to be attuned to what the needs are and address them.

MG: EKU has about 3,000 online students. What is EKU’s approach to online or “distance” learning?

MB: They can be anywhere. We have people from overseas. That’s the beauty of online: You can be literally around the globe and still dial in and get into the courses that you want to take. Some programs we’ve put wholly online and some are hybrids, a combination of face-to-face and online. A number of our 2,400 graduate students – that’s a high number – are through our online programs. Sometimes I’ll meet a student at graduation and they’ll tell me, “This is my first time on campus.”

Our bread and butter is the face-to-face, undergraduate teaching with a full-time professor in a small classroom. We try to be responsive, and online is a very popular, very sought-after mode of delivery these days.

MG: Describe EKU’s role in the Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) initiative to diversify the economy and increase economic opportunity, especially via homegrown entrepreneurship regionally.

MB: Two of our satellite campuses are hubs for what SOAR is trying to do as well as pushing broadband access out to Eastern Kentucky. We’ve offered several students and faculty to help support the work of the various committees that have spun out of SOAR. I’ve been part of the conversation from day one. I was invited by the governor to be on the larger panel discussion that we had. The first one was in Hazard. Then we went out to Pikeville for the statewide one. Our service region flows directly into the SOAR area. We’re very keen on helping as best we can on issues like this but also helping residents of the area get access to educational opportunities.

MG: EKU’s board of trustees approved demolition of Dupree, Martin and Todd residence halls, which have nearly 1,100 total beds, and the 700/800 blocks of Brockton Family Housing, with new residence halls to be built. Do 50-plus-year-old residence halls no longer well serve today’s student? 

MB: Fifty years ago, to accommodate the huge influx of students, campuses were forced to make decisions based on limited property, limited space. The trend was to go vertically and to build high-rises; you’ll find them at UK, at Western Kentucky University, here, at Morehead State. You have dorm rooms off a long corridor with showers and bathrooms at the end of the hallway. That’s not what students like anymore, so we’ve got to be responsive. What we’re seeing more is lower-slung buildings with more communal space, maybe a shared kitchen and on each floor a place students can congregate. They call them “living and learning communities” because you can learn as much from your classmates and in the social interaction and the skills one develops in interfacing with people who are different as one can learn in the classroom. We are trying to remake and recalibrate our housing offerings and be responsive to what students want today.

MG: Many public universities in the state are undertaking campus housing projects without tax dollars via public-private partnerships. How is EKU planning to finance its campus housing? 

MB: We were approved during the legislative session for $75 million worth of public-private partnerships. Our plan is to do three $25 million pods of housing that will replace these 50-year-old residence halls. Our first new residence hall in 40 years opened last year – and it’s the only LEED Gold-certified residence hall in Kentucky. The demand for that hall is off the charts because students like that it only has three or four stories. It has a big common kitchen on each floor; there are more spaces to get together and congregate and interact. That’s the model we’re after.

We begin construction on the first one, to replace Martin Hall, in January. The schedule has this going through 2018, 2019. So this is a good four- to five-year process where we will build, take down, build, take down, and try to stagger it as best we can to make it as little of an inconvenience for students as possible.

MG: A larger plan for a $215 million Center for Student Life includes a new rec center, renovated student union, new dining facilities and residence halls and other improvements. Financing would come from public-private partnerships, private support, university funds and a recently enacted student fee. Is this on track?

MB: It is. The student fee that kicked in this year addresses two projects. One is a new rec center, because our current rec center is nice but way too small. And number two is a renovated Powell Building, which was built in the ’60s and has not had a lot done to it since then. The students supported that fee. We hope to get approvals from the legislature in January to begin construction on the first phases in early summer of next year. The $215 million includes all the things you mentioned. It includes a new dining facility; we intend to leverage our relationships with our food vendor like what they did at UK with Aramark. Private donors have stepped forward to help fund, for example, the new pedestrian gate at the intersection of Lancaster Avenue and Barnes Mill Road. A private donation helped with our renovation of Roy Kidd Stadium, which we’re undertaking now.

Again, this is a four- to five-year process. When it’s all done you’ll see a reinvigoration of the center of our campus and a building boom that hasn’t been seen since when Robert R. Martin was president for 16 years, and our square footage went up almost fivefold. It’s time to replace some of that infrastructure that’s 50 and 60 years old. Students today are very sophisticated; they know what they want.

MG: The EKU budget approved by the board of trustees for 2015-16 is $348 million, up about 2 percent from the 2014-15 budget of $342 million. Please give us some perspective. 

MB: For a school our size, it’s probably close to the mean. We’ve had to be creative. Before I got here, the board and the administrative team took parts of our budget and reallocated them. That allowed us to do some things with regard to salary increases and positions and really acute-need areas. We’re trying our best to be good stewards of what the state gives us. I tell our folks all the time, you are supported by the taxpayers of the state of Kentucky, and you have an obligation to them to do your best work. We take that stewardship very seriously.

The unfortunate thing in higher education is, states all over are having increased demands and encumbrances on their budgets as it relates to Medicare, Medicaid, social services, health services, and roads and prisons. We’ve had to rely less on state support and instead put it in the form of a consumption tax on our students. Tuition is a targeted tax. You target a consumer, that’s true, but everyone knows that we benefit as a state from an educated populace. The more our citizenry has postsecondary credentials, whether that’s a certificate or a degree or so forth, the less reliant those people are on services that the state renders. They’re less inclined to go to prison. They’re less inclined to get in trouble. They’re more inclined to have better health, to volunteer. There are all these collateral benefits. What we’ve chosen to do, however, is tax that group of people that choose to go to college. Tuition has gone up in recent years because state support has dwindled. We all benefit from an educated populace, and if we want the state to be on a sound financial footing, now and in the future, we’re going to invest in the greatest asset we have, which is human capital.

MG: What are the university’s overall budget revenue sources? What are the major spending categories in the budget? 

MB: About 85 percent of our budget is tied to personnel, so it’s salaries and benefits. About 35 percent of our budget comes from the state; 65 percent comes from tuition and other sources. So we’re very reliant on that consumption tax I talked about. But we’re in the business of people, and we have full-time faculty and staff that need to be compensated at a level commensurate with their abilities and their experience. It’s an ongoing challenge to make sure we have the resources to pay our folks.

MG: What is the role of today’s university president in fundraising?

MB: I’ve been doing fundraising since I started in higher ed; that was my first job. I really quite like it. Some people don’t. Fundraising is sales, and if you’re selling a commodity that you believe in, there’s nothing that’s more gratifying than being able to pair a need with the desire of a donor. When those two intersect, it’s incredibly satisfying and very, very rewarding. I love education; education is the portal to a better life, and to be able to sell that, and to paint a vision of what education means to a young person who may not have access to it except for a scholarship, for example, is terribly exciting. It’s one of my favorite parts of my job to sit down with a donor and say, “All right, Donor X, this is our need. We know that you have the wherewithal to support this. Do you believe in what we’re doing, and will you help us?” The most compelling stories with donors come from students. The story of someone who came from a disadvantaged background, who was maybe the first one in his or her family to go to college, and changed forever the trajectory of his life or her life and those to follow. If you’re not inspired by that, then you’re in the wrong profession. That’s what I love about it. I really do.

MG: You have academic administrative experience in multiple states. How do you assess and rate Kentucky state government’s handling of its public university system?

MB: Well, first off, there are eight of us (university presidents) at the public level. We include KCTCS. We’re in the higher education business. The greatest investment a state can make is in its human capital, investing in people’s skills and developing their aptitude and increasing their knowledge. That’s just the most important thing any state economy can focus on. Would I have liked to have seen more support in the last session? Absolutely, in terms of our ongoing budget. But I’ve never, in my two decades plus, seen a legislature say, “We’re going to make a $540 million investment in capital projects across the system.” That’s just unheard of. Our good fortune was a $66.5 million Phase 2 of a science building. And everybody got their top project. That bodes very well; I think that speaks to the support that higher ed has in the General Assembly. We’ve certainly felt that from the governor’s office. We’ve felt it from our local officials. An investment in education is going to make us less reliant on all those other things that the state has to fund – the prison system, or health and human services, or any of those other things. We’re the only thing that is a panacea to all those ills. Nobody else can say that. And that’s why I love doing what I’m doing.

MG: What actions do you encourage the private sector to take to support educational attainment in the state?

MB: If the private sector is interested in hiring the very best workforce, invest in that workforce in the form of both K-12 education and particularly public higher education. Kentucky has a breadth of institutions that I have never seen before. Berea College here in Madison County is one of the most remarkable institutions in America. And Centre, Transylvania, and Morehead State and UK. Somebody told me that within a 60-mile radius we have 16 public and private institutions. That’s just remarkable. It has an impact on every community and the workforce. The private sector recognizes that if they want to hire the very, very best people, they can support educational attainment in the form of scholarships and private support and encouraging their employees with tuition programs. That’s one of the best investments the private sector can make.

MG: Do you have any closing comments, or is there an area we haven’t discussed that you’d like to address?

MB: I’m in the process of writing a book right now that we’re hoping to get out next year on kind of the democratic underpinnings of our democratic republic, and this tie to educational attainment and commitment that started all the way from George Washington – who, by the way, did not graduate college, but he was in support of a national university – all the way through Harry Truman, who was the only president in the last century, and my hero, who didn’t graduate from college but was a huge supporter of the G.I. Bill and access for all American citizens. If I can use the bully pulpit as president of a public university in a place like Kentucky, along with my colleagues, and say, “The best investment we can make as a state is in public higher education,” then at the end of the day I’ll be happy with what we’ve been able to accomplish.

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One-on-One: EKU president Michael Benson
Benson finds endless inspiration in advocating the panacea to all public ills

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Exploring Kentucky

Fast Lane

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On the Boards

One on One

Passing Lane

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