President Michael T. Benson is primed to take CCU to the next level
Michael T. Benson, D.Phil., holds four higher education degrees, the last of which he earned in August 2021 at the age of 56. His curiosity has led him to study a variety of subjects: the history of World War I, the social history of medicine, the mind of Leonardo da Vinci, great books in great contexts, and the history of England from Beowulf to the Battle of Bosworth, to name just a few.
To say he loves to learn would be a vast understatement. He’s turned his thirst for knowledge into his life’s mission – to help others gain access to and earn their own higher education.
Benson’s trajectory to Coastal Carolina University, where he began his tenure as the institution’s third president on Jan. 1, 2021, can no doubt be linked to his family roots.
His grandfather, Ezra Taft Benson, was the oldest of 11 children. Raised on a dairy farm in Idaho, he was a first-generation college student. He attended Utah State University, Brigham Young University (BYU) in Utah, and Iowa State University. During his career, he would serve as the 15th U.S. Secretary of Agriculture during both presidential terms of Dwight D. Eisenhower and as the 13th president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) from 1985 until his death in 1994.
“There was in our family, what I like to call, a path of expectation put in place by my grandparents,” Benson said. “We were expected to come up with the funds, whether it was loans or scholarships, and do all we could to get as much education as possible.
“I have a tremendous amount of appreciation for students who come to Coastal Carolina University with aspirations and realize that education is an amazing tool. It’s the most amazing resource we have in the world. Horace Mann [an American educator and early advocate of public education] called education ‘the great equalizer.’ I’ve tried to emphasize throughout my entire career that access and affordability are paramount. I would not have been able to go to school had I not had scholarships. So, I hope I’m doing right by my family to have spent my entire career in public higher education and trying to provide access for others.”
Benson’s parents, Mark and Lela Benson, fell in love while undergraduates at BYU. His dad earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology, while his mom, a native of Raymond, Alberta, Canada, never finished college as she devoted her life to her family, faith, and music. With aspirations of becoming an educational administrator, Mark went on to earn a master’s degree in education from Stanford University in 1953. He became the first director of the BYU Adult Education Center in Ogden, Utah.
A gifted orator with a knack for marketing, Mark then followed his innate talents and became a salesman with Rena Ware Distributors. Soon after, he began a successful sales career with Saladmaster Corp. of Dallas, Texas. He would eventually become president of Castlewick Corp., a division of Saladmaster.
Michael Benson, the youngest of six children, was born on Feb. 28, 1965, in Salt Lake City, Utah. Six months later, the family relocated to Dallas, where his dad began working for Saladmaster. During a six-year span, Benson would find himself attending five different elementary schools as the family moved from Texas, to Utah, to Indiana, and back to Texas. The family finally moved back to Utah when he was a sophomore in high school.
“I got accustomed to being in different situations and getting to know people,” Benson said. “I really like people. I was raised in a family where there were high expectations. My mother would always quote George Washington Carver, ‘Start where you are, with what you have. Make something of it, and never be satisfied.’ That was the standard. They put an emphasis on academics. We were always self-motivated to try and keep up with each other.”
An active member of the Utah Music Teachers Association for 30 years, Lela was a talented piano teacher who emphasized to her children the importance of music, culture, and the arts.
“We didn’t have much growing up,” Benson said. “We never took trips to Disneyland or Disney World. We took occasional trips to Canada to visit my mom’s family. Whatever extra money we had was spent on music. We were all required to play an instrument, and it was mandatory to begin on the piano.”
Benson is a pianist and drummer. His brother, Steve, a Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist, plays the tuba. Benson touts his sister, Stephanie, as the family’s best pianist. Stacey is a violist; Meg is a cellist; and Mary is a flautist.
Mark and Lela’s family boasts 34 grandchildren and 38 great-grandchildren.
“When we get together as a family, there’s a lot of music, a lot of fun, and a lot of storytelling,” Benson said. “Family, faith, and friends are my greatest blessings.”
A Student of History
The artwork adorning President Benson’s office includes a photo of former President Dwight D. Eisenhower holding a meeting in the White House Cabinet Room as well as a portrait of former President Harry S. Truman. The cabinet meeting photo includes Benson’s grandfather, Ezra Taft Benson, who was the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture during all eight years of Eisenhower’s presidency.
To know Benson is to understand that he has a passion for history. But his curiosity about the past did not happen overnight. He graduated in the top 10 in his class at East High School in Salt Lake City. His sister, Meg, developed the class schedule for his first semester at BYU. It featured chemistry, biology, English, fitness, and American government. Following his first year in college, Benson took two years off to complete an LDS church mission in Italy.
Upon his return to BYU, he still was unsure about which academic field he wanted to pursue. He considered pre-med and took an anatomy class. But there was a slight problem.
“It’s not a good sign if you can’t remember all of the orifices in the cranium,” Benson quipped. “So, I changed to accounting, to economics, and eventually chose political science. I had a double minor in history and English.
“If I had to do it all over again, I would do English literature. I think it was probably in my junior or senior year that I thought history was what I really wanted to do. I tell students all the time, don’t fret about changing your major because college is about exploration.”
In 1989, Benson’s pursuit of knowledge led him to Israel for a six-month study abroad program. His plan for graduate studies was to study the religious background of U.S. presidents, ranging from Woodrow Wilson to Ronald Reagan, and how this influenced their attitudes toward the establishment of a Jewish state.
“When I broached that idea with my advisor, Noah Lucas, who was Scottish, he told me in a thick accent, ‘Mike, you will be in school your entire life. You have to focus on one president.’” So, he settled on Harry S. Truman, the 33rd president of the U.S.
During his research, Benson learned that Truman had tried his hand at several professions but failed as a clothing salesman, an oilman, and a cattle rancher. He then ventured into politics and eventually accepted the nomination to be President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s running mate during FDR’s fourth reelection bid. On April 12, 1945, just 82 days after he was sworn in as president, Roosevelt died. Truman then was thrust into the presidency.
Benson proudly wore the University Medallion that was presented to him by then-President David. A. DeCenzo, signifying a symbolic transition of University leadership at the December 2020 commencement ceremony.
Benson, who has several images of Truman hanging on his office walls in the Singleton Building, says one of the traits he admires most about Truman was his honesty.
“He knew what his strengths were; he knew what his weaknesses were,” Benson said. “One of my favorite stories is that when he found out that Roosevelt had died in Georgia, he walked into a room of reporters and said, ‘Boys, I don’t know if you ever pray, but if you do, please pray for me now. When I heard the news yesterday, I felt like the moon, the stars, all the planets had fallen on me.’ That was very sincere. You would not hear a president of the United States say that today. That was a real confession.”
Benson admits that he could talk for hours about Truman and debate the various decisions Truman made that, at the time, were considered very unpopular.
“Over the span of the last several decades, people have realized that whether it was dropping the atomic bombs on Japan, desegregating the military, the Berlin Airlift, the Korean War, the firing of General [Douglas] MacArthur, the recognition of the state of Israel, the establishment of NATO, the establishment of the United Nations, all of those decisions, to some degree, were very controversial. But people have recognized that he was a really gutsy guy, and he wasn’t afraid to make those decisions.
“I often look at my life and think, ‘The Buck Stops Here.’ What would Truman have done in a situation like this? He surrounded himself with people who were much more capable than he was that helped shore up his weak spots. I try to model a lot of my leadership methods and principles on him. And, he was a wonderful student of history.”
Benson also wrote his doctoral dissertation at Oxford University on the nation’s 33rd president, which was released as a book in 1997. It could be said that Benson’s esteem for Truman is unmatched, thanks to the cooperation of his wife, Debi, whom he married in 2006.
“When we had our first son, I said, ‘Debi, I have always wanted a son named Truman.’ She said, ‘If it means that much to you, let’s do it!’ His name is Truman Taft Benson. He has the best of both parties with that name. He is a constant, daily reminder of Harry Truman.”
Coastal Magazine recently caught up with Benson in his office in the Singleton Building.
What inspires you every day?
It’s my love of being on a college campus. I have had the opportunity to do other things, but I have always stayed in higher education because I love it. We work in an endeavor that, in my mind, is the one thing that can solve just about every problem we have. The more you invest in education, the more you dispel biases and predispositions and misconceptions, the better off we are going to be as a society.
My life has been immeasurably blessed by my family’s commitment to education, and getting as much of it as possible, and providing as many opportunities for others as possible. I want to allow other people to be just as blessed through education. I am pretty self-motivated, and that comes from our parents excepting a lot from us. We weren’t handed anything. My parents taught us that there is value in every kind of work. You name it, and I have done it. My first job was mowing lawns. I was a janitor throughout high school. I roofed houses, did construction. Umpired at Little League baseball games. I painted. There are so many people in our society who have different skill sets and abilities, and I really appreciate people who are good at what they do. And it doesn’t matter what you do. I was taught to value everyone’s role. You are not better than anyone else just because you wear a shirt and tie to work every day. I have enormous respect for everybody who works hard at Coastal.
Prior to your arrival at CCU, you served as the president at three other institutions. How did those positions prepare you for your role at the University?
Wherever I have worked, I have tried to have sincere and profound appreciation for people who make their career at that place. I will probably never be a graduate of Coastal, but it doesn’t mean I can’t come to love it just as much as everybody who went to school here or works here. I’ve always tried to come to appreciate the history of the place, the traditions, the people who come here, and the opportunities that it has provided them. And to work as hard as I possibly can to make particularly the alumni proud of their alma mater. I want to make sure that diploma on the wall has even more luster and the reputation of the institution gets kicked up a notch every single year. This is a really fine place with good programs. Every school has its niche. We all can’t be Harvard, nor do we need to be. We can all be really good at what we do. My job is to make this the best possible place it can be.
Michael T. Benson, a veteran of higher education administration, is the third president of Coastal Carolina University. He began his tenure on Jan. 1, 2021, and also holds the title of professor of history.
President, Eastern Kentucky University – 2013 to 2020
President, Southern Utah University – 2007 to 2013
President, Snow College – 2001 to 2006
Special Assistant to the President, University of Utah – 1999 to 2001
The Johns Hopkins University, M.L.A., liberal arts, 2021
University of Notre Dame, M.N.A., cum laude,
nonprofit administration, 2011
University of Oxford (St. Antony’s College), D.Phil.,
modern history, 1995
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem,
visiting graduate student, 1992-93
Brigham Young University, B.A., cum laude, political science,
English, and history, 1990
Gilman at Hopkins: The Birth of the Modern American
Research University (Johns Hopkins University Press)
President Benson and his wife, Debi, are the parents of three children: Truman, Tatum, and Talmage. He also has two older children from a previous marriage: Emma, a BYU graduate, is a TV anchor in Idaho Falls, Idaho; and Samuel, a junior majoring in sociology and Spanish at BYU.
An accomplished athlete, he played basketball at both BYU and Oxford.
His best marathon time – 2 hours and 41 minutes – won his age division in the St. George (Utah) Marathon, one of the largest marathons in the U.S. He also finished among the top 15% of all registered runners in the 1984 Boston Marathon.
What do you think is CCU’s greatest asset?
One of the University’s greatest assets that you can’t create or replicate is geography. We are in a really nice community in a beautiful setting in a part of the country where everybody wants to come. You can’t say that about a lot of places. If you look at the pluses, that is at the top of the queue. I really have come to appreciate how much people in our community love this place. In most states, the big schools, the flagship schools, the research schools get a lot of the attention. It’s no different here. I am not going to argue about our limitations or concern myself with what those other schools are doing. This is what we have in front of us, and this is what we are going to do. There are so many pluses. We are riding the crest of publicity through our athletic teams that have done well. We have a unique mascot; we have a unique color. We have a great history. And it is a young history. We are coming up on our 75th anniversary. There is so much runway ahead of us.
Where do you plan to take CCU in the coming years?
I have followed four presidents at four different universities. Every president, every person on campus has a role to fulfill. I am tremendously respectful of my predecessors and what they’ve done. I build on what they have put in place. I appreciate what Dave and Terri DeCenzo have done together for Coastal. My job is to make it immeasurably better.
I like to talk about the three Rs. The reach of our University, yes, this can apply to our academic programs, but I would also argue this applies to everything. What are we doing as an institution to be engaged, to offer the right mix of programs, whether it’s electronically, a hybrid, asynchronous, or face-to-face? The second is rigor – is there built-in rigor with the programs that we offer? College is supposed to be difficult. Are we not known as just a great place to go to school next to the beach? The party school reputation doesn’t do our students any favors in terms of getting a job. I am all for having a good time within reason. We are here to deliver an education to students. Send them out the door as graduates so they can make an impact and imprint on the world. Third is reputation. Once you invest in the reach and the rigor, reputation, I believe, will follow. I want students to say that I am going to CCU because it has this program, or that faculty member, and have you seen the campus? It’s safe, it’s navigable, and I am not just a number. I believe my job is to build on what is in place and continue to take it forward.
What message would you like to convey to the CCU alumni?
Thank you for what you do for the institution. In many ways, you are the living embodiment of what we are. I always try to thank our alumni, No. 1, for representing their school and doing it so well; and, No. 2, let them know that we want them to stay involved and connected. I always love going back to campus. The flood of memories that come back. You feel like in many ways you have come home. It’s where so many people come into adulthood and develop their sense of identity and their intellectual capacity, and their abilities as individuals. When the alumni come back, I want it to be everything they hope for. When they come back, I want them to say, ‘Wow, this place is looking even better and better.’ Many will say, ‘I wish we had this when I was here.’ And my response is that this is here today because you were here. You helped put the foundation in place upon which the program, the team, the college, the department continues to make its incremental increase in advancement. We are all a part of the collective effort that pushes the University forward. I would encourage alumni to come back, visit campus, and visit me in my office.
Team Benson: President Benson with his wife, Debi, and their three children (from left) Tatum, Truman, and Talmage.
What do you want your followers to know about @michaeltbenson?
I hope people see that I am genuine. What you see is what you get. Academics at times have a sense of self-importance, and that is not healthy. That is not me. My mother used to quote Proverbs 4:7: ‘Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore, get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding.’ We like to walk around in robes at graduation and call each other doctor and president and all that. Titles don’t mean anything to me. My most important titles are that I am a good son, brother, husband, and father. I am a person of faith, and we are here to do a job and do it well. I am no better than anyone else on campus. I believe that we have a really good opportunity before us to push Coastal to that proverbial next level.
Any closing comments?
I hope people recognize how important my family is to me, and having my kids as part of the Coastal Carolina University community. You will see my family at games, events, concerts, and lectures. I hope people see me as not just the president, but they see us as the first family. We are the Chanticleers!
President Benson, shown at the Teal Alley Mural in downtown Conway, is the University’s No. 1 cheerleader.
About the Cover
The magazine cover artwork was drawn by Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Steve Benson – the older brother of CCU President Michael T. Benson. He is the political cartoonist at the Arizona Mirror and previously worked for nearly four decades at the Arizona Republic.
His cartoons are nationally distributed by Creators Syndicate, and have also appeared in Time, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, as well as on CNN, MSNBC, ABC’s Nightline, CBS’s 60 Minutes, and PBS’s MacNeil-Lehrer Report.
Benson’s cartoons have also earned a National Headliner Award, an Overseas Press Club Citation for Excellence, a Rocky Mountain Emmy, a place in Who’s Who in the West, and several Best of the West and Arizona Press Club awards. He is a past president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists.
A native of Sacramento, Calif., Benson is a graduate of Brigham Young University, and the author of five books of his editorial cartoons.