Student, Scholar, President
CCU President Michael Benson’s multiple roles manifest his lifelong passion for history
On first glimpse, the office of CCU President Michael Benson seems to be a tastefully designed, dignified professional space. However, a slower walk around the room reveals a much more personalized homage to markers of multi-dimensional history – personal, institutional, presidential, philosophical, and national. The eclectic assortment is dizzying in its scope, with each treasured possession framed and displayed prominently.
- A photograph of U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhauer and his presidential cabinet, which included Benson’s grandfather, Ezra Taft Benson.
- A CCU flag, which was flown above the South Carolina statehouse in honor of CCU’s College World Series baseball championship.
- A signed photograph of Father Theodore Hesburgh (president of Notre Dame University 1952-1987) and Martin Luther King Jr., their arms locked in union.
- A photo of Benson and his teammates, including U.S. Senator Cory Booker, on the 1990 Oxford University basketball team.
- A portrait of John and Debra Vrooman, CCU professor emeritus of history and CCU professor emeritus of mathematics, respectively.
In Benson’s world, history is more than an academic discipline. It is a topic to be endlessly unpacked and explored, a current and living endeavor, an action verb, a lens through which to view our everyday life. The four academic books Benson has written – including Daniel Coit Gilman and the Birth of the American Research University, about the founder of Johns Hopkins University, which will be published in Fall 2022 – are a testament to his deep devotion to scholarship, yet they also reflect a lifelong commitment to discovery and learning (by the way, he has also earned four academic degrees: B.A. in political science from Brigham Young University, 1990; D. Phil. in modern history from the University of Oxford, 1995; M.N.A. in non-profit administration from the University of Notre Dame, 2011; and M.L.A. in Liberal Arts from Johns Hopkins University, 2021). This impulse directs his writing, his life’s perspective, and his leadership at CCU – especially as it relates to the humanities and fine arts.
“Often,” Benson said, “we get complacent, and we don’t stay curious. For me, staying curious is about a relentless pursuit of trying to find out more stuff about more things. If I understand how difficult it is in music to put together a symphony -- the chords and phrasing as I listen to Beethoven’s 7th -- and appreciate how on earth he put that together; or if I can look at a painting by Monet and think, ‘Look at the angle!’; or if I can look at a building and appreciate the physics and architecture and design that went into it; then the richer my life experience will be. So the more curious students are, regardless of what they’re curious about, their life is made immeasurably better by appreciating the human elements of everything around us.”
Ever since his inauguration as CCU’s third president on Dec. 14, 2021, Benson has also been an Edwards College faculty member. He has taught at least one academic course per semester his entire career, and this year is no exception. At CCU, Benson transformed his knowledge of Gilman’s impact on higher education into an upper-level history course: HIST 490, History of the American University.
“I’ve learned a lot about the history of the American university over the last two and a half years,” said Benson, “so I thought, ‘Why don’t I take a stab at that?”
Benson’s presence as a professor is lively, engaging, and full of fascinating, first-person stories. In a recent class, students presented research topics ranging from this history of the effects of Jim Crow in higher education, to the history of disability access in higher education, to the history of women in higher education. In response to each topic, Benson was able to provide a spontaneous, relevant example from his own scholarship or experience that enriched the student’s approach to the issue.
While he spends most of his time at the forefront of his presidency at CCU, in the classroom, Benson wants to be seen as just another professor.
“I don’t want [students] to think of me as the president of the university,” said Benson. “I want them to think of me as someone who’s spent a lifetime in public higher education, so I think I know a little bit about it, but I’m still learning, and I’m very passionate about it. I hope they come away with a greater appreciation for it – not only the higher education system, but the beauty and value of a place like Coastal.”