Reflections from Isolation

Message - President BensonOffice of the President

Message from President Michael T. Benson 

Reflections from Isolation

January 26, 2021

Dear Faculty and Staff Colleagues,

After testing positive for COVID-19, my last few days in isolation have allowed me to do a great deal of reading and writing – in between the ever-present ZOOM sessions. This weekend, I completed our campus reading project book, The Empowered University by Freeman Hrabowski (president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County), and enjoyed it tremendously.

I encourage all of you to dive into the book and participate in our virtual conversations during the course of the semester. Thanks to Dean Sara Hottinger for leading out with this effort. Access to the book is at the link below:

So, in the midst of isolation and with the Hrabowski work as a reference, I’ve jotted down 10 thoughts/impressions/observations, in no particular order. I wanted to share these with you as we continue with the COVID-revised First 100 Days.

First, just like UMBC in the early days of Hrabowski’s tenure, Coastal Carolina University needs to be “unapologetically aspirational” as we forge a path forward. I believe this needs to be our institutional North Star.

Launching the open-door policy of our office in the Singleton Building has resulted in many people stopping in and sharing their perspectives. A recent exchange with a group of students in my office during my first week on campus will better illustrate what I believe we must do.

After our visit, one of the students followed up with a thoughtful and well-constructed email. Included in the message were points of pride and areas of commendation. But more importantly, this student shared with me what areas she felt needed attention. In doing so, she described her genuine concern about the University’s reputation as a “party school.”

As is often said, perception is reality and the view some have of Coastal being less-than-on-par with other South Carolina institutions is their reality. If we are going to stake a claim in every single county of our home state as a fertile recruiting ground for students, we have to step up and ask more of ourselves as an institution. It will take all of us.

Our commitment to being unapologetically aspirational will require that we refuse to be ordinary or average. As John Wooden said, “Being average means you are as close to the bottom as you are to the top.” The things we are required to do and that we choose to do we will do exceptionally well. This commitment to being excellent and aspirational will be front and center in our forthcoming strategic planning process and will require resources in targeted areas.

Second, many I have met with have come with proposals and requests. All are valid and certainly worth considering. However, no decision for me in my role as president will be viewed through anything but the student spectrum. Full stop. We exist as an institution for our students. My friend and colleague, Gordon Gee, President of West Virginia University, once told me that at the core of any university’s problems is the view that the institution owes the administration or faculty or staff anything. We are fortunate to work at Coastal Carolina University and to be colleagues and partners in the greatest of human endeavors: the discovery, development, dissemination, and application of knowledge for the betterment of society. I count myself incredibly lucky to work at a university.

Third, in your capacity as faculty and staff as you serve our students, my primary role is to support you. Just like none of us is here without students, I am not president of Coastal without an uncompromising commitment to you as we work toward the unitary goal of helping our students succeed. Further, a primary task of mine will be to get you the resources to do your job as best you can. Compensating faculty and staff at levels that are commensurate with peers will be another top priority for this administration.

Fourth, in keeping with number three, we are all valued members of the Chanticleer family. I have no patience for any sort of faculty-staff divide nor will I countenance any effort, intentional or otherwise, that tries to make others feel less important or wanted than others.

My title of president is just that: a title. I am a Coastal employee just like you and no better or worse than anyone else.

In that spirit, we will strive to cultivate an inclusive environment throughout this campus that embraces a diverse tapestry of opinions, orientations, beliefs, backgrounds, and experiences. All are welcomed and valued at Coastal.

I recall from my own background a favorite scriptural passage my parents frequently shared with their six children: “That there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another. And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it.”

Fifth, in keeping with the theme of being blessed to work at Coastal, I am amazed at how beautiful and well-kept our campus is. I have studied and worked at some very old and tradition-rich institutions (and visited countless others), and the advantage we have at Coastal is that we do not have any of the deferred maintenance issues so many other institutions face. As a consequence, we have (by means of the penny sales tax) been able to stay current with our facility needs at a remarkable pace. I thank each and every member of our facilities, grounds, custodial, and maintenance teams who help keep our work environment in such excellent condition.

Our next project is the Library Learning Complex and Kimbel Library renovation, with the expansion of the Lib Jackson Student Union in the queue as well. But I would love to think big about a project that will transform our campus and greater community for generations: a Center for the Performing Arts. More details and discussion will be forthcoming but I want to state clearly that this is a top priority.

Sixth, speaking of priorities, the importance of developing our strategic plan and the process that will enable us to develop a comprehensive plan moving forward cannot be overstated. We need all who desire to be involved to participate. Part and parcel of developing an effective plan will be to incorporate our unique culture (understanding what that is and what changes to that culture might be required are vitally important) as an integral component to that plan. More details will be forthcoming, but I anticipate a full-blown strategic planning process launching in the early fall.

Seventh, anytime there is a new president, a feeling of uncertainty and unknowing comes also. This is my fourth time taking on presidential responsibilities at a new institution. I want you ALL to know this: I will take my time to make informed decisions as we move forward, both with structure and personnel. It is not in my nature to make changes just to make changes. The change option must be verifiably better than the current situation. To borrow my mother’s oft-quoted axiom, “Bloom where you’re planted.” Continue to do your job as best you can. I appreciate all you do and value the contributions you make to the University.

Please know, however, that one phrase I cannot stand nor will I abide is this: “We can’t do that. We’ve never done it that way before.” I certainly don’t come into this position with all the answers. And while I am respectful of the past, I am not so wedded to tradition that other, more forward-thinking options cannot be tried.

Eighth, speaking of staffing and priorities, one of my top tasks is to rebuild our alumni and donor engagement operation. Whether it is called institutional advancement or something else, securing non-state funding (be it in the form of donor support, sponsored research and overhead, or auxiliary revenue) will provide the margin of excellence we need to push Coastal Carolina University ahead. Distinguishing ourselves from our peers and competition will result in increased support from those who recognize our niche.

Ninth, Dr. Hrabowski begins his book with recounting his school’s unpredictable and improbable run in the 2018 NCAA basketball tournament. Never—EVER—had a 16 seed (the Terriers of UMBC) defeated a 1 seed (University of Virginia Cavaliers). All the academic accomplishments from his twenty-plus years of work as president were catapulted forward by the attention brought to his campus by the basketball team on a Friday night in March.

Having spent many years in the West, I had a front-row seat to witness what Boise State University has accomplished academically, institutionally, and athletically. I believe we can model many things they did by striving to become the Boise State of the East. The similarities between Boise State and Coastal Carolina are striking indeed: both were founded as junior colleges (Boise in 1930s, Coastal in the 1950s) and both played FCS football before moving into the FBS ranks (Boise transitioned in 1997, Coastal in 2016. Boise State has used its football successes to build its academic reputation and reach, going from associate degrees from its earliest days to scores of bachelor’s and master’s and over 10 doctoral programs at present. The data is incontrovertible: their meteoric rise in the mid-2000s is inexorably tied to the success of their football team on a national stage (e.g., the Fiesta Bowl victory over Oklahoma in 2007). From their team’s first appearance in a Fiesta Bowl to its most recent (2015), Boise State’s enrollment, research grants and contracts, foundation assets, and number of donors have all increased.

Support for athletics and academics are NOT mutually exclusive. Each benefits the other and we are stronger as a university when both succeed. No one will work harder in trying to secure more resources for every single endeavor we chose to pursue at Coastal – be it academic or athletic – than I will.

Tenth, I am now in my 26th year of working in public higher education. There is nowhere I would rather be than at Coastal Carolina University with you at this moment along its historical arc. This is our season and opportunity, and there is so much potential and achievement ahead.

COVID-19, like any other physical challenge we might face, reinforces the truism that “If you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything.” I am grateful in extra measures today for the bounties of life and for the chance to be counted with you among the Chanticleer family. 

Yours sincerely,

Michael T. Benson