RICHMOND — The president of a Utah university was chosen Friday to lead Eastern Kentucky University, succeeding retiring six-year president Doug Whitlock.
Michael T. Benson, 48, president of Southern Utah University, was one of three finalists who had visited the EKU campus and met with faculty members over the past several days. Eastern's Board of Regents unanimously selected Benson on Friday after a 2½ -hour closed meeting to review the finalists.
Benson has been president at Southern Utah University about six years. Before that Benson was president of Snow College, a rural two-year state school in Utah.
He is a grandson of Ezra Taft Benson, 13th president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who also was U.S. agriculture secretary under President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Moments after Friday's vote, EKU Regents chairman Craig Turner phoned Benson at his Southern Utah office in Cedar City, Utah, to inform him that he'd been selected.
"I am honored and humbled," Benson said. "My wife, children and I could not be more thrilled ... I can't wait to get started. Go Colonels."
Benson and his wife, Debi, have five children, two from a previous marriage.
Benson told the Herald-Leader in an interview later Friday that he'll start wrapping up his responsibilities at Southern Utah, and he said he plans to visit EKU as soon as possible to "get my feet wet."
"I need to get there and learn all I possibly can before I officially start," he said.
Turner said Benson will take over his duties about Aug. 1, becoming EKU's 12th president.
The other two finalists were Alan T. Shao, business school dean at the College of Charleston, and Gregg Lassen, vice president for finance at Lamar University in Texas.
It might have been a two-man race. EKU faculty members had favored either Benson or Shao over Lassen.
Even so, the regents discussed the selection with EKU's Presidential Search and Screening Committee for two hours behind closed doors Friday morning. The regents then met by themselves in executive session for another half hour before voting unanimously to name Benson.
Turner said that regents and others in the EKU community were impressed by Benson's commitment to education and his track record of "elevating" both Southern Utah and Snow College.
"He really elevated both of those schools in stature and in their financial situation," Turner said. "At the same time, we wanted to find the right fit as to who was going to interact best with the community, the students, and how they were going to get buy-in from the faculty.
"I think his (Benson's) even-keel demeanor will be accepted very easily here ... and he has the leadership qualities that we are looking for."
Benson will face some immediate challenges, mainly on the financial side. EKU's regents recently gave the go-ahead for job reductions and program cuts to reduce the school's budget by $23 million. EKU's state funding allocations have fallen sharply since the national economic downturn began in 2008, and no immediate end to the tight-money environment is in sight.
Benson's skills as a fund-raiser — he led efforts that raised $85 million at Southern Utah and once ran a marathon to raise cash at Snow College — could help.
Sixty-nine people applied to become EKU's new president, said Carrie Besnette Hauser, senior consultant with Academic Search Inc., the firm that helped EKU conduct its search. She said the "incredibly robust pool of candidates" included nine college presidents and 13 provosts. Women made up 16 percent of the pool, she said, and 16 percent were racial minorities.
Hauser said her firm's background checks on the three finalists turned up "no issues with any of them." She also said her firm found no issues with Lassen's doctoral dissertation. Some faculty members had questioned the dissertation's quality.
Benson told the Herald-Leader he initially heard about EKU's presidential opening through a friend but wasn't interested at first.
"My wife and I were very content here (in Utah); it wasn't as if we were perusing other opportunities," he said.
But after more encouragement from his friend, Benson quietly made an "incognito visit" to EKU in late February. He even took in a Branford Marsalis concert at EKU's performing arts center.
"Sometimes you can get a sense of a place by just walking around and people not knowing who you are," he said. "I got home and told my wife, 'We really need to take a look at this.'"
Benson spent his childhood in Indiana and sometimes accompanied his father on trips to Western Kentucky; the senior Benson often visited that area in his work with the LDS Church. Michael Benson said his wife had two great-grandfathers from Kentucky.
"While I've never lived in Kentucky I feel a certain kinship," he said. "Eastern obviously has a lot of potential and tradition, and I think there is a lot of untapped opportunity to make some wonderful things happen."
Michael T. Benson
Education: Bachelor's in political science from Brigham Young University; master's in nonprofit administration from Notre Dame; and a doctorate in modern Middle Eastern history from Oxford University.
Experience: He was a special assistant at the University of Utah and president of Snow College before becoming president of Southern Utah University in 2006.
Publications: Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel.
Ancestry: His grandfather, Ezra Taft Benson, was 13th president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Family: Wife, Debi; five children.
Jim Warren: (859) 231-3255