Tom Martin Q&A: EKU president discusses the 'new normal' of higher education

Dr. Michael T. Benson succeeded former Eastern Kentucky University President Doug Whitlock at a time when many challenges face both EKU and higher education statewide. Benson moved here from Utah.
Dr. Michael T. Benson succeeded former Eastern Kentucky University President Doug Whitlock at a time when many challenges face both EKU and higher education statewide. Benson moved here from Utah. Herald-Leader

Michael Benson recently succeeded Doug Whitlock as President of Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond.

He has a bachelor's in political science from Brigham Young University; a master's in nonprofit administration from Notre Dame; and a doctorate in modern Middle Eastern history from Oxford University. He is credited with leading campaigns that raised $85 million for Southern Utah University when he was president there. He arrives at a time of many challenges facing Kentucky education in general and EKU in particular. Benson discussed those challenges with Tom Martin.

Tom Martin: I'm sure in preparing to make the move from Utah to Kentucky and from Southern Utah University to EKU you did a lot of research. It's always interesting to hear from somebody who has researched our area, our culture and our educational system and what they have found interesting about this area.

Michael Benson: I grew up in Texas and remember teachers insisting that we use proper grammar and proper manners. I mean, "yes, sir" and "no, ma'am." Now, not that you don't have that in Utah but it's certainly not as prevalent in parts of the United States as what I found coming here — the gentility of this part of the country and the respect with which people treat each other. I really wanted my children to experience the gentility of the South. As it relates to education, ... I've been impressed with Kentucky and its appreciation for what an educated workforce means to our economy; means to our social system, the fact that it's less reliant on social services. Education is the best investment, I would argue, that a state can make. And I've been impressed with Kentucky's level of that commitment. Now, can we do better? Absolutely. But I don't come here with all the answers, and I will hopefully be able to apply some of the lessons I've learned in my 13 years of being a university president, so I think I'm getting the hang of it.

Martin: EKU recently had to cut jobs and programs, reduce the budget. The university's funding allocations have dropped sharply since the recession. Is this tight money environment here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future?

Benson: ... We've got to be more creative, we've got to be more efficient. We have to run our universities in a way that fits the new normal. And we're trying our best to do that. There're some things we need to continue to improve. The Board of Regents made a decision several months ago that it was time to reallocate some of that base budget to different areas on campus and to give the new president — as it turns out that happens to be me — a pot of money that we can then direct to those strategic initiatives that we want to focus on. One of the first things I did when I got to campus was to state unequivocally that the most important asset we have is human capital.

And so we are taking a three-pronged approach to remuneration for our employees. We did an across-the-board salary increase which had not been seen in several years. We're now going to target those areas on campus where there are what we consider inequities as it relates to our peer institutions because we want to keep our employees. And the third is some merit pay — pots of money that we can give to vice presidents, deans and directors to direct to those employees that are really doing a great job. I want people to feel like they are valued. In our society often times people attach their value to a salary. And so that's one demonstrative way that we can show our employees that we really do value them. And they in turn, we hope, will continue to work hard and be more efficient and do everything we ask them to do as an institution as we face these lean times.

Martin: After you've had a chance to become familiar with the campus have you seen some capital projects in need of attention?

Benson: They had already started one. We just opened a brand new student residence hall, our first in 40 years. And then the new science building came online. ... We stated unequivocally that Science Phase II is going to be our top priority. We have some aims of improving our student housing. We'd like to build a new model school.

I've always said athletics is the front porch to a campus and what draws a lot of people to campus. And we do need to improve some of those facilities, especially as we consider maybe a move up to a different level of competition. We also face some deferred maintenance. There are some buildings that have been around for a while. My office is housed in the Coates Building which was built in the 1920s. They're beautiful old stately buildings but they also do need some attention.

Martin: Given your record for successful fundraising, do you have any ideas for Eastern? I know for example you once ran a marathon for Snow College and raised some cash. Might you do that here?

Benson: Funny story: Lightning struck our scoreboard at Snow College and just fried the motherboard or whatever it's called so I went out and raised money. We raised $50,000 pledges for every mile from friends. I don't believe I'll go to that extreme now. My marathoning days have come to an end. There are some things we need to focus on. With state budgets declining, the importance at a place like ours where we don't do a lot of sponsored research, sure we have a little bit but we're not UK and we're not U of L, so private dollars really play an important role in a place like ours.

We just hired a new vice president for development, Michael Eastman. He is a right fit for what we need. He's had extensive experience with campaigns, major gifts, corporate foundation relations, annual fund. We'll launch in the next little while a campaign that speaks to what our core function is as an institution. Campaigns and fundraising help you define what's really important to you. If you say scholarships are important, that's great. But if you actually go out and raise money to fund those scholarships that makes it even more important. So that's something I'm going to focus on extensively.

Martin: EKU recently built a significant regional Performing Arts Center. There have been some fairly serious bumps in the road since it opened but a new executive director is now in place and the future lies before him and for you. What's your vision, not only for that facility, but for EKU's role in the arts in general?

Benson: When I came up for my campus visit in February Wynton Marsalis was in concert. I bought a ticket and I sat in the second row. I marveled at being in somewhat rural Kentucky and hearing arguably one of the finest jazz musicians of our generation. Last night, I went and heard Chicago with my wife and some friends. One of our associate vice presidents there, Marc Whitt, it was his 25th time seeing Chicago live. They were unbelievable. And I looked out over that sea of people from Richmond and surrounding areas. People had come from Lexington and other places, and I thought this is what a center like this can do to bring together people, seeing these great shows.

We hope to imbue some excitement into the place and also feed some private dollars economically into restaurants and hotels and all that sort of thing. The center itself is spectacular. I mean it's a great space. We've got a solid program. Joel Alberts is our new director. And talk about marathons, he's a serious marathoner. You may want to talk to him about running a race to raise money. He's got a good vision of what the center can do. We need to do even more to bring the school kids. I envision school buses unloading those kids and having them go maybe to a matinee performance or a master class with the musicians or the performers before an evening performance. We need to make shows affordable and accessible to the people of our area because it is, as you know, a community partnership with Madison County, with the city and with the university.

Tom Martin's Q&A appears every two weeks in the Herald-Leader's Business Monday section. This is an edited version of the interview. To listen to the interview, find the podcast on The interview also will air on WEKU-88.9 FM on Mondays at 7:35 a.m. during Morning Edition and at 5:45 p.m. during All Things Considered.