BY HUNTER SCHWARZ
BYU’s call to “go forth to serve” has taken alumni across the country and around the globe, but for Southern Utah University President Michael Benson, he only had to travel three hours south to make a world of difference.
Benson’s contribution’s to SUU have been enormous. He is one of five current college and university presidents in Utah who graduated from BYU, and he cited his time as a Cougar as important to where he is today.
“I always wanted to go there,” he said, even though most of his high school classmates did not.
Benson graduated from East High School in Salt Lake City in 1983. He was one of four students in his graduating class who went to BYU, while the other 250 went to the University of Utah. Benson studied political science and minored in both English and history.
“I will always be very grateful for those experiences I had at BYU,” he said.
Some of his favorite times as a BYU student were interning through the Kennedy Center on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., and studying in Israel.
“That was a seminal time in my life,” he said. “It opened my eyes.”
Benson eventually returned to BYU as a political science professor. However, he soon found himself in administration.
“I was at the right place at the right time,” he said.
He worked as an assistant to the president at the University of Utah and focused on fundraising, something he would come to be known for later in his career. In 2001 he was named president of Snow College. During his five-year tenure, he helped the university raise more money than the rest of its 117 years combined.
In 2007, he was appointed president of SUU, but didn’t receive the warmest welcome. A student committee felt Benson was making promises he couldn’t keep when he talked about the money he wanted to raise for the university. After addressing student concerns and securing a $3 million donation a few weeks later, Benson convinced his doubters.
Benson has helped the university raise millions of dollars as part of its “The Future is Rising” campaign, and his wife, Debi, said his enthusiasm has been critical to convincing donors.
“More than anything, it’s his enthusiasm and excitement for what the university can do,” she said. “He’s got a fresh vision. It’s hard to be around him and not feel that excitement.”
Debi said the strains of raising three young children can be hard, but her husband works hard to balance his job with his family.
“We could be doing something every single night,” she said. “We take the kids everywhere though.”
Student body president T.J. Nelson said Benson’s contributions to SUU extend beyond fundraising.
“He is so cool and he is so good at what he does,” Nelson said. “He brought in a lot of talent I don’t think we’d have otherwise.”
The talent and money Benson has helped the university attract is all part of a plan to position SUU as a “private college experience at a public university,” something he said is unique in Utah higher education. He hopes students will not only learn in the classroom, but they will be able to have hands-on experience.