CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - College of Charleston President P. George Benson announced Thursday that he will step down from his position as president and return to the classroom as a tenured professor in the college's School of Business, effective June 30 next year.
"At Friday's Board of Trustees meeting, I will ask the Board to begin a search for the 22nd president of the College of Charleston," Benson said. "I am announcing my plans now so the Board has ample time to find the next leader of this historic institution. I look forward to returning to the classroom, where I spent the first 16 years of my academic career."
In addition to teaching, Benson intends to devote more time to his duties as board chair of the Foundation for the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. The award is presented annually by the President of the United States to public and private organizations in recognition of performance excellence. Benson has been involved with the Baldrige Award since 1997, when the U.S. Secretary of Commerce appointed him as one of nine national judges for the award. He was later appointed chairman of the Board of Overseers for the Baldrige Program and, in 2007, was elected to the Baldrige Foundation Board.
Benson became the 21st President of the College of Charleston on February 1, 2007. He had previously served as dean of the University of Georgia's Terry College of Business from 1998 to 2007 and as dean of the Rutgers Business School at Rutgers University from 1993 to 1998.
During Benson's presidency, the College significantly increased private fundraising and scholarship support, elevated its national academic profile, and moved from the Southern Conference to the Colonial Athletic Association.
Benson strengthened ties between the College and the people, organizations, and communities of Charleston and the Lowcountry. He advocated for the local economic and cultural assets that make Charleston unique, such as its port, its arts community, and its importance in African-American history. He invested in the development and growth of academic programs aligned with those assets to help distinguish the College from other universities around the world.
"When I interviewed for this job, I quickly saw the untapped potential of the College of Charleston," Benson said. "I believed then and now that no other university in the U.S. can match the College's potential for greatness. My goal for the past six-and-a-half years has been to unlock as much of that potential as I could and to enhance the academic and administrative foundations of the College so even more potential could be realized in the years ahead."
While guiding the College through the Great Recession and repeated state budget cuts that reduced the school's state appropriation by nearly half from 2008 to 2012, Benson rebuilt the College's fundraising operation, expanded the College's donor base, and increased private gifts to record levels in each of the past five years. This enabled the College to award significantly more institutional aid to deserving and high-achieving students from South Carolina and around the country.
"George Benson has made a meaningful and lasting impact on the College," said Greg Padgett, Chair of the College's Board of Trustees. "The list of achievements that occurred on his watch have improved the learning and living experience we offer our students."
"During Dr. Benson's presidency all higher education institutions have experienced hard economic times. As Chair, I appreciate his diligent guidance and efforts during this difficult period. Thanks to the leadership of President Benson, we were able to preserve and protect the academic core of this great university."
"By announcing his plans today President Benson will continue to serve until the end of the next academic calendar year, creating ideal conditions for the timing of a search to find the strongest possible candidate to lead the institution as the 22nd President of the College of Charleston," Padgett said.
The College expanded undergraduate and graduate programs during Benson's tenure –– establishing more than 30 new or revised degree and certificate programs. Most significantly, he launched a long sought-after MBA program in 2010.
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley praised Benson's leadership. "It is with disappointment that I learn of President George Benson's plan to step down as President of the College of Charleston next year. Dr. Benson has provided extraordinary leadership and great energy to the College of Charleston, which has seen its growth in quality, educational capacity and national esteem continue upward under his tenure."
"I am heartened to know that Dr. Benson, after concluding his time as President, will continue to serve the College of Charleston as a distinguished member of the faculty. Thereby, he will continue to enrich the educational experiences of the students as well as be a valuable and contributing member of the Charleston community," Riley said.
Benson oversaw the construction and enhancement of several campus facilities. Major on-campus capital projects completed during his tenure include TD Arena; Cato Center for the Arts; the School of Sciences and Mathematics Building and the Mace Brown Natural History Museum; the construction of a new admissions office at Craig Hall; and the renovation of Randolph Hall, Towell Library, Porter's Lodge, the Cistern Yard, and many other historic buildings. A 19,000-square-foot student fitness center will open in September. This winter the College expects to open a long-planned store and welcome center on King Street, under the Sottile Theatre marquee. Plans call for the front entrance to the Sottile Theatre to be restored and, later, a rooftop event venue to be opened. Planning for the renovation of the Hollings Science Center and the construction of a new building for the Grice Marine Laboratory is well underway.
Benson also devoted time and resources to overhauling the College's organizational structure and campus infrastructure. He streamlined administrative units and reporting lines, updated technology and software infrastructure –– including the installation and implementation of a comprehensive new campus-wide computer system –– improved campus security and emergency notification systems, initiated the Cougar Shuttle to transport students on the peninsula during the evening hours, and reorganized the College's North Charleston campus and the Lowcountry Graduate Center.
To meet the evolving responsibilities of the College, he created the Office of Legal Affairs, the Office of Institutional Events, the Office of Sustainability, and the Office of Environmental Health and Safety. To respond to the changing needs of Charleston and the arrival of new corporations in the region, including Boeing, Benson created the College's Office of Economic Development.
"Much of the work we did over the past six-and-a-half years was designed to build a stronger, more self-reliant university and one with a clear student-centered orientation," Benson said. "These improvements were necessary and important for fulfilling our current mission and positioning the College for an even greater role on local, national, and international stages."
The College, under Benson's leadership, made long overdue improvements at Dixie Plantation that will lead to increased use by faculty and students for teaching and research. Bequeathed to the College in 1995 by the late ornithologist and wildlife artist John Henry Dick, the property encompasses nearly 900 acres along the Stono River, 17 miles south of Charleston. The property was undervalued and underutilized prior to Benson's arrival at the College, and the sale of the property was considered.
Benson recognized the benefits of having both an historic downtown campus and a nearby plantation campus. He laid out a vision for Dixie Plantation as an environmental sciences campus and conference center.
Over the past few years, the College and its foundation invested nearly $8 million in institutional and private funds to build a 4.3-mile interpretative nature trail, restore over 150 acres of long-leaf pine forest, construct two field research stations, and rebuild and expand an old barn for use as event space for meetings, retreats, and classes. Future plans for Dixie Plantation or adjacent property include single-story student housing as well as a conference center that would be used for revenue-generating executive education and other continuing education programs.
Lynn Cherry, Speaker for the Faculty, said Benson deserves credit for addressing disparities in faculty and staff salaries. Reviews conducted by the College have shown employee salaries lagging behind its peer institutions, particularly among more senior faculty members.
"President Benson made raising faculty salaries to market rates a top priority of his administration," Cherry said. "Despite the financial challenges posed by the economic meltdown that began in 2008, he always recognized and celebrated the fact that the College's faculty deserve the credit for developing and nurturing the student-centered culture that helps define our university."
Erica Arbetter, a rising senior who served as student body president in 2012-13, said Benson was accessible to students.
"Whether he was flipping pancakes for students during final exams, meeting with student government leaders, or walking through campus, President Benson made time for us," Arbetter said. "He always asked what he and the College could do to continue improving the student experience."
During the Benson years from 2007 to 2013, the College graduated more than 17,400 undergraduate and graduate students, increased student applications by 28%, and garnered significant national attention by serving as an important venue for political debates and speeches and national television news programs. Benson also was responsible for the development of the College's first-ever diversity strategic plan
and for substantial new investment in creating a more diverse campus community.
The College is consistently recognized in national higher education rankings for quality and affordability. Most recently, Forbes Magazine named the College one of the Top 25 Best Value Colleges in the country. At number 7 in the Forbes rankings, the College is the highest ranking public university in the country, with the exception of the U.S. military academies.
Charleston businesswoman and philanthropist Anita Zucker praised Benson for increasing the College's national name–recognition by expanding marketing and student recruitment efforts outside South Carolina. "The College now boasts 33 alumni chapters across the nation and in several foreign countries," Zucker said. "When I travel on business I am always delighted to encounter people who are not only familiar with the College but who associate it with a high-quality education."
"I've enjoyed working with George Benson and look forward to collaborating with him throughout the coming year," Zucker added. "I'm saddened this will be his last year, but I am heartened by all the good accomplished at the College during George's tenure as president."
As a former business school dean and economic forecaster, Benson often spoke candidly in speeches and writings about the vitally important role of the business community in the success and future viability of both the College and the Charleston community as a whole.
Jim Newsome, President and CEO of the South Carolina State Ports Authority, called Benson's announced departure "a loss for the faculty and students as well as one for the Lowcountry."
"President Benson, through outstanding recruitment and previous business school experience, was responsible for building an MBA program that has established a global footprint aligning key strategic linkages with overseas universities, benefitting our state and region," Newsome said.
Benson said the achievements that mean the most to him are not necessarily those that received the most attention. He cited the College's R.E.A.C.H. program as an example. An acronym for Reaching Educational And Career Hopes, R.E.A.C.H. is a four-year, fully inclusive certificate program for students with mild intellectual disabilities. The program provides students with a complete college experience allowing them to explore and realize both their intellectual and personal potential.
R.E.A.C.H. was launched in March 2010 with six students and had grown to 21 students for the 2012-13 academic year. "Today our R.E.A.C.H. program is educating, empowering, and enabling students to become more self-sufficient," Benson said. "These students are teaching all of us to be more accepting, more inclusive, and more open-minded."
Benson also worked to expand and deepen the relationship between the College and Charleston's Spoleto Festival USA.
A native of Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, Benson received a bachelor of science degree in mathematics from Bucknell University, did graduate work in operations research in the engineering school at New York University, and received a doctorate in decision sciences with minors in statistics and economics from the University of Florida. After college he worked for the U.S. Army Security Agency in Arlington, Va., and Bell Telephone Laboratories in Whippany, N.J., before going to graduate school. From 1977 to 1993 he was a professor of decision sciences in the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota.
Benson is an accomplished professor and award-winning academic, whose resume includes over 100 books, monographs, journal articles, and academic presentations. In 2011, the South Carolina Quality Forum awarded Benson the prestigious Milliken Medal of Quality in recognition of his leadership at the College and in the State of South Carolina.
Benson said he intends to continue his service on several corporate boards, including AGCO Corporation, Crawford and Company, and Primerica, Inc. He chairs the corporate governance committee of each board.
Following his term as president, Benson will be a professor of decision sciences in the College's School of Business and will continue to be involved with the College's fundraising initiatives. Benson has held a tenured faculty appointment since he first came to the College in 2007.
One large-scale initiative that Benson said he would continue to push in his last year as president is increased collaboration between the College of Charleston and the Medical University of South Carolina.