The College of Charleston President George Benson will soon step down, and our community is under pressure to find his replacement. A January 2008 article from the Charleston Regional Business Journal, touted Benson as the person to move the College into the future, a perfect marriage of business and academics. Fast forward to September 2013 when a Post and Courier article reported 57 percent of the College’s faculty as dissatisfied with Benson’s administration. The faculty demands an academic to lead them into the future that was once so promising under Benson’s leadership.
Benson’s list of accomplishments from 2007 until now is impressive. He increased private fundraising, moved us from the Southern Conference to the Colonial Athletic Association, pushed for greater diversity and created a 10-year Strategic Plan to better the College beyond his term. However, many faculty members did not find his accomplishments fulfilling enough.
As a result of their dissatisfaction, faculty are asking for a future president whose background is in academia rather than business, but Benson is an academic. He was a professor in the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota for 16 years, he has published numerous academic research reports, even a textbook, and his previous position was at the University of Georgia in the Terry School of Business. When he steps down, he will take on a new role at the College as a professor.
In comparison, the most revered former president of the College had no experience in academia. Ted Stern, who served as president from 1968 to 1978, brought the College from a small and struggling school with fewer than 500 students to a prominent college with over 5,000 students. Stern accepted his position as president straight out of the Navy, with no academic career. Former president Lee Higdon was a Wall Street executive before moving into academia. Harry Lightsey was a practicing veterinarian and lawyer before becoming a law professor and eventually president of the College.
The faculty has made its voice clear, regardless of historical precedence. But what about the student body’s voice? There are 547 various types of instructors at the College and over 10,000 students. Shouldn’t the voice of the majority count?
The advisory council choosing our next president for us inversely represents campus population. Lynn Cherry is the only faculty member who specifically represents faculty interests, Student Body President Jordan Hensley is the only student to represent all 10,000 of her peers and the remaining 11 members come from the Alumni Association, the Board of Trustees and other areas that are not faculty, staff or students. In fact, staff members do not have a single representative on the committee.
While we are addressing committee’s diversity, shall we mention its gender and racial composition? The College released a list of members for the presidential search committee, dedicated to locating our new leader. There are nine men and four women on this committee that represents a school that is 36 percent male and 64 percent female. In addition, the only non-white representatives on the committee are two African Americans. For a school that says it is trying to increase and prioritize diversity, where is our internal commitment to the cause? A very select population sample is making a decision that will affect people who have no connection to them beyond funds for this public institution.
From a bystander perspective, all we can say is that we hope they choose someone who will do a good job and represent student interests. The presidents who succeeded did not do so because of their specific backgrounds. Whether the next president is a former professor or political powerhouse doesn’t matter. We need someone with a positive vision for the College and the leadership skills necessary to bring a largely apathetic campus into a dynamic future.