George Benson’s office is everything that comes to mind when you think of the President.
Impressive, sentimental and detailed down to the Oriental rug. It was just a little bit messy, but that comes with the territory. His desk was pushed up against the far wall and a series of photographs of the cistern and the College through the years visually draw your attention – almost as much as the cozy seating area at front and center. Two small brushed velvet settees, and a gathering of armchairs all faced inwards creating an intimate setting for conversation and embodying all the characteristics of an 18th century French salon. Side tables were teeming with literature and delicate crystal candy dishes. If nothing else, (although the vintage furniture suggested otherwise), it was welcoming.
I immediately sat in a velvet arm chair and took moment to take it all in. There was a sort of overwhelming and wonderful warmth in the room that could only be felt when sitting with a distant relative, perhaps catching up over tea. It’s possible it was also the sun shining through the traditional windows of Randolph Hall, but I’ll stick with the first one.
Now I’m not a stranger to interviews; I’ve conducted many, and they are by far the best part of my job. I’m going to venture to say that this one was different, special even. I could sense Benson’s excitement over speaking with students, something he wishes he could do more of. He later admitted that one of his favorite things is the annual Pancakes with the President event, often held in contingence with exams. I’ve never been.
Sure, I’ve listened to the President speak many times, in fact we all have, but this time was different. This was the first time I was able to talk personally with him. We discussed some of his accomplishments during his seven years as president. In case someone forgets one, there are multiple pages keeping track. Benson read off some, such as, streamlining the organizational structure of the institution, creating various new offices on campus including Legal Affairs and Governmental Relations (to name a few), and devising the 10 year strategic plan. With a PhD in decisions sciences from the University of Florida and an impressive resume serving in business schools across the country, it is not so surprising that the latter of the two is a huge source of pride for Benson. “I really do enjoy that sort of visionary process,” he said, on planning and strategizing for the future.
Benson spoke passionately about one of his ongoing projects, the transformation of Dixie Plantation. The story came alive as he pieced together its history. Originally it was the property of John Jacob Astor who passed in the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, but thankfully his wife who survived by way of lifeboat, kept it in the family. The history of the plantation, much like that of the College, is extensive and it dates back to the 1600s. Now, many years down the line hundreds of acres of live oaks and impressive views are being transformed into a state of the art extension of the campus. Benson flipped through the pages of a book on the plantation itself, pointing out where various features, such as field stations for student and faculty research, would be located. Page by page his vision took shape, right in front of my eyes. He described the Oak Avenue, as “something out of the movies,” and this work in progress, which will “someday differentiate this college from others.”
Other accomplishments that struck a cord with Benson were the recent athletic move to the Colonial Athletic Association, and the discussion of a potential merger with the Medical University of South Carolina. While the merger has dominated recent politics at the College, Benson would be the first to whole-heartedly argue on its behalf. “It’s hard for people to think because they’re so used to thinking in terms of black and white,” he said. Benson speaks about this project with unmatched excitement. Like anything else, he considers it an incredible opportunity that we can’t afford to miss.
Much of Benson’s legacy can be tied to this infinite and sprawling idea of “opportunity.” He found inspiration throughout the growth of this city, economically and population wise, and true to the nature of any visionary he acted on this. Despite opposition and media criticism, Benson considered the future of Charleston itself in all of his decisions, including his support of the merger. As he prepares to step down from the presidency this June, the College will find itself in a crucial time of transition. Only time will tell of what comes of this situation, but according to Benson the possibilities and opportunities for change on the horizon are exciting.
While the Board of Trustees is in the midst of a lengthy presidential search, Benson admits that it is crucial to select a candidate from the world of academia. “If the college were to revert back to its old ways, we’d be put in a box, we would marginalize, we would be frozen in time,” he said. After all, they are the ones with the most experience and “you can’t guide a ship if you haven’t been there.”
Although big names such as Glenn McConnell and Jenny Sanford indicated their interest in the position, Benson believes that the chosen individual must be committed to making a difference for the College. While it is easy to fall in love with the city of Charleston and the campus itself (believe me, I can confirm), Benson stressed this commitment unlike anything else we discussed. He hopes that the next President will continue along the lines of the strategic plan and seize all the opportunities that are currently laid out before him or her. “I feel like I’m setting the table for the next president– putting a plate here, and a plate there, silverware and glasses. It’s all set now you just sit down and eat,” he said.
As for Benson, he plans to take a year sabbatical in order to prepare for his return to the academic world he loves so dearly. In the following year, he will teach two courses at the business school and maintain his status on the various boards he serves. This is a future only fitting for Benson, because what he said he would miss most is upon leaving his position as President is the interaction with the students, faculty and staff.
As the interview unfortunately came to a close, Benson eagerly walked me over to the bookshelves in his office. Among many academic works, they were filled with framed blueprints of his many projects whether completed or still in the works. He pointed to each of them, explaining their significance with all the wisdom and excitement of a proud father. Unlike famous works of literature greats (think Salinger or Fitzgerald), whose certain novels received their highest praise only after the author’s passing, Benson’s legacy is one that should be acknowledged and commemorated now, in the present. Much can be learned from his fervent passion and heartfelt desire to pursue any, and every presented opportunity for improvement.