CONWAY, SC (WBTW) – Coastal Carolina University’s newly-named next president says he’s ready to propel the school past COVID-19 hardships and into the future.
Dr. Michael T. Benson was announced as the university’s third president on Friday. Twenty-four hours later, News13 had its first chance to speak with him one-on-one.
The university, nestled just inland from Myrtle Beach, has been on Dr. Benson’s radar for several years.
“There’s so much about Coastal Carolina and the community that we found so appealing and attractive. I knew about the university,” he explained. “They beat out Eastern Kentucky for a spot in the Sun Belt in 2015, so that spurred us in many ways to do better at Eastern Kentucky.”
Benson has served as president of Eastern Kentucky University since August 2013. During his tenure and in midst of his growing familiarity with CCU, he says he also became friends with current president Dr. David DeCenzo. Benson applauded DeCenzo’s hard work growing the university, its academic programs and athletics during his time in Conway.
He says he hopes he can continue to capitalize on that.
“Presidents come and go. The institution will be here long beyond my tenure, our tenure,” he said. “We want to make a difference and we want to be remembered as someone who came here and fell in love with it, were a part of the community and left a mark in a positive way.”
Benson’s new position comes amid a nationwide pandemic that has especially hurt colleges and universities across the country.
In June, the Division of State Human Resources approved Coastal Carolina University’s mandatory furlough plan, as it navigated through projected budget cuts and slump in enrollment. The university, at the time, expected to save $7 million with the mandatory program for its 1,231 employees.
“We’re still not certain when this will end, but it’ll be behind us someday. Are we prepared to move forward? I think Coastal’s done a great job getting to this point,” he said.
Benson’s tenure as Coastal Carolina University president begins in January. Once he settles into his role, he says he wants to look at the school’s retention rates, graduation rates and debt students incur.
“I think it’s really important for us to focus on – yes, we get students through the door – but are they graduating in a timely way? Are they getting good jobs? We certainly hope the ones that come from South Carolina – even those from out of state – if they choose to make South Carolina their home, that they get jobs, paying taxes and making contributions to society. But I think it’s going to take me a little time to ascertain what some of our challenges are,” he said.
Aside from those three focus points, Benson says he wants to make sure Coastal Carolina remains competitive against larger universities in the Palmetto State and appeals to local students.
“I want to be Horry County’s team. I (want to) be their institution,” he said. “There’s no reason we need to take a backseat to anybody, whether it’s the major research one institutions in the state or the other comprehensive universities like we are.”
He hopes his first year getting to know the ropes of the university and Grand Strand community will also allow him to continue building on local relationships.
“I will pay a lot of attention to our local population, to our local high schools, to the high schools that are the big feeder schools and let them know we’ll never take them for granted. Those kids that are maybe kind of on the fence of where they want to go to school – this should be their first option.”