Southern Utah University President Michael Benson will start a new job next school year as president at Eastern Kentucky University, the schools announced Friday.
"We're excited, we've got kind of mixed emotions," said Benson, who has served as president since 2007. "Anytime an opportunity like this comes up, you say goodbye to a lot of friends."
Benson worked to carve out a niche for SUU as a public liberal arts school, strengthening its ties to the Utah Shakespeare Festival as well as raising admission standards and hiring new faculty.
The Cedar City institution also fulfilled a 20-year sports goal by joining the Big Sky Conference, and Benson brought more money to the school, securing $85 million of a $100 million fundraising campaign goal. SUU announced the largest gift in the school's history, a $6 million donation from the Sorenson Legacy Foundation for an arts center, earlier this month.
A Utah native, Benson, 48, graduated from East High in 1983. He earned a bachelor's degree in political science from Brigham Young University, a master's degree in nonprofit administration from the University of Notre Dame and a doctorate in Middle Eastern history from University of Oxford.
At age 36 he became the youngest institution president in Utah history when he took the top job at Snow College, where he also made a fundraising mark during his five-year tenure by bringing in more money than the previous 117 years of the institution's history combined.
Eastern Kentucky went looking for a new president after Benson's predecessor announced his retirement. The school in Richmond, Ky., is about twice as big as SUU, but is in a similar position in some ways.
"In the state of Kentucky, everyone talks about the University of Kentucky or University of Louisville," Benson said, while Eastern tends to compete with other regional schools. "There's some real untapped potential in terms of being an even bigger player."
Eastern Kentucky officials said the choice of Benson was unanimous.
"Dr. Benson's distinguished record of success as an innovative executive is impressive," said Craig Turner, chair of the EKU Board of Regents, in a statement.
The Utah Board of Regents will appoint a search committee for a new president in the coming weeks; an interim president will be named in the meantime.
"Faculty morale and productivity have never been higher, the academic preparations of our incoming students are at its highest levels ever, he even oversaw the largest incoming first-year class in the institution's history," said SUU provost Bradley Cook in a statement. "Whoever fills Dr. Benson's shoes surely has their work cut out for them in matching his effectiveness."