He's Snow College's greatest 'cheerleader'

Michael T. Benson, 36, took circuitous route to become Utah's youngest college president

Give Michael T. Benson five minutes and he will talk about Snow College in Ephraim, Utah.

He knows the school's pioneer history. He's memorized statistics. He's drawing badgers, Snow's mascot, for his children.

Mike Benson, new president of Snow College, photographed Nov. 6, 2001. PHoto by Tom Smart
Mike Benson, new president of Snow College, photographed Nov. 6, 2001. PHoto by Tom Smart Photo: DESERET NEWS

To say he's enthusiastic is an understatement.

"You are not going to find a bigger proponent or cheerleader for Snow College," said Brother Benson, who was named president of the two-year institution Oct. 18.

After all, it's his enthusiasm — coupled with his willingness to work hard and his desire to be part of a small community — that set the Church member apart from other candidates with more experience. At age 36, he is now the youngest president of any Utah college or university; he was selected for the post by Utah's board of regents from a field of 79 candidates.

He admits that he took a circuitous route to arrive at this point in his career.

The youngest son of Mark and Lela Benson and the grandson of the late Church President Ezra Taft Benson, he once dreamed of being an attorney.

Then, while attending BYU he learned of the school's Jerusalem Center. He sold his car, applied for a scholarship and set out for Israel. Once there, he found himself consumed with all things Middle Eastern.

When he returned to BYU he changed his major to Middle Eastern studies. He went on to earn a doctorate in Middle Eastern history at St. Anthony's College at Oxford and wrote the acclaimed book, Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel.

After graduating in 1995, he began searching for employment. "Here I am a newly admitted Oxford doctor and I could not find a job anywhere," he recalled. "So I went to work with my cousin roofing houses."

While roofing houses he learned of and received a position in the University of Utah development office. Soon he was serving as special assistant to the president and secretary to the university. He also worked as a consulting historian to the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and an academic adviser essayist at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, taught in the University of Utah political science department, and helped establish the Neal A. Maxwell Presidential Endowed Chair.

Looking back, Brother Benson said he has his family to thank for much of his success. He learned valuable lessons from both his parents and grandparents. Along with his wife, Celia Barnes Benson, they are and were in some regards his biggest proponents, his cheerleaders.

"What I remember as if it were yesterday [about Grandfather Benson], is just how keen an interest he had in what I was doing," he said. "I wasn't unique; he had that same interest in all of his grandchildren. He would write us notes, he would call us, he would make sure we were taking the classes he thought we should take. He was a very, very concerned grandfather, and the same could be said for my grandmother."

His dad, he added, has always been there for him. As a walk-on basketball player at BYU, Michael Benson played with the [junior varsity] team. "I was lucky if I got in," he said. "Regardless of that he would come to every single game. He would come to see me sit on the bench. That is the kind of supportive dad that I have."

Now the new college president hopes to take what he's learned and use it as a proponent for Snow College. He wants to tell the school's story. He wants people to know that after it was founded in 1888 as part of the Church's educational system, it came back from the brink of financial ruin and bankruptcy before becoming part of the Utah state educational system in 1932. He wants people to know that today 72 percent of Snow's 3,400 students attend an LDS institute of religion.

Just ask him the benefits to the two-year school and he'll talk for hours. "Sometimes I lie awake at night and wonder what I have gotten myself into," he said. "Snow has a very exciting future."

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