Back to School
On a muggy July afternoon, a group of students trickled into a Mendoza classroom, balancing carryout colas, salads and soups atop their stacked textbooks. The Master of Nonprofit Administration summer program students traded jokes with understandable jitters about an accounting quiz just minutes away.
One student, Dr. Michael Benson, is one of the crowd—and yet a little different.
While most MNA program students arrive with about 10 years’ work experience, Benson has packed more than the usual into his résumé.
He is president of Southern Utah University, in Cedar City, where he is something of a fundraising phenomenon. Two weeks into his presidency he announced a $3 million gift for the College of Science, the largest ever to a capital facility in SUU’s history. In his first year there, he helped raise over $15 million, nearly triple the university’s previous record.
Eight years ago, at age 36, he became Utah’s youngest-ever college or universitypresident when he joined Snow College in Ephraim. At Snow, he set records in fundraising, amassing more in his five years there than in the college’s previous hundred-plus-year history combined. He likes to get to know people: He spent his first day at Snow introducing himself to students while handing out doughnuts. He is a cum laude graduate of Brigham Young University, where he played junior varsity basketball. He earned a doctorate in modern Middle Eastern history at Oxford University, and wrote a book, “Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel.” He finds time to run marathons for fundraisers, speaks fluent Italian, maintains a seven handicap in golf, and performs concerts as a classically trained pianist.
One might ask what a university president and obviously accomplished fellow like this is doing in a Master of Nonprofit Administration program. The answer: to strengthen his business skills.
“University presidents come from all kinds of disciplines—lawyers, sociologists, political scientists—but few come with a formal business or management training,” Benson said. Yet they find themselves running a multimillion-dollar business with hundreds or thousands of employees and often auxiliary services. “You are in meetings where financial knowledge is important,” he explained.
“I think all administrators in nonprofits should learn the language of the business world,” he added.
His MNA classmates agreed.
Kate Hench, with the Chicago Children's Museum, said business knowledge is especially important in the current poor economy. "That's why I picked this program, because it is in a business school. I want to be business savvy.
Ryan Heatherman, a judge advocate for the U.S. Marine Corps in California who operates a legal aid clinic for Marines, concurred. “We will learn business skills that we can carry into our practice.”
Asked what she has learned that surprised her, Notre Dame development professional Peggy Jewett earned laughs with, “How long you can go without sleep!” Benson explained the summer-camp atmosphere, heightened by late-night study sessions: “We have a really good chemistry. When you are together for eight hours every day, five days a week, you get to know each other really well.”
With all those hours in the classroom, professors get to know the students well, too. Accountancy professor Ken Milani said Benson was “a terrific resource” in class, especially when the topic was the importance of endowments and fundraising. “He gave his perspective from his work about handling salary increases with limited resources, which will always be an issue with nonprofits,” Milani said. At other times, Benson was just another student whose background is not in finance and accounting, who was “working and struggling like anyone else.”
For his part, Benson welcomes the hard work. He said he chose Notre Dame’s program because it had a challenging curriculum and superb faculty, it is administered through a top-20 business school, and the summer program fits his schedule. Also, he is drawn to Notre Dame because it is founded on laudable ideals and ethical principles.
And that’s not all. Benson explained that he has three brothers-in-law who earned Mendoza MBAs, so he wants to keep up. “When I graduate from this program in May 2012, I hope I can also call myself a Domer.”
By Nancy Johnson