When College of Charleston president George Benson steps down next year, there will be some notable positives and negatives during his six-year tenure.
Benson has led the college through some difficult years. He took the reins of the liberal arts school in early 2007, just months before the Great Recession hit.
Benson was hired because he had a history of success in raising money, including bringing in $40 million in his job as dean of the University of Georgia's Terry College of Business.
Even before the recession, public colleges, especially those in South Carolina, were feeling the pinch of declining state support and looking for new ways to bring in donors.
On Thursday, Benson said one of the highlights of his career on George Street was developing a strong fundraising team. The team brought in $75 million in the past five years, he said, about $15 million a year. He said he thinks that amount will grow to close to $100 million by the time he steps down.
At the same time, state support plummeted 47 percent, he said. At the start of the recession, the college received $34 million annually in state appropriations, but that has dropped to $18 million.
The school's reputation also improved dramatically, Benson said, including landing in seventh place on a Forbes magazine list for colleges offering the best value.
But Benson has had some rough times, too.
In 2007, not long after he took the job, some people questioned his judgment when he left campus during a bomb scare that snarled traffic on the peninsula to have lunch and play golf with “prominent individuals” on Kiawah Island.
The appointment, which was scheduled long before the day of the scare, was about forging relationships that eventually would benefit the college, Benson said at the time. He also said the situation was under control when he left, and that he had stayed in touch with other campus leaders via cellphone.
Some faculty members also questioned whether Benson was hiring too many administrators, including a chief of staff and a speech writer. And his intervention on a tenure denial for a professor who was married to his chief of staff also stirred the ire of some faculty members in the college's Faculty Senate.
On Friday, reaction to Benson's announcement was fairly muted.
“It's not really a great surprise,” said Lynn Cherry, the college's speaker of the faculty. She said there was nothing unusual about Benson's decision and that it's common for a college president to serve two terms, then move on.
She said Benson was dedicated to the faculty during his tenure, and was concerned with, and pushing for, higher faculty salaries.
Benson plans to take a year off after leaving the presidency, then will become a faculty member in the college's School of Business.
“I'm excited to see him go back to the classroom,” said Greg Padgett, chairman of the college's Board of Trustees.
Lee Mikell, vice chairman of the board, echoed those thoughts by saying he knew Benson came from a family of teachers, and that he wanted to be back in the classroom.
He added that Benson managed the school during a period when higher education faced tough financial times. Padgett said Benson's navigation of those tough times helped the college weather the recessional storm and preserve its integrity.
Former school president Alex Sanders said he does not expect to be involved in the search for the next president, but said the job of running the college is much more complex than most people would imagine.
“I suggest what they ought to look for is a 'super' man or woman,” Sanders said Friday.
While he called the college job the best he ever had, he called it “killing” as well. “It's 20 hours a day, seven days a week — literally seven days a week, night and day,” he said.
As far as the search goes, Sanders said he had no recommendation, but said that when he was president, he reviewed six past heads of the school and found three mostly had pure academic backgrounds, while three – himself, Harry M. Lightsey Jr. and Ted Stern – did not. The last group excelled at the job, while the others were mostly failures, he said. Sanders said he saw positives in selecting someone with an “off the wall” background.
Diane Knich and Schuyler Kropf contributed to this report.