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UT Dallas Magazine: Portrait of President Richard C. Benson
June 26, 2017
Dr. Richard C. Benson became the fifth president of The University of Texas of Dallas last year. “I would describe him as somewhat of a Renaissance man. … It’s very impressive. That’s what a university president needs to be,” said one of his former colleagues, Dr. Paul M. Winistorfer, dean of Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment.
For a moment, Richard C. Benson, the approachable new president of The University of Texas at Dallas, stands alone on the school’s life-size, outdoor chessboard, contemplating his next move.
Dressed in presidential regalia, he has just walked across the stage at his inauguration ceremony to a live rendition of “Sweet Georgia Brown” — upbeat music to celebrate a promising beginning.
Benson, a Virginia native with Ivy League credentials, is only the fifth president of this burgeoning University.
The opportunity to have a lasting impact across an entire campus was too good for the former dean of Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering to pass up.
“The growth of UT Dallas is quite amazing,” Benson says. “But the University’s connection to industry” helped seal the deal.
Practically everything in his life has led to this presidency at this time. Disciplined preparation was the key.
Photography by Dr. Benson
President Benson is seldom without a camera. Over the years, he has shot close-ups of flora and fauna, snapped waterfalls found during treks and photographed man-made landmarks. Click here to see more of his photography.
Born in Virginia, Benson grew up about 35 miles west of New York City in Dover, New Jersey, a diverse, middle-class town.
He developed a love for music at an early age. His mother, a grade-school teacher, was a terrific pianist. His father, a mechanical engineer, was basically tone-deaf.
The family’s two-story colonial home was often filled with music.
Though Benson doesn’t like to blow his own horn, the trumpet played a major role in this engineer’s formative years. As a teenager, he was better known for carrying a trumpet than a slide rule, but he says he can still find his way around both.
The oldest of three boys, he was a featured soloist in numerous high school concerts.
“Being a perfectionist, Dick would practice and practice and practice,” recalls Eric Benson, the youngest brother, an entomologist at Clemson University.
Willard Raymond Benson, their father, worked for the National Advisory Council for Aeronautics — the precursor to NASA — and as a civilian Army engineer at the Picatinny Arsenal.
Benson says their dad’s desk held papers with “mysterious mathematical symbols and intriguing Buck Rogers-style drawings” that inspired him to pursue engineering.
There’s no question that Benson, who earned a doctorate in mechanical engineering from the University of California, Berkeley, is a smart guy. He’s also pragmatic and fair, according to those who have worked with him.
“I’d refer to Dr. Benson as a reflective leader,” says Jack Davis, dean of the College of Architecture and Urban Studies at Virginia Tech. “By that, I mean he clearly considers multiple angles, multiple inputs and reflects before he acts.”
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Kenneth S. Ball, who was once one of Benson’s department heads and is now dean of George Mason University’s Volgenau School of Engineering, says the UT Dallas president is also collegial and “definitely a ‘people person.’”
“As a leader, Dick values teamwork and delegates authority and responsibility effectively.”
Benson’s no micromanager. He is known to give department heads considerable autonomy while at the same time holding them accountable for advancing the college’s and university’s goals.
“Although his achievements are great, he doesn’t have a big head,” Eric Benson says of the president. “He is modest. But under all that, he is driven. Never underestimate him.
“Dick disproves the theory that nice guys finish last because he’s a nice guy and he usually finishes first.”
Those who’ve worked with Benson say he’s well-read and informed about a variety of topics. From astronomy, history and the arts to sports, differential equations and rockets to the moon, he can talk about most subjects with ease.
“That is a man who has a wide range of knowledge and it is quite deep,” says Dr. Paul M. Winistorfer, dean of Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment. “I would describe him as somewhat of a Renaissance man. … It’s very impressive. That’s what a university president needs to be.”
In his inaugural address last fall, Benson announced plans to celebrate UTD’s 50th anniversary in 2019 and update the University’s strategic plan this year.
A lot is happening at UTD, so Benson has a chance to make a difference and leave a lasting impression in a way that wouldn’t be possible elsewhere.
He says it’s an “extraordinary journey” he’s embarking on, but he knows he’s not doing so alone.
UTD’s students, faculty, staff and administrators all have the opportunity to shape the University and create new traditions that will last hundreds of years.
“Let’s have at it!” President Benson says.
Media Contact: Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].