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From Professor to President: Kim Benston’s Time at Haverford So Far

Although Kim Benston is now the president of Haverford College, speaking to him is still like speaking to the quintessential English professor, a role he played for almost thirty years. He has a tendency towards long speeches and academic language, yet you come away feeling like he has given you a new perspective on an old issue.

The Clerk recently sat down with Benston to discuss his transition from faculty member to provost and, now, to president. The interview took place in the president’s office, the official style of which only highlighted Benston’s egalitarian nature and welcoming demeanor. Now in his early sixties, Benston is animated and warm; the interview felt more like visiting the office hours of a favorite professor than it did speaking to the highest ranking administrator at the college.

Benston takes over at a challenging time. He is the college’s fourth president in six years. Some alumni worry about the school’s stability in the wake of so many changes, most recently the sudden departure of President Dan Weiss for the Metropolitan Museum of Art last year.

Though Benston acknowledges the important role the president plays, he is also quick to emphasize how much leadership is “a collaborative enterprise” at Haverford.

“We work on shared governance. Each of us is autonomous and important, but we understand that, since we’re each important, so is the other person,” Benston said, calling back to the college’s Quaker roots. “It takes hard work to get that synergy right. I would never claim that we get it right all the time, but I think there are times when we get it beautifully right.”

When asked which issues he is going to focus on during his presidency, Benston’s immediate answer was diversity and sustainability. Student groups such as ETHOS Food Initiative and the Diversify the Presidency movement last spring have made both issues priorities for the student body and the administration. While many students worry that the administration is all talk and no action, Benston hopes to change that conception by creating strategic plans with concrete benchmarks and timelines.

“It’s the job of the community to define what [diversity and sustainability] mean,” said Benston, “but the leadership and guidance of [the committees will help] shape that and articulate that into a strategic plan.”

The plans will be formulated by the Presidential Task Force on Diversity, founded last year, and the new Council on Sustainability and Social Responsibility. Both groups have representatives from all major stakeholders, including current students, Benston said.

Benston’s tenure also comes at a time of great change in higher education, particularly where finances are concerned. These concerns are echoed by both current students and alums.

“How can we make higher education affordable for future generations?” asked Tara Reynolds ‘00, an English major who took several courses with Benston when he was a professor.

“I think that Kim will need a strong support team in the Development office, as I imagine that fundraising has not played a prominent role in his career,” furthered Reynolds, adding that Benston’s strength at building and sustaining relationships would serve him well in this capacity.

Many Haverfordians believe Benston’s long career at the college uniquely qualifies him for the position.

“Institutional memory and commitment are often undervalued when considering a presidential candidate,” said Bernard Jones ‘06, a former student of Benston’s who now works in higher education. “[Benston] is clearly respected by both the faculty and the student body, features which are now complemented by his success as an administrator.”

Benston’s two traditional areas of academic focus are English and Africana studies. He says growing up on the South Side of Chicago was what sparked his interest in the latter.

“It’s a historically layered culture,” explained Benston. “[It’s amazing how] cultures survive and thrive against great odds.”

After getting his PhD in English at Yale, Benston taught at his alma mater. Although he loved Yale, Benston soon realized that his ideal career was a “teacher-scholar,” where “those two features of one’s academic life are blended and in rapport with one another.”

When Haverford offered him a job, he saw it as the perfect opportunity to explore that possibility. Benston says that it was a combination of “the [English] department’s tone and flavor” and Haverford’s “ethos and style of interaction” that really brought him to the college.

Benston also served as the head of the Hurford Center while he was teaching. When speaking with students who have experienced a Benston class, the most common refrain is that, as Reynolds put it, he made them “feel seen.”

“Some educators speak over their students, perhaps earning their admiration for their brilliance but often leaving the students feeling small in comparison,” noted Cheryl Gastado Burns ‘99, who wrote her thesis with Benston.  “[He] took your hand and lifted you up with him. He was, and I imagine remains, a truly gifted educator.”

Benston was offered the job as interim provost in 2012, a position that became permanent a year later.

“[It was an opportunity to] have a different place within the collaborative conversation,” noted Benston. “In one sense it is a radical break. At the same time, it’s an extension [of being a professor].”

Benston said his new position allowed him to step outside the world of the classroom and get to know the senior staff, who he described as “extraordinary in their dedication.” During his time as provost, Benston also worked on the college’s strategic plan, meaning he comes into his presidency with full knowledge of where the college is, and where it hopes to go.

Although Benston enjoyed his time as provost and is excited about his new role as president, he also says that he “still thinks of [himself] as a professor.” As he spoke about his time as a faculty member, Benston’s voice became almost wistful.

“It’s been a challenge not to be in that world,” Benston admitted, adding that he hopes to teach a course next year after he has settled into his new position.

One of the best things about becoming president, he noted, is the opportunity to work with staff at all levels, as well as students and alumni. He also said that he believes the role of the president is one of “service leadership.”

Reynolds commended Benston’s ability to care for everyone in the Haverford community.

“Kim’s capacity to support individuals in realizing their full potential is of the highest order,” said Reynolds. “I think of this quality as love–where one extends him or herself for the sake of another person’s growth. And this [quality] will always serve the Haverford community well.”