Presidential Perspective: A Conversation With Kim Benston

By Andrew Eaddy and Michael Weber

Kim Benston has been a member of the Haverford community for more than three decades. He’s held the title of Francis B. Gummere Professor of English in 2002, and has served as President of the College since 2015. His impending 2019 departure from his current position means that for most students on campus, Benston will have been their only Haverford President. In an effort to form a more meaningful picture of a person whose influence has defined our interactions with the College (whether we realize it or not), we joined Kim Benston in a conversation that, though illuminating, could have lasted much longer.

Benston’s involvement on campus over time has touched life on campus in some not-so-obvious ways, and his perspectives as a community member add nuance to his perspectives as President. Especially given the prospect of another presidential transition, and the ever-growing question of student government’s say in the direction of the College, these authors sought to discover more about someone who has helmed the vanguard of rapid institutional change for years.

Fall Plenary: Agency vs. Power

Last semester, President Benston declined two resolutions which passed through student vote during Fall plenary. President Benston subsequently sent an email to the student body explaining his decision. The email, however, just like the decision, has been seen in a relatively contentious light due to student concerns regarding the accessibility of the language in the email as well as the threat that it poses to student agency on campus. When asked about the email and how it has resonated within the Haverford community, President Benston explained his thought process.

“When I went on at length in the letter it was to try to construct dialogue and also to expose my thinking process…I didn’t want people to think it was a glib response, or that the reductiveness of yay or nay was actually what I was seeking to embrace,” Benston said. “The Community Day of Engagement, I could have simply left it at the fact that the faculty did not agree to yield a day of classes for the the Community Day of Engagement – I could have just checked out on the question right there…they had their own sovereignty and their own relationship to that question…I just thought in the interest of advancing this conversation … that it might be useful to unpack for everyone where I was in that moment.

In the interview, President Benston explained how his focus was not only in that moment, however, as he also described the foresight he tried to practice during this process.

Specifically, President Benston touched on the fact that, in his plenary decision, he considered future administrations and how his actions might affect future Presidents down the line. As Haverford Vice President and Chief of Staff Jesse Lytle announced via e-mail last month, Benston will leave his post as President in June 2019.

“What has happened historically is that sometimes administrations have said yes to provisions that they could not bring into being, so it’s a yes that sits out there and it doesn’t have any force, and you end up with years of uncertainty [as to] why this hasn’t happened,” Benston explained. “In the case of the [Financial Aid] resolution, I could have said yes and it wouldn’t have changed much but I thought I was setting up a future administration to subvert the plenary…[and] trying to think of the future and not just the moment.”

Benston continued to say that part of the future he had in mind was the immediate future of this year and next.  “My desire in offering substantial responses to the resolutions is to generate a dialogue about the important concerns posed by the resolutions.  I envisioned the formal response required by the Constitution not as an end but as a continuation of an exchange that will evolve among us over time.”

Benston also explained his intentions behind the plenary process as a whole, and his hopes for the future. According to Benston, while some aspects of the process went as expected, there were also notable surprises.

“What I have sought to do, and to some extent this occurred in this process but not fully, is to engage plenary resolution writers before things go to plenary just so that there is some clarity ahead of time about what concerns might arise from within the administration framework or the institutional framework,” Benston recounted. “I think what’s really kind of fascinating about this, if I can step out of being myself, and look at this from outside, is [that] there’s mutual surprise – the students are surprised and I’m surprised that they’re surprised, and I am regretful of that…I have to think about my responsibility in this and did I not do a good enough job of educating people about our roles…I assumed that we all understood them.”

Finally, Benston gave his thoughts on the Honor Code as an actor in the Haverford community, given some students’ concern that the Code does not represent or protect them.

“The honor code has to be for everyone, it’s intrinsic to its purpose, to its nature, to its spirit, but that doesn’t mean it’s effective for everyone … a shared understanding of what would make it effective for all needs to be worked through,” he said.

Plenary, explained Benston, should not be “all or nothing,” but rather “one stage of a process that continues.” He encouraged further deliberation and learning, and stressed the difference between agency and power for members in the community.

“I didn’t know that student agency would suddenly be thought to be put into crisis… I didn’t think there was any less student agency because I say yes or no,” he said. “They’re related to each other, but one has agency sometimes without power. One can have power with little agency… Agency’s about having choices and being able to exercise that choice, and then confronting the consequence of that choice-making and absorbing that into yourself, understanding and expanding your agency by learning from that. Our ability to act as effective agents increases as our perception and engagement with others grow.”

An Arc of Influence

Benston started teaching in the English department in 1984, and throughout a long career at Haverford he’s had a hand in shaping student life and academics at the College today. His scholarly foci on topics like Shakespeare, African-American literature and cultural studies, modern drama, and performance theory have led him to a variety of roles on campus that many students might not know he held. He served as director of Africana Studies from 1991-95 and directed the Hurford Center from 2001-05 and 2007-09. He also co-chaired the Environmental Studies Committee, which helped implement the Tri-Co Environmental Studies Program, and participated in the Health Studies Working Group, which led to the Health Studies minor.

His long arc of leadership led him to the provost’s office in 2012, which he continued until 2015 when he was named President. Benston ascended to the role in a time of uncertainty. The sudden departure of Dan Weiss left absent an office which would be crucial to implementing The Plan for Haverford 2020, published in 2014 as a collection of initiatives that are still being rolled out today. As provost, Benston had a major hand in drafting the plan, which, supplemented by the Lives That Speak fundraising campaign, helped actualize everything from building renovations and dorm constructions to new minors and fixtures like the Office of Academic Resources.

In short, Benston’s engagement with Haverford exceeds far beyond Woodside Cottage or Founders Hall. It also predates any current student’s time at Haverford, and its repercussions will last long after we’re all gone. His experiences are legion, and it’s difficult to consolidate his persona into one feature. Yet, some things stand out about his Presidency and mentality that warrant focus.

President Benston drew attention to his relationships with his colleagues and peers at Haverford and the role which they played in his Presidency, stating “…I like to think that I really do try to listen hard to people, and I think that’s probably the most important thing you can do in one of these positions, which is actually listen to other people…”

He also emphasized that throughout his time here, he has tried to reflect the community’s priorities, and that many of his defining decisions have come through the input of others.

“The president actually has a fair amount of power without very much agency. And I, in many ways, have less agency than you do,” he said. “There are many things I do which look as if I’m deciding x, y, or z, but I’m not really deciding those things. Those things have already been decided by the will of the community and I carry them out, or by the will of some particular dimension of the community.”

Looking Back and Moving Forward

Kim Benston helped usher in a period of growth for Haverford. He would probably tell you that it has been a process of continual growth for him, too. Even after his departure from the President’s House in 2019, he will still be a part of the community, engaging with Haverford every day. But for now, he still has work to do, and he feels grateful to be in his position.

“I’m so in the middle of it. Honestly you can come back to me after I’ve left the job and I’ll probably have a clearer sense of [my] regrets,” he said. “Not that I’m not trying to learn lessons as I go along, but I’ve been incredibly fortunate in that I feel that the people I work with, students and faculty, are amazingly generous. I don’t have as many regrets as I might. I rely on other people’s judgements and I think those judgements have been pretty good.”

When asked if he had “regrets” about his presidency, President Benston paused, then said:

“I know I’m not smart enough yet and I haven’t absorbed enough wisdom to say to you if I could do it over again, I’d do it differently.  Since we’ve dwelled on the fall Plenary resolutions, I would have to say that I would not have been able to respond differently. But again, while I was compelled by our process to give definitive answers, I worked hard to recast those responses as a stage in what I hope will be an ongoing conversation. My aim is to keep key issues afloat and to work with others to improve our shared approach to them. That is the spirit in which I think we can go forward and minimize any regrets that we might feel at a given moment.”

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