Richard Benson speaks on growth at UTD, plans to integrate art with STEM

12 months ago

New UTD President Richard Benson officially took office July 15. The Mercury sat down with Benson to discuss his vision for campus.

How are you settling into your new position on campus?

It’s great. I’ve gotten just a wonderful welcome here. I had a long time to get ready. I guess I was identified as the sole remaining candidate (for president) at the very end of January, if I’m not mistaken. And then it was made official by the Regents on Feb. 29. But from Feb. 29 all the way up to now, July 15, I’ve sort of been the heir apparent, but not in the job. I really moved into a transition after the middle of May. The welcome by the UTD community has been great. In the beginning, I could walk around campus and no one recognized me, which was fine. And now, if I walk around, more than a few people are starting to recognize me, but always in a really nice way.

What first got you interested in UTD?

There were three things that brought me here. I preface this by saying, if I wanted to stay in engineering education, I wouldn’t go anywhere, I would have just stayed at Virginia Tech. I was dean of a great college, great people. The first of the three reasons is I wanted to work across the whole of the university. And that’s something I’ve really wanted to do from the very beginning. So even when I was a brand-new assistant professor, I’d very willingly accept ad-hoc committee assignments that would get me beyond my department and college and I rather liked it.

The next reason is the amazing growth is very attractive. Anybody who’s going to be in any leadership role, you love to build things. Maintaining status quo or, God forbid, shrinking something is not much fun at all. And I probably wouldn’t pick up and leave to take on any kind of status quo job. But UTD isn’t just a little above average, it’s a lot above average. So it’s both very exciting, but it also makes me a little nervous, because when I look at the growth, especially over the time that David Daniel did the job, it’s just so utterly remarkable that I want to make sure I keep us on that trajectory.

And then the last one is by far the most specific. I have to roll the clock back. When I started my career, I went to work for Xerox in a research position and I really liked it. I (taught) at the University of Rochester in the evening and I liked it. And it hit me I might want to be in academia. So I made the move. It was a little unsual in the day in that I built my research career in industry. I liked engaging with the folks who were at the cutting edge in the corporate world. The engagement with the local community has always been something that’s interested me a lot. UTD is really unusual in that it was created out of industry. Texas Instruments created the university.

But I love the metroplex. This is a very high tech community. It’s an artistic community. I knew, I could tell in my early conversations with the search committee, they were eager to have someone who would want to have a robust engagement with the local community.

What areas within research would you like to see UTD grow the most?

Sometimes it’s a little hard to know. When I think about some of the most amazing things that have happened in the places I’ve been, in many cases it came up as a surprise. I didn’t see it coming. I’m a little hesitant to narrow it down just because I want to still get surprised as we go forward. In terms of what we’re doing five, 10 years from now, I’m not entirely sure. I’m a big believer in collective vision, so I think one of the best things I can ever do as president is try to be responsive to the really interesting things that come up — even if they’re unexpected. We have limited resources, so what you try to do is rather than be the visionary, try to be the person that helps realize the vision.

Do you have any plans to expand, not just ATEC, but all the arts on campus?

I’d like to, I really would. We have a tech flavor, a STEM emphasis, although STEM only gets you so far. I’m a big believer in a well-rounded student and I know that may seem kind of contradictory coming from an engineer, but I’ve always been a little frustrated at the stereotype of engineers. That we’re narrow minded, and I would even say if you look at the best coming out of the engineering world, you will often see just spectacular creativity, even artistry, in it. I want our liberal arts programs to be strong. This is a university, not a technical institute.

What steps can we take to integrate art into the STEM on campus?

First of all, you can look around the country to places that do it rather well. Sometimes you do it just in the most obvious of ways. You put things in close proximity to one another. So one of the things that I hope we might do as we see new construction come forward is maybe we can see spaces for art in those buildings, no matter what the purpose of the building is.

Can you tell us about your opinions on campus carry?

I was watching the UTD policy take shape from afar. I think UTD has done a good job. I think the committee has done a good job. I think it’s a good thing that each campus was permitted to come up with its own policies. You do see some variations from one campus to another. … What I asked the working group to do was, in essence, do one more service to the university. I’ve asked them to reconvene and assess after Aug. 1 how our policy is playing out and if there are ways we might make improvements. I’ve also asked them to look at other schools in the UT system to see if there are best practices that we might want to borrow. I think we have a good plan, I think we launched it as well as we could’ve. But there’s always possibility for improvement.