When David Benson took the helm of Sonoma State University in 1984 the campus was in turmoil. The seven years prior to his arrival had seen sliding enrollment, open hostility between faculty and the administration and dozens of faculty layoffs, the first in the nation from a public university.
Benson is credited with redirecting the university, restoring morale, making the budget process more transparent, enlarging the faculty's role in governing the school, and initiating moves to transform SSU from a commuter campus to a residential one.
“He brought peace and progress to the university,” said current SSU President Ruben Armiñana.
In the years since Benson retired and he took his place, Armiñana has been a controversial leader often criticized for his management and his pursuit of projects such as the $140 million Green Music Center, which Benson would likely not have advanced. During those times, said Armiñana, he would sometimes speak to Benson.
“He would tell me to keep the boat straight and keep the eyes on the shore. And that helped. He was somebody I trusted and admired,” said Armiñana.
Benson, who was born into a Swedish farming family on Oct 13, 1931 in Spring Lake, Minn., died Tuesday at Spring Lake Village in Santa Rosa at age 81. The cause was complications from kidney disease, said his wife, Betty Benson.
The couple, who met when they were 7-year-olds at her mother's Sunday school, married in 1952 during their junior years at UCLA, where Benson received his bachelors and masters degrees in kinesiology.
After learning in 1955 while in the Navy that he had kidney disease, Benson returned to UCLA to get his Ph.D. in kinesiology. He would go on to join CSU Northridge as a physical education professor, eventually moving into the school's administrative ranks, becoming academic vice president before he left for SSU.
“He knew what he was getting into (at SSU) and he was pleasantly surprised at how capable the faculty was there. They had just been mishandled,” said Betty Benson.